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In produce, local is hotter than ever

Supermarkets are touting locally grown fruit and vegetables to bring in customers and increase business

Today’s consumer has more access to information than ever before; they know more about the life cycle of produce, from the time it takes between being harvested to being displayed in the store.

That’s led to an increase in demand for locally grown produce, as customers seek out fresher items and long to feel more of a connection to their food and communities.

Scott Schuette, vice president of produce for Fresh Thyme, based in Downers Grove, Ill., says the company sources locally grown fruits and vegetables as a commitment to sustainability.

“Carrying local produce items while they’re in season is extremely important to us,” he said. “We’re passionate about serving and representing the communities where our stores are located, and representing local farmers, producers and artisans is a big part of that.”

Fresh Thyme

Fresh Thyme sources local produce in every store, but the selection varies by location.

Jay Schneider, produce director for Acme Markets, Inc., Malvern, Pa., says local is a very important part of the company’s business strategy and the chain works around the timing of the different crops in the area.

“We pull from New York to Maryland and source everything from apples to kale,” he said. “New Jersey is key when blueberry season starts, along with peaches. However, each state and growing area we support offers a bounty of product.”

Kemper Isely, co-president of Natural Grocers, headquartered in Lakewood, Colo., is a big believer in supporting local and organic farmers and the stores load up the produce section with locally grown items whenever possible because customers demand it.

“Seasonal sourcing is always a challenge, especially with stores spread over 19 states,” he said. “We have apples, pears, cherries and peaches sourced from Colorado. We have Rio Grande grapefruit from Texas and apples, pears and cherries from the Northwest. When in season, we also have local organically grown vegetables and greens at many of our stores.”

A Proper Showcase

Fresh Thyme sources local items in every store, but what and how varies by location, and is highlighted in different ways.

“We have ‘locally grown’ signage throughout the store that makes a call-out if the product is from the Midwest, since we are a Midwest-based company, or if it is specific to the state or area that store is in,” Schuette said. “We practice this same labeling in all of our other departments, as we source locally whenever we can.”

One of Fresh Thyme’s in-house dietitians, Kerry Clifford, recently took a trip to a private label herb farmer in Illinois, and highlighted the local aspect.

“The photos and videos lived on our social media channels and brought some excitement to something that can seem so minimal in the produce aisles,” Schuette said. “This is something you will see more of from us in 2019.”

Natural Grocers often runs ads and in-store specials to promote the local crops, and when new local produce is available to one particular store, that store samples the products to show their quality and taste.

“We also flag these items as locally grown on their price placards,” Isely said.

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Kemper Isely of Natural Grocers says customers “have a sense of community” and want to buy local products.

But the company does much more. It also provides an in-house video team that produces vignettes of local farms to run on flat screens in all stores and online.

“These segments discuss production methods and highlight the benefits to families, communities, animals and the environment of regenerative and sustainable practices,” Isely said. “The farm family shares its philosophy and goals. Local means selling the farmer first and what he or she grows second. Local organic is often more expensive, but shoppers are happy to support an American family farm.”

All Acme Markets stores have dedicated space in its ads calling out local grown produce, with some extended space for prime season for many of its most popular items.

“In the stores, we have dedicated display space with local signage, including signage from the local state agriculture department from which it comes,” Schneider said.

One innovative move Acme Markets made at some stores to draw attention to its local produce department was to invite the New Jersey Peach Queen in, and hold live radio remotes from the stores.

Additionally, Douglas Fisher, the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture, has made appearances in-store promoting local product, and some of the local growers themselves have come in and set up tastings and demonstrations of their products.

“Customers enjoy the interaction with these types of events and it educates people on the product offering,” Schneider said. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from and they want to feel connected with the community. These are great drivers of success with local produce.”

Why it matters

Today’s customers are passionate and well-informed about what they eat and where it comes from, which is why stores are seeing such an increase in sales of local produce at the register.

“We all have a sense of community, and we want to support our own local economy,” Isely said. “Local produce tends to be fresher. If you know the farm or the farmer, you want to honor them. Together, these motivations make local just a little more attractive — even if it’s more expensive.”

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