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Independent Innovator: New Oregon Market Tries to Sell Only Local Food

Independent Innovator: New Oregon Market Tries to Sell Only Local Food

"The shorter and straighter the line between food and your plate, the better the food tastes. It’s just that simple.” — Don Sader, cofounder, Local Choice Produce Marke

PORTLAND, Ore. — The inspiration for Local Choice Produce Market — a new venture here that strives to only sell local products — started with cofounders Don and Georganne Sader’s experience living in Italy.

The couple moved to a small town in the Liguria region in 2009, and they marveled at the deliciousness of products from the local produce shop, which only sold fruits and vegetables that were in season.

“It made us appreciate that the shorter and straighter the line between food and your plate, the better the food tastes. It’s just that simple,” said Don Sader.

Having grown up on a farm, Sader recognized that food used to be sold this way in the United States.

“And it just kind of made me think that we weren’t really doing anything new. We were just kind of going back to the past and the way people have always eaten,” said Sader.

Expansive open areas allow for sidewalk displays.
Expansive open areas allow for sidewalk displays.

The couple opened Local Choice in January. “Which is a horrible time for fresh produce in Portland, by the way, in case you didn’t know,” said Sader.

Sader defines local as anything produced in Washington and Oregon, or within approximately 200 miles. Depending on the season, Local Choice is stocked anywhere from 10% to 90% with local products.

Right now, the market has local radishes, kiwis, lavender, fiddleheads and shitake mushrooms, among other items.

Local Choice prioritizes local over other considerations. 

“Our deal is, we are local first and organic second. We don’t apologize for it. That’s our deal. We are Local Choice Produce Market, not Organic Choice Produce Market,” said Sader.

He noted that the organic certification process can be overly burdensome for some small farmers, like a goat cheese producer the market works with who owns eight goats and does all the milking and cheesemaking herself.

Local Choice Produce Market’s design imitates a European food hall.
Local Choice Produce Market’s design imitates a European food hall.

Since local is so important to the market’s identity, it created the Happy Farmer Certified Local program to verify the origins of the products it sells.

“But we visit farms to talk to them and they sign a certification confirming that every bit of produce they sell us comes from where they tell us it comes from. We literally know the acreage where every cucumber or lettuce or radish … or carrot, whatever it is, where it comes from. So that way we can with confidence convey that to our customers,” said Sader.

The Happy Farmer logo is actually a picture of Sader’s father, who Sader said was “the consummate happy farmer. There was nothing he liked to do better than be out in the dirt.”

Suppliers currently participating in the program include Cascade Organics, Phoenix Egg Farm and Linda Brand Crab.

Happy Hours & Artists

Local Choice draws particular attention to its produce with a unique weekly promotion. Every Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. are Produce Happy Hours, with rotating discounts on select fruits and veggies.

“We wanted to be able to provide some incentive for customers to shop when we’re slowest,” said Sader.

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The market also cross-merchandises other products with the sale items. For example, a recent sale on avocadoes was displayed with cilantro and tomatoes.

Local Choice’s produce has even attracted a local sketching club.

“They just started showing up, like six of them, taking over some tables, and they would get our produce and display it,” said Sader.

Recently, the market auctioned off a few of the sketches as a fundraiser for a local school.

Local Loyalty

While Local Choice’s values may seem old-fashioned, its customer loyalty program looks to the future.

“The typical loyalty programs we don’t think are really about loyalty at all. They’re all price driven. And so people shop in those places and they buy the items only because they get the best deal and that’s what motivates them,” said Sader.

The My Local Choice program, which already has about 1,000 members, uses near field communications rather than the typical loyalty card. Members are given a key fob or sticker to put on their phones. When members check in at either of the market’s two entrances, they receive a personalized text message with words of welcome and alerts for specials.

“So once we know the shopping habits of people, we can literally talk to you personally and help to, let’s say, motivate your shopping decisions by the messaging,” said Sader.

“We might move them over to the smoothie bar, and let them know that they can get a free smoothie today or whatever. We’d rather give stuff away than discount it,” he added.

Due to customer demand, Local Choice has added non-local seafood items.
Due to customer demand, Local Choice has added non-local seafood items.

The program is still in its infancy, with additional capabilities expected to roll out after Local Choice builds up its membership base.

As another way to get feedback, Sader said he spends a lot of time in the market talking to customers.

“And so we have customers that come in every day, sometimes two or three times a day. We’re their pantry, basically. So we know them, they know us, we try to talk to them on a regular basis and find out what they want,” he said.

One thing they wanted were chips from Tim’s Cascade Snacks, a local manufacturer that is now owned by New Jersey-based Pinnacle Foods Group.

“And we wouldn’t carry Tim’s because it’s not a local product, in our estimation, even though it’s made from Washington potatoes and actually made in the area, but it’s not owned by a local company. But we kept getting demand, saying give me a break here, we want chips,” said Sader.

The market even called on customers to help find a local chip company.

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“But nobody stepped up to the plate and so we acquiesced and said, OK. So we were able to find Tim’s chips through a local supplier,” said Sader.

Such compromises are part of the challenge of building a profitable grocery business in Portland.

“We’re not New York where people are used to this sort of neighborhood market, that’s what they grew up with. We’re used to big chain grocery stores,” said Sader.

“And so that’s been a real learning experience for us, is trying to develop a successful model in a very small footprint of 10,000 square feet and be able to get our customer count high enough and our basket count high enough, our transaction amount, to where we can be successful.

“We’re not there yet. We hope to be able to figure out the model soon.”

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