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'Passion to sell' sets Fairway Market apart from the competition

by Joel Gebet | October 19, 2010

PARAMUS, NJ — Peter Romano's eyes light up when he talks about Fairway Market and its produce operation.

Mr. Romano, the retailer’s vice president of produce and floral and a nearly 40-year veteran of the retail produce trade, gave The Produce News a tour of Fairway’s only location in the Garden State in the busy Fashion Center Mall, here, in upscale Bergen County just outside New York City.

The retailer, which bills itself as "like no other market," is very popular with shoppers in the New York City metropolitan area, and Mr. Romano said that the firm will open a new store in Stamford, CT, next month and has plans to add three new stores by the end of 2011 — one in Queens, NY, one on Manhattan’s East Side, and another in a location yet to be determined — bringing to 10 the total number of locations.

“What differentiates us from the rest is our passion to sell more,” Mr. Romano said proudly. “We like having big displays, and our quality speaks for itself. We have a great niche.”

Fairway was founded in 1974 in a 3,000-square-foot food store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at 74th Street and Broadway. The concept from the start was to offer fresh, upscale items, Mr. Romano said, and it is a concept that still prevails 36 years later.

“Produce was the backbone of the company,” he said, noting that the original store’s produce department took up about 60 percent of the space and generated 75 percent of its business.

Mr. Romano joined Fairway as a produce clerk in 1977, bringing with him five years of experience he garnered at a small New York City produce store called Vinny’s Market.

He also said his upbringing in Sicily, Italy, instilled in him a love and passion for produce.

Mr. Romano credited one of the retailer’s original owners, Harold Seybert, with helping make Fairway a success.

“He was a man of vision,” he said. “In the ’70s, upscale professionals were becoming more educated and trying to eat fresh. This was the start of a great following.”

Mr. Romano said that Fairway’s philosophy at the beginning was to offer quality products over lower-priced items.

“We sold on a low margin, and there was less shrink because we had a high turnover,” he said.

Fairway also started offering big, colorful displays of produce to catch shoppers’ eyes, and those displays are still a major part of each of Fairway’s produce departments.

“When you come to Fairway, our produce displays are like a work of art,” he said, crediting the retailer’s skillful workers, who number about 25 at each store, for building the displays on a daily basis. “You have to enhance the look of displays because people shop with their eyes.”

Mr. Romano said that the retailer has always “brought in what was available, from A to Z. We were always at the cutting edge. We thrive on new items and want to be remembered by shoppers that we can get anything in this store.“

To that end, he said, each store’s produce department, which takes up about 6,000 to 8,000 square feet, or around 30 percent of floor space, has about 500 SKUs of main staple items and has about 3,000 SKUs at any given time.

Fairway sources about 85 percent of its produce from growers and receives about 25-30 loads weekly, which are sent directly to its six stores.

Mr. Romano said that he and Fairway are “big supporters of local produce” and source as much as possible from growers in New York and New Jersey when the products are in season.

He said that the chain’s fresh-cut fruit and vegetable offerings, which are made daily in each individual store, are seeing the most growth.

“We’ve built a great reputation on our fresh-cut,” he said.

Mr. Romano noted that although Fairway has a loyal following, the retailer does not rest on its laurels and he is currently looking to add an experienced merchandiser to Fairway’s produce team.

“We are in a very competitive market,” he said. “We have competition on top of competition, so we have to stay on our toes.”