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Fresh produce a key department at Roberts Food Center

by Gordon M. Hochberg | July 28, 2011

NORTH MADISON, CT — With Connecticut’s fresh produce season pretty much right on time, Roberts Food Center was offering shoppers good volume of many local items in mid-July, with more expected in the days and weeks ahead.

Scott Ward, produce manager at Roberts Food Center in North Madison, CT, checking the sweet corn in mid-July. The sign noted some of the local items available, with more expected as the season progressed. See story on page 32. (Photo by Gordon M. Hochberg)
Sweet corn, green beans, cabbage, parsley, basil, zucchini, cucumbers and sugar snap peas were front and center at this upscale retailer, with green peppers, eggplant and “all the tomato varieties” set to arrive shortly, according to Scott Ward, the store’s produce manager.

Sweet corn, one of the state’s signature produce items, was being displayed on its own table, drawing shoppers into the full produce department. A large sign above the sweet corn listed other local items available — important information to all shoppers in this era of the locally grown trend.

“We get as much local produce as possible,” Mr. Ward told The Produce News Tuesday, July 19. “The customers love it. A lot of local stuff is sold here the same day it’s picked.”

Volume of items from the Nutmeg State has been good this season so far, and quality “looks phenomenal,” he said. “The produce looks very fresh” and has “good holding quality.” Customers at the store look for all local items at this time of the year, but especially one item in particular. “People love the corn, every year,” he declared. “We rarely hear a bad comment on it.”

Mr. Ward, 29, started as a bagger at the supermarket in 1998. He became a store manager in 2001, then left in 2003 to complete his college education, earning a bachelor of arts degree with a major in management from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2005. He returned to Roberts Food Center in 2006 as a store manager. 

The owners offered him the produce manager’s position in July 2010, “and I gladly took it,” he said enthusiastically. Produce is different than grocery, he noted, and the wide variety of produce items during the year means “constant tweaking” on his part. His position as produce manager also means “more decision-making” responsibilities.

Mr. Ward has been assisted in his produce education by Bozzuto’s Inc., the wholesale grocer headquartered in Cheshire, CT, which supplies the overwhelming majority of the retailer’s fresh produce.

“He’s picked up produce very quickly, and that’s not easy,” said Mike Robichaud, a produce merchandiser at Bozzuto’s who visits Roberts Food Center on a regular basis.

When Mr. Ward moved to the produce area, Mr. Robichaud worked with him on issues of seasonality and other fundamentals. “But he picked it up so quickly,” said Mr. Robichaud. “He seems to have a natural feel for it.”

Bozzuto’s and Roberts Food Center have “a longstanding relationship,” said Mr. Robichaud, which probably helped Mr. Ward acclimate himself to produce so quickly. Mr. Robichaud especially pointed to the “good communication” among himself, Mr. Ward and Walter Klein, the inside sales rep at Bozzuto’s who handles the account.

“I came from grocery to produce, and working with Bozzuto’s helped me with how things run,” recalled Mr. Ward. “They showed me how to set up stands for maximum sales.” Bozzuto’s “helped me a lot,” and “Mike is always there for me.”

Commenting on Connecticut’s 2011 season, Mr. Robichaud noted that consumers could look forward to good quality and good volume of the items available so far, especially sweet corn, which he called “king of the local deal.” He expected the state’s other very popular item — tomatoes — to be available by around the end of July.

Shoppers approach the entrance to the store on a beautifully landscaped walkway. A “Connecticut Grown” sign outside alerts shoppers that the local produce they look for is now in season.

The produce department is the first one shoppers see as they enter the store, with the bakery department on their right and the prepared foods section just ahead — a food court-type arrangement that provides enticing aromas to those looking for a quick lunch item or filling their carts for the week.

Bob Fusco Sr. and his son, Bob Fusco Jr., are the co-owners of Roberts Food Center. Mr. Fusco Sr. opened the 10,000-square-foot store in 1984. It was expanded to its current 20,000 square feet around 2000-01, according to his son. “And we’re due again,” the younger Mr. Fusco said, noting that he was referring to a reconfiguration of the existing space, not to larger square footage.

While there is no timeframe for such a reconfiguration, Mr. Fusco Jr. said that if and when that happens, “produce will expand its footprint.” That could mean more space for prepared produce items or side dishes.

Regardless, produce will always be a key component at Roberts Food Center. Produce “is tied with the meat department as far as the image you present to the customer,” said Mr. Fusco Jr. But “as time goes on” and the healthy eating trend continues, meat sales may decrease while “produce is growing,” he said.