At On The Vine Marketplace “Fresh is Best”

Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Providing the best product keeps this flourishing retailer on track toward greater growth.

For 15 years, On The Vine Marketplace has been curating the finest selection of perishable goods including an outstanding produce offering. The entire philosophy of the store is to offer up the highest quality, freshest products. “Our motto is ‘Fresh Is Best’ and that really sums us up,” says Abel Schultze, co-owner and president. “I grew up in a house where everything was made fresh. So I wanted to operate a store where we focus on everything fresh. Unlike most chain retailers who focus on center store, we focus on ‘the outside’–produce, meats and seafood.”

Schultze opened the store in Exeter, NH, in 2006 with his wife, Angela, and partner Scott Edwards. In 2015, they expanded to a second store in Scarborough, ME. “Exeter was doing well so we decided to open the second store,” he says. “I’d like to do at least five more eventually, either owned or franchised. We’re currently working on a third location.”

He got into produce in his 20s, when he bought into and operated a wholesale business. “I just buried myself into the business and learned a lot,” he says. “I’d buy from the terminal market and deliver to restaurants and stores. I eventually decided to get out of the wholesale side and start up my own retail.”

Pride in Produce

The 14,000 square-foot store puts great emphasis on produce, using 3,000 of its square feet for the department. “I saw once that 85 percent of people who shop in a grocery store judge the quality of the store by the produce department,” says Schultze. “That illustrates our draw. We’re proud of the product we put out for customers.”

Schultze describes how his commitment to produce is evidenced on a daily basis by his wet line. “Our wet line is on ice and/or water and we pull it off every night and put it on every morning,” he says. “I want it to be handled so it’s perfect every day, all the time. You know you’ve made progression in my company if you’re allowed to work the wet line.”

The retailer sells approximately $15,000 per week per store in produce with the winter season down a bit from that. Produce’s percent contribution to overall sales in the store is around 10 percent. “It’s the first thing customers see when they walk in,” says Schultze. “We spend a lot of time and effort setting up the department to ensure it’s appealing and attractive all the time. I want customers to say we have the best produce bar none of anyone in the local area.”

Fresh Flair

The store’s merchandising revolves around promoting fresh, healthy images. Schulze sums up his merchandising attitude as “old school” and credits hard, hands-on work with having a beautiful and effective produce department. “We display and handle the old-fashioned way,” he says. “We make sure to care for each product specifically; we don’t ice or mist what doesn’t need it.”

Upon entering the store, customers are caught up in a fragrant flower section. To the right, their eye is immediately drawn to a 65-linear foot display, capped by mirrors to reflect light. “It’s an old school, homemade, wood set up,” says Schultze. “The wet line and other items run all the way down. To the left we have carts, a cooler with Olivia’s salad kits and some other displays but we’ve found our shoppers are visually drawn first down this line.”

The store changes out product mix and placement depending on seasons. “We do huge displays for fall with pumpkins and squashes,” says Schultze. “In summer we promote using big bins of corn and watermelon. For Easter, we put out an enormous display of asparagus. At Thanksgiving, we merchandize herbs on tables.”

Sourcing for Success

With such a high focus on excellence, it comes as no surprise that Schultze’s number one sourcing criteria is quality. “I look at quality first, then price,” he says. “Then I try to get non-GMO and as much organic as I possibly can as long as it’s reasonably priced.”

Quality relates directly to the store’s mission and each store spends around $10,000 per week on produce. “It’s easy in produce or meat to buy fairly good product at a good price and sell it cheap,” says Schultze. “But, I’m not interested in selling fairly good produce; I want excellent product.”

The store’s reputation for quality translates into customer loyalty. “I don’t even pay attention to what grocery stores around me are selling for. I rely on quality first and sell it for what I need to. My customers appreciate it. I want my customers to have a great eating experience, whether they eat it the same day they bought it or a week later.”

To fulfill his sourcing criteria, Schultze relies heavily on the Boston wholesale market as well as local sources. Given his wholesaling background, he has been sourcing from the terminal market for almost 20 years and currently buys there twice a week. “We use everyone at the Boston market,” he says. “They give us availability and options. I can shop around and get exactly what I need.”

The retailer also relies heavily on local farms when in season. “I try to source as much local as I can,” says Schultze. “We’re very into local product and we get different products from each of our local sources.”

Reaching Food People

The store’s customer base is very diverse. “One would think we serve a higher income demographic but we really don’t,” says Schultze. “People of all ages, all income levels, all ethnic backgrounds and all food orientation shop our store. The meat eaters come to the meat counter, yet we have a ton of vegetarians who come and stay in produce. Our customer base is just people who want to eat good food.”

Store marketing is strictly word of mouth. “We rely on our customers to spread the word,” says Schultze. “We dabbled in some advertising but didn’t find it effective for us. So we decided to do the best job we can within the four walls of the store and let that be our marketing.”


On The Vine Marketplace
75 Portsmouth Ave., Exeter, NH
Hours: Mon – Sat 9:00am – 7:00pm; Sunday 9:00am – 6:00pm