How Tops keeps it fresh
What defines fresh locally raised produce? Is it summer’s first corn on the cob, crunchy and sweet, cultivated at a farm just a short drive away? Is it an impeccable heirloom tomato that was grown, in part, because you requested it? At Tops Markets, they bring the farm directly to your local produce department because keeping it local is a proud part of their mission.
Since the sale of Tops to Morgan Stanley Private Equity in 2007, Tops has more than doubled its number of local growing partners, increasing to over 200 farms and grower co-operatives. Their focus as a locally operated company has helped reaffirm the company’s commitment to buying and selling local within the community. In 2010, Tops purchased the Penn Traffic Company’s assets, which included several grocery stores, and extended Tops’ footprint from Meadville, Penn., to Watertown, N.Y. The expansion created more jobs and increased partnerships with dozens of local businesses, which subsequently pumped millions of dollars into the local economy.
Jeff Cady, produce and floral manager at Tops Markets, says the decision to buy and sell local produce was among their top goals following the company’s new ownership. “Our produce managers call and speak to farmers in the morning and request to get produce that day,” Cady says. “Talk about freshness. That has to be a comforting thing.”
“We realize the importance of homegrown to our customer base,” continues Rick Wright, produce and floral field specialist at Tops Markets. “We work really hard to develop these relationships with farmers ... [Customers] want to buy from their local grower, their neighborhood farm. They believe in that farmer, and, to them, it’s better than organic.”
Each May, before the full homegrown season kicks in, Tops brings produce managers from each of its 132 stores to spend time at their partner farms. The groups visit Eden Valley Growers, one of WNY’s largest growers’ consortiums, and some of their conglomerates, which supply all Tops locations with produce. Managers garner first-hand experience with the selection of fresh produce like corn, peppers, lettuce, and apples that are shipped to Tops stores daily. Tops believes that when produce managers are able to see, smell, and touch the products while still on the plant, they are better educated about the product, and better equipped to explain the benefits to their fellow associates and customers.
“The produce managers are able to speak with these folks [at the farms] every day if they want,” says Cady. “Eden Valley farmers are accessible to contact directly to request particular produce that morning or day. They are very one-on-one.”
Dave Walczak, operations manager for Eden Valley Growers, says that Tops has had a relationship with Eden Valley Growers for over fifty years. “We have meetings at our facility, and they can call me at any time,” he says. “We have an open door policy.”
Tops’ customers benefit from the soil composition of Eden Valley Growers, which is fairly rocky, rather than a muck-type soil. Walczak notes that it dries very quickly following the winter’s snow or after rain, which enables farmers to get back in the fields quickly. Furthermore, the composition warms quickly to aid germination and help produce grow.
Tops’ produce team also meets with farmers to have them grow special items for Tops stores, such as miniature heirloom tomatoes, poblano peppers, white bell peppers, and a variety of eggplants, ranging from confetti to Italian to ghost. Tops even challenges the farmers they partner with to grow more based on customer feedback. From encouraging personal conversations with customers to carefully reviewing comment cards and emails, Tops does its best to take shoppers’ feedback into consideration.
With consumers’ increased awareness and expectation of transparency regarding food safety, Tops has seen a steady increase in the number of customers who want assurance that their produce is locally grown and of the highest quality. “Food safety is paramount,” says Cady, who notes that all growers Tops works with are New York State Good Agricultural Practices certified.
“Tops and our consumers are very aware of food safety and very concerned that what they’re getting is the freshest food possible,” says Katie McKenna, communications/public relations manager. “I think the relationships we have with our growers helps with that believability.”
Locally grown produce can be delivered directly to Tops stores fresh from local farms on the day it is picked, and it costs much less to do so, which allows Tops to pass savings on to consumers. Other pluses include the positive impact on the local economy, the increased support of local family farmers, the quality of the produce, and environmental benefits—greenhouse gas emissions are reduced because the distance it takes for fruits and vegetables to travel from the farm to stores is minimized.
Nina Barone is a marketing-communications professional and adventurous home cook. You can read her blog at buffalofoodie.com.