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Meijer touts its locally grown program

by Tim Linden | August 16, 2009
Meijer, the Michigan-based supermarket chain widely credited with inventing the supercenter concept almost 50 years ago, has expanded the locally grown produce program that it launched 75 years ago.

The company was founded in Greenville, MI, in 1934 by Dutch immigrant Hendrik Meijer. His son, Frederik Meijer, was chairman of the board for many years, and now the privately owned company is run by the founder's grandsons, Hank and Doug Meijer.

Today, the operation consists of 189 stores in five states: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. Virtually all the stores are large supercenters, the first of which was built in 1962. That 180,000-square-foot store in Grand Rapids, MI, is still standing and has served as the prototype for all the stores the retailer has built in the past 47 years.

Just as the supercenter has long been part of the Meijer mode of operation, so has locally grown produce, according to produce buyers Jamie Postell and Scott Calandra. The firm recently began publicizing its effort and expanding its locally grown produce program, but an interview with the produce buyers revealed that while the scope is greater, the concept is tried and true.

"We have purchased locally grown produce since the inception of the supermarket in 1934," said Mr. Postell. "Recently, we have focused a lot of effort on finding new growers to work with us, and we have been very successful."

Mr. Calandra added that the location of the grower does not trump quality and that the firm will not carry a product simply because it is locally grown. "It is a partnership," he said. "We are continually working to build relationships with local growers just as we have for the past 75 years. The product must meet our specifications and quality standards."

Either the buyers themselves or a team from the quality-assurance department meets with potential suppliers to explain what the retailer wants and to start to build the relationship. The two buyers said that over the years that commitment has created some great relationships that have allowed the chain to feature the best locally grown produce in its five-state area.

During the peak of the summer, Mr. Postell said that locally grown product can account for as much as 30 percent of the chain's produce volume. The retailer works with more than 65 different local growers producing more than 75 different crops, including sweet corn, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and fresh-cut vegetables. Some of its local suppliers and their respective specialties include cabbage from E. Miedema in Benton Harbor, MI; honeyrock melons from Frey Farms in Indiana; green beans from Michael Farms in Urbana, OH; and blueberries from Midwest Blueberry Farms in Holland, MI. Meijer said that in 2008 it sold more than 20 million pounds of apples from its home state, more than 10 million ears of home-grown sweet corn and 1 million pounds of Michigan asparagus. It also purchased more than 45 million pounds of locally grown potatoes.

Mr. Postell said that the company firmly believes in locally grown produce for a variety of reasons, including helping the local economy, reducing food miles and reducing costs.

Mr. Calandra said that the company's fresh-cut vegetable supplier is a local firm that employs hundreds of workers.

In the press release announcing the locally grown program, Meijer claimed that the program pumps $50 million into the local economy. Mr. Calandra noted that most of the cost savings for the retailer itself result from a reduction in transportation costs. He added that Meijer touts the locally grown product in its print advertising as well as with in-store signage. Often, that signage tells the story of the grower.

For a grower to participate, his or her farm must be in the chain's five-state region, but the size of the operation is not a factor. Meijer has some partnerships with local growers that provide product chainwide, to one division or even to just one store. The company has the ability to promote the produce even on a store-by-store basis.

Messrs. Postell and Calandra each have been with Meijer for almost two decades and have watched the retailer continue to grow. Although they were not at liberty to discuss the company's future growth plans, they said that it is safe to assume the number of stores would increase over the next several years.

"We are one of the larger chains in the Midwest," said Mr. Postell, obviously proud of the fact.