MY BEAUTIFUL GROCERY STORE
A Grower’s Valentine to Monterey Market
By Lisa Brenneis
I started paying attention to grocery stores when Jim and I started looking for customers for our Pixie tangerines. Since then, I can’t seem to stop thinking about grocery stores. Let me explain.
Jim searched in LA, but prospective customers were either too big to care about an unknown fruit (Gelson’s turned him down), or too small to do us much good ( Jim would drive 10 cartons of Pixies 80 miles down to Tanaka’s, a small produce market in Santa Monica).
One day in 1988, a kind friend steered us to Bill Fujimoto, owner of the Monterey Market in Berkeley. Bill’s first order was larger than all the Pixies we had sold up to that time. Because we’d never sold a full pallet, we had no idea how to ship that much fruit, so Bill explained trucking to us.
Pixie trees grow slowly; the Monterey Market was our only customer for five or six years.
Bill did so much more for us than just buying our fruit; he established the Pixie’s reputation as a delicious, desirable and valuable specialty item. He taught us how to market direct. He shared his perspective on the Pixie’s position in the larger citrus market. And his customers bought our fruit.
When Jim and I visited Monterey Market, we discovered we weren’t the only growers who got their first big break there— what Bill did for us, he’s done for dozens of other small farmers. But when we started looking for more retail customers like Bill, we learned that there aren’t any other stores like the Monterey Market. Why not? It’s wildly popular with customers and generates more in sales per square foot than any supermarket you can name.
Here’s the crucial difference: Bill is incredibly skilled and energetic about buying from a large number of small producers, and that’s much harder than buying from a few large providers. Most of Bill’s new farmer-suppliers started out in farmers’ markets, with no experience selling to a retail store, so Bill has to train them, explain the Market’s produce standards, and help them work out transport and logistics.
To get top quality produce picked mature and delivered at the peak of flavor, Bill and his supplier are both taking a risk. Each extra day his saleable crop remains unharvested is a risk to the grower. Mature produce has a shorter shelf life, so Bill gambles that he can sell it quickly. The payoff for this risky business is a premium price for the grower. The reward for Bill is customers who are attracted to the flavor and freshness that’s long gone from larger stores.
Most store owners prefer the convenience of sourcing everything from a single supplier, just as we enjoy the convenience of making one stop at a big supermarket and finding everything we need in one place. What’s wrong with that? I’m so glad you asked.
A DIVERSE RETAIL LANDSCAPE HELPS FARMERS
Retail mega-consolidation is in full flower in the U.S., and the number of independent food stores and small regional chains continues to shrink. Whole Foods and Wild Oats purchase local health food stores. Safeway and Kroger absorb regional grocery chains. Even the largest grocery chains feel the hot breath of Wal-Mart at their back.
Small scale, even middle size food producers can’t produce enough to supply one of these large chains, so it’s common for farmers in the U.S. to find themselves living in an area with several supermarkets and no local customers. Purchasing decisions are made at corporate headquarters far from local communities. As the chains grow ever larger, more and more farmers fall below the minimum size necessary to do business with retail giants.
Farmers’ markets may be critical in keeping some farmers in business, but it’s wholesale customers who keep the fabric of farming from fraying beyond repair. Compare the labor involved in selling a single 1000-pound order with the 500 transactions required to sell that same 1000 pounds by two pounds at a time to 500 customers. It’s not practical for most farmers to sell their entire crop two pounds at a time.
Here in California we have a plethora of growers that produce high quality food; our bottleneck is a lack of right-sized retail and wholesale customers. As Pixie tangerine marketers, we represent a group of local growers who produced close to a million pounds last year. In three years, we’ll have over two million pounds to move annually. We’re too small and our costs are too high to sell into the big chain system. Our ideal customers are regional chains of two-to-20 stores who focus on selling high quality produce. We have a number of such retail customers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where small independent chains are still vital.
The rest of California is a different story. In our home county (Ventura), our retail outlets are limited to the three independent stores in Ojai. The rest of the county belongs to Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons. We’re lucky. Our Pixie tangerines ship well and have a long shelf life, so we have more options than an Oxnard strawberry grower or a Fresno peach farmer.
FOOD STORES ARE THE HUB OF THE FOOD SYSTEM
Most people buy their food from stores. Grocery aisles and produce departments, wine shops and delicatessens are the direct point-of-contact between the food production/distribution system and the eater/consumer/co-creator. A customer at a vital independent market can interact with a staff that really knows where the food is coming from. Big chain stores make their buying decisions at headquarters, so store managers and staff don’t have the chance to become skilled at sourcing, selecting, and preparing food. A DIVERSE RETAIL LANDSCAPE HELPS EATERS
One knowledgeable committed retailer can influence the buying habits of an entire community: introduce new foods, keep local food traditions alive, provide a hub for cultural sub-communities, provide an oasis of pleasure and individuality in the barrens of standardized commerce, keep local dollars circulating in the community, educate customers about food traditions and fine foods and wines from other countries.
If you don’t believe me, visit the Monterey Market. One store can make a big difference.