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WILLIMANTIC, CT — "Business is very, very good, and we owe it all to our perishables departments," stated Robert A. Buonomano. He was referring to all of the store's perishable areas, such as bakery, deli and cheese, but primarily to produce — which accounts for about 12-15 percent of the retailer’s sales, depending on the season — and to meat, which generally accounts for about 40 percent of the weekly volume.

“I’m really happy with the produce department,” he said, noting that customers give him favorable comments about produce on a regular basis.

At about 12,000 square feet, Bob's Windham IGA in northeastern Connecticut is not large by today’s standards, nor does it carry the huge assortment of paper, canned or dry items that supercenters carry nowadays, for example. But the produce department carries an extensive line of fresh fruits and vegetables from around the country and the world that keep its longtime customers coming back all year long.

As Mr. Buonomano put it, “The key to [the produce department’s] success is a heck of a variety. We really hold our own.”

A key part of the variety that keeps the produce department at the top of its game is the local produce featured in season. The Connecticut produce deal was running early this year — as are most produce deals in the Northeast — so Bob’s Windham IGA had a wide assortment of local items on display when The Produce News visited the store in mid-July.

The produce department is the first one shoppers encounter as they enter the store, and local produce was displayed front and center in the department, complete with attractive signage identifying those items as “Connecticut- grown.”

Among the local items offered were sweet corn, yellow squash, green squash, green beans, pickles, raspberries, yellow and red sugar plums and even some early peaches.

According to Mr. Buonomano, the retailer works with a number of growers in the Nutmeg State, including Botticello’s Farms in nearby Manchester, which provides sweet corn, squash, tomatoes and cucumbers.

But the primary produce supplier is wholesale grocer Bozzuto’s Inc., headquartered in Cheshire, CT, which has worked with this retailer for a long time. Mike Robichaud, perishable sales manager at Bozzuto’s, has worked with Bob’s Windham IGA since he joined the wholesale grocer in 2003. “They run a really good store,” said Mr. Robichaud, who visits the store on a regular basis.

Concerning the local produce deal, Mr. Robichaud noted July 13, “Right now we’re dealing with the drought. Items had been running early, then the dry weather slowed things down.”

But the early deal meant that this store was offering a good number of local items, and the quality of those local items was very good, he stated. And “for the size of the department, they carry a great variety of produce.”

Mr. Buonomano, known as Bob, and his wife, Sue, own Bob’s Windham IGA. Bob runs the meat department, and Sue runs the bakery department. Bob, 57, and his wife have six children. One son — also named Robert but known as Rob — is the store manager, and Rob’s wife, Stephany, is the produce manager. (Bob and Sue also have 19 grandchildren, with twins due in early August, as well as one great-grandson.)

The store actually dates back to 1920. The Buonomano family bought the store in 1984, remodeled it three times, then did a major rebuilding and renovation about four years ago, Rob told The Produce News.

Rob said that his family “has worked with Bozzuto’s from day one,” adding, “They do a great job for us.” More specifically, he stated, “Steph runs a great department. I’m here to offer help and suggestions.”

Commenting on the local deal, Stephany said, “The corn is the main item. This year the corn was early.”

She noted that shoppers look forward to the local deal every year, and inquire about items as summer approaches. So when they see Connecticut corn at the front of the produce department, “They know it’s fresh,” she said.

But to help keep customers informed on the timing of the local deal as well as other items of interest, Bob’s Windham IGA reaches out to its customers in a variety of traditional and non-traditional ways.

The store advertises in local newspapers, local radio and local television. It also sends out flyers via e-mail to about 3,000 shoppers every week, said Stephany. “We also post on Facebook when the local corn and other items come in.”

The retailer also seeks to satisfy specific needs of its customers. About 30 percent of the town of Willimantic is Hispanic, and about 30 percent of the retailer’s customers are Hispanic. So in addition to offering a wide variety of produce, the retailer offers fresh store-made Sofrito, which Rob described as a cooking base used in almost everything” in many Hispanic households. “People will call and make sure it’s here, and then drive over an hour for this item,” he said.

But in the final analysis, it all goes back to perishables. “We’re geared toward meat and produce,” declared Bob. “You walk in, and there’s no doubt this is a perishables store. When a customer walks into this store, we want them to know what this store is all about.”

(For more on Connecticut, see the Aug. 2, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)