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RETAIL VIEW: Fresh & Easy expands expedited produce effort

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, the European-owned small-format retail chain making a splash in the West, has expanded a program that promises consumers farm-fresh produce in the store within 24 hours of its harvest.

Brendan Wonnacott, communications director for the Tesco-owned operation that is based in Southern California, told The Produce News, "We launched the program quietly last year because, as you can imagine, it's a hard thing to pull off."

Called Farm to Store in 24, the program features fresh-packed produce with a label that tells the consumer that the product was picked less than 24 hours before reaching the store level. In 2009, Fresh & Easy experimented with grapes and strawberries in this program. This year, the chain has expanded the grape and strawberry offerings and is in the process of adding stone fruits, including peaches, plums, apricots and Pluots. “It is a very difficult program,” reiterated Mr. Wonnacott. “If it rains, we can be out of supplies for a week.”

By fall, the effort will include some leafy green items, he said, but the details have not been finalized.

All the items featured are grown in California, where the majority of Fresh & Easy’s 150 stores is located. Mr. Wonnacott said that every store in the chain is part of the program, so it takes quite a bit of logistics coordination to achieve the quick turnaround. In choosing partners for the program, Mr. Wonnacott said that Fresh & Easy’s produce team identified local growers that share the grocer’s passion and commitment to bring customers high-quality food at affordable prices in a very quick time frame.

In a July 22 press release on the subject, Justin Hill, Fresh & Easy’s produce manager, who is in charge of developing the program, said, “Getting produce from the farm to the store in 24 hours or less is an incredibly tricky task, which makes it important to partner with strong local growers who share our commitment to quality produce. We are working closely with these growers here to put in the extra care required to expand our Farm to Store in 24 offerings whenever we can.”

With the table grape season in California’s Coachella Valley wrapping up, Fresh & Easy is now getting Farm to Store grapes from Pandol Bros. Inc. in Delano, CA. Andrew & Williamson Sales Co. Inc. in San Diego provides strawberries for the program from farms in California in Ventura County and Watsonville, CA.

While Fresh & Easy quietly rolled out the effort last year, Mr. Wonnacott said that more effort is being made to promote the concept this season. Besides placing the “Farm to Store in 24” logo on these products, the company recently created a video about the program that it has placed on YouTube that features Mr. Hill explaining the concept while standing in the produce department of a Fresh & Easy store. Mr. Wonnacott said that more than 2,000 people have viewed the video, and the program has “somewhat of a cult following.”

He said that when the Farm to Store in 24 product hits the shelves, it is sold fairly quickly. The company also reaches similarly minded customers through its Twitter and Facebook pages.

Mr. Wonnacott added that Fresh & Easy is gauging consumer reaction to the program through both the traditional method of comment cards and by using the aforementioned social media platforms. “Lots of folks are contacting us and telling us what they think,” he said.

Fresh & Easy operates more than 150 stores in California, Arizona and Nevada. It is currently opening stores at the rate of about one per week, with Southern California still being its main marketing area.