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Salinas Valley produce a favorite for area retailers

by Brian Gaylord | May 18, 2009
SALINAS, CA -- Buying locally grown produce is a long-standing practice at Star Market in Salinas, CA.

Star Market is a mid-sized, independent, family-owned grocery store. The single-entity store is uniquely positioned in the heart of the "Salad Bowl of the World" and has long been a favorite outlet for products from growers in California in the tri-county area of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz.

Local fresh produce companies like to be able to come in and see their product on display. Consumers also like to see locally based companies represented in the produce section of the store, said Ryan Souter, produce manager at Star Market.

Local growers and vendors routinely make cold calls on the store, often just showing up at the back door. As a single-entity store, trying out new product is a relatively streamlined process. A sizable percentage of the store's fresh produce comes from small growers, and Star Market often has been a testing site for products in the pre-rollout stage.

Salads in clamshells from Salinas-based Organicgirl Produce LLC are some of the newer additions to Star Markets sizable packaged salad lineup. Organicgirl approached Star Market about carrying its products, and the effort paid off. Organicgirl salads have developed a following at the store, Mr. Souter said.

People only want to buy certain salads from certain companies, Mr. Souter said. Salad offerings vying for shelf space mark the biggest competition in the stores produce aisle, he said.

Star Market recently started carrying the Artisan lettuce line from nearby Tanimura & Antle Inc. It has sold pretty well, so well get more, Mr. Souter said.

Star Market buys artichokes from nearby Castroville, CA-based grower Pezzini Farms. The store works with more than 50 local companies in stocking fresh produce in the store. The retailer picks up produce throughout the week from growers in Salinas, Castroville and Watsonville.

Star Market works with a San Francisco-based produce buyer who supplies the store with specialty items. Though the store may carry specialty items in small quantities, Star Market is the first  and only  store for many miles to carry certain specialty items.

Store fliers are mailed weekly to customers within Star Markets zip code and to customers in nearby communities who asked to be on the stores mailing list. Fresh produce items that get a particular promotional push around Mothers Day include strawberries, raspberries, asparagus and corn.

Star Markets buyer works with other stores as well. Ben Lomond Market in Ben Lomond, CA, and Scotts Valley Market in nearby Scotts Valley, CA, are overseen by the Clements family, which has some 60-plus years as a family- run grocer. Both stores are roughly an hour north of Star Market and work with the same San Francisco-based produce buyer used by Star Market.

Andy Gustavson, produce manager for Ben Lomond Market and produce supervisor for that store and Scotts Valley Market, told The Produce News in early May that he tries to buy fresh produce from local growers for the two stores.

Mr. Gustavsons near-term effort to buy local will continue into November or till Mother Nature pulls the plug, he said.

For fresh produce grown south of his stores, Mr. Gustavson will send trucks as far as southern Monterey County. The effort can mean as much as an extra day of shelf life compared with receiving product from a centralized warehouse, he said.

Produce distributor Watsonville Coast Produce Inc. also supplies the two stores with product, including product from Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms.

Like Star Market, Mr. Gustavson buys artichokes from nearby Castroville, CA- based grower Pezzini Farms. He also buys garlic from Christopher Ranch LLC in nearby Gilroy, CA, and celery from Tanimura & Antle.

We like to know when stuff was picked, Mr. Gustavson said. The more direct we can go, the better.

Shoppers at Ben Lomond Market and Scotts Valley Market are pretty insistent upon buying locally grown produce, Mr. Gustavson said. He uses signage in the stores to denote locally grown produce.

Much of the organic produce Mr. Gustavson buys for his stores comes from Earls Organic Produce, located on the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market. However, Mr. Gustavson said that he buys less from Earls Organic in the summer, relying more on local growers.