The time is still right for local foods.
Farmers' markets continue to grow in numbers. So do Community Supported Agriculture groups. People want to know more about the food they buy, and the consumer press has turned the spotlight on CSAs, co-ops and other community endeavors.
Meanwhile, a new study from Mintel, Chicago, not surprisingly shows that local products present retailers with a big marketing opportunity. Some are grabbing it — right now.
“The closest farmers' market is at your nearest Schnucks,” is a new marketing theme launched at the 103-unit independent, which is based in St. Louis.
While Schnuck Markets for years has featured produce from farms around the St. Louis area, it's the marketing message, the emphasis, that's new.
Recently, too, the company's category managers and produce buyers have increased their efforts to showcase some of the best of farms in Missouri and Illinois, Schnucks officials said.
“In order to offer our customers the freshest produce available, we work with more than 20 growers in the area who provide homegrown products that taste like they're right off the produce cart,” said Mike O'Brien, Schnucks' vice president, produce.
Because the farms are so close by, “We're able to support the local economy by purchasing from these growers, and at the same time reduce the cost to our customers because of the savings in transportation costs,” he said.
Schnucks' produce departments receive local deliveries several times a week, and some products go directly to the stores, bypassing the warehouse.
Tomatoes are an example.
According to Schnucks' produce category manager, Ed Pohlman, tomatoes benefit greatly from direct delivery. “Because they go straight from field to the store, they can be left on the vines longer to maximize flavor,” he said.
Like Schnucks, Rouses Markets, Thibodaux, La.; Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn.; and Bayview Thriftway and Ralph's Thriftway, Olympia, Wash., are some retailers that have always made local sourcing part of their marketing strategy. Others have sought out local sources more recently.
From small independents to large chains, retailers who talked to SN all said they've ramped up their efforts to source more local products and to let their customers know about it.
The local-sourcing movement started with produce, but is now cutting across several categories in the fresh foods aisles. From locally made salad dressing, to tamales, to sausage, “local” is in. Retailers are telling customers about their local products with window banners, point-of-sale signs that introduce local growers with photos and information about them, sections in ad circulars, and newspaper advertising. At least one retailer plans a “local festival” in its parking lot when summer comes.
For example, Earth City, Mo.-based Save-A-Lot was already sourcing a lot of local produce, but after commissioning extensive consumer surveys, the 1,187-unit chain found that consumers have regional preferences in sausage. As a result, the company is bringing in sausage, both fresh and cured, from local processors in 16 of its regions, and is working on expanding that effort, officials said.
The chain also has increased the variety of produce it sources locally.
“With the downturn in the economy, we've had a real blitz [in local sourcing] this year,” Mike Kemp, the chain's vice president, product segments, told SN.
“We've doubled the amount of local sausage we carry, and local produce now makes up a good 25% of what we offer in the summer. Five years ago, that would have been less than 5%.”
Food City stores, owned by K-VA-T, Abingdon, Va., now carry 10 times the local produce in summer that they did just a few years ago, said Mike Tipton, K-VA-T's director of produce and floral.
“We started with tomatoes several years ago, and now it's peppers, cucumbers, corn, a lot more of our vegetables. We deal with several big local growers, and we coordinate it all from the corporate office.”
K-VA-T, like other large chains — Save-A-Lot included — tries to route local products through its distribution centers, but there are some exceptions.
Strawberries, for instance, because of their fragile nature, go straight to the stores, Tipton said.
“They have a one-day shelf life. So they have to come in direct. Corn goes to our distribution center — but out to stores that same night.”
For K-VA-T, with 102 stores, it's necessary to do the dealing for local product from the corporate level, Tipton said.
He, as well as others, said he takes suggestions from store-level managers, but they're not authorized to take on local products without an OK from headquarters.
It just wouldn't work otherwise, he said.
On the other hand, Kevin Stormans, co-owner of Bayview Thriftway and Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, Wash., said that because of the smallness of his company, pairing up with a local supplier can be quite informal.
“I'll tell you how it sometimes works. I was at a friend's house, where I was served tortilla chips that I thought were the best I'd ever eaten,” said Stormans.
“My friend showed me the bag and I saw the company was just a few minutes' drive away. I called the company the next morning, and said I'd like to sell their chips in my stores. They figured out how to get them to us. Now they're our best-selling chip.”
Almost the same thing happened with Johnson's Smoked Meats, also located in Olympia.
Stormans himself visited the Johnson's operation and made arrangements soon afterward, and now he dedicates a 4-foot, tiered display in both his stores' processed meat sections to Johnson's smoked meats.
Stormans is one of those retailers who has always revered local products.
“It's been our strategy and philosophy as a small independent. One of the upsides is it has created a niche for us that can't be taken away,” he said.
At Ralph's and Bayview Thriftway, just about every category features some local products.
“We do quite a lot in produce, from lettuce to mushrooms, and other fruits and vegetables, and in bakery, it's bread, pastry, doughnuts,” Stormans said. “We figure they're the experts. We even sell local tamales in our service deli.”
Artisan cheese, shellfish, even a salad dressing made by a local restaurant, are included in the company's repertoire of local products.
One of the most popular items is a signature mix of salad greens from a local grower. It's merchandised in large bowls in the produce department, where customers help themselves, using tongs to put the mix into bags.
While it wouldn't work for a large chain, Stormans said he gives managers at each of his stores authorization to decide what local products they'll carry.
“Consistency between stores isn't so important to us. Each can have its own flavor.”
Another small independent on the East Coast, Stauffers of Kissel Hill, Lititz, Pa., has made local produce a draw since its very early years.
“Our company played a role in initiating the Leola Produce Auction near here,” Stauffers' director of produce, David Julian, told SN.
“Lancaster County [Pa.] is driven by agriculture, some large, but also small farms.”
Years ago, the company's owners tried to figure out how to sell more local produce, Julian said.
“Running around from farm to farm isn't efficient, and the cold chain can be broken, and many of the farms around here are operated by the Amish and Mennonites. They don't drive, so they bring their produce to this central location in horse-drawn wagons.”
The auction, held six days a week, works well for everybody involved. During growing season, Julian goes there every morning to buy produce.
While the term “local” means different things to different people, anything Stauffers labels “local” comes from Pennsylvania, Julian pointed out.
At the company's three stores, signage and colorful banners, up when growing season begins, say, “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.”
Other chains use a variety of methods to underscore the “localness” of their products.
Save-A-Lot stores bedeck their windows in summer with big banners touting their local produce, Kemp said.
Most of those who talked to SN said they use photos of individual growers and their stories in their produce departments.
That inspires confidence and trust in the product, the retailers agreed.
“People like to put a face to a product,” one said.
“One of the great things about local is the producers' and growers' willingness to come into the store and talk about their products.”
Stormans plans to have a “local festival,” a first for the company, probably during the summer.
“We'll put up a tent in the parking lot and have our local producers and growers there, sampling and talking to customers.”
Buying local, especially for a large chain, can be daunting, but it makes a crucial connection with the community, helps bolster the local economy and can differentiate a retailer in a competitive market.
“It does not save the retailer any money. It's more of a marketing issue,” said consultant and former retailer Dick Spezzano, president, Spezzano Consulting, Monrovia, Calif.
“The best way to promote local produce is with a picture of the farmer. That inspires consumer confidence.”