CELEBRATING 35 YEARS: THE VANGUARDS

Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.

This month, we honor Steve Gallucci (1941–1999), formerly of Wegman’s, and Drew & Myra Goodman of Earthbound Farm.

Steve Gallucci (1941–1999)
Wegmans Food Markets

“Steve Gallucci’s impact on our industry at retail was huge,” says Bryan Silbermann, whose 34 years at PMA included 20 years as president. Silbermann fervently nominated Gallucci for a Produce Business Vanguard Award, saying how he was an industry trailblazer who didn’t receive the kind of recognition that many others do. He noted how fortunate he was to get to know him personally when Gallucci served three years on the PMA Board late in his career.

“Steve was a produce merchant first and foremost. He knew how to make displays sing to their customers and drive impulse buying through the artistry of color and positioning. What Steve had at Wegmans too was the commitment of the family to put produce literally front-and-center on a scale few retailers anywhere could do,” says Silbermann.

The industry mourned Steve Gallucci’s passing at the age of 58 in 1999. Founder Robert Wegman, of the iconic Rochester, NY-based specialty chain, avowed: “I don’t think there was a better merchant in the world than Steve…there probably isn’t, and won’t ever be a department like he developed in the industry again.”

Wegman expressed an innate understanding of Gallucci’s long-term influence on the company’s phenomenal success. But more broadly, Gallucci’s contributions stimulated innovation and challenged the industry to reach for the highest standards, and tolerate nothing less, according to Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral at Wegmans. Corsi, who worked very closely with his predecessor, says Gallucci was one of his dear mentors in his life, and he had a passion that everyone should aspire to duplicate.

As a teenager, Steve began at Wegmans as a part time clerk and began to steadily climb through the ranks, Corsi explains. He was a store manager, then a store division manager, and in 1981 he was named the director of produce at Wegmans.

In 1989, industry consultant Bill Bishop described the launch of a new 100,000 square foot Wegmans store in Greece, NY, “as incredible perishable theater,” where Gallucci’s craftmanship was on full display. It was featured in a Marian Burros’ New York Times article, headlined, “Supermarket as Theater, Service as Star,” in the context of a transformative retail environment, and changing consumer lifestyle trends, where fresh produce and fresh prepared foods were savvily being used to gain a competitive edge.

Reportedly, the new Wegmans tripled the number of produce items in five years, and the fresh produce and prepared foods departments, equipped with dining areas, took up one-third of the store. Gallucci talked about the evolutionary process, where the produce department at one time was considered “a necessary evil. People chose the store they shopped by the meat. Now they choose it by the produce.” That would prove a profitable proposition for Wegmans, in large part because of Gallucci.

“Steve brought product to life through display presentation with a wow factor,” says Corsi. “He was always in pursuit of excellence in providing fresh produce to be offered at the peak of freshness and flavor. In addition, Steve was an innovator in search of unique fruits and vegetables that delivered on exceptional flavor.”

“Steve taught his people about strong, long-term partnerships with the best shippers, and that is still a hallmark of Wegmans to this day,” says Silbermann, adding, “It’s no wonder that people from around the world made pilgrimages to Rochester to see for themselves the produce departments that even to this day have Steve Gallucci’s fingerprints all over them.”

Gullucci worked directly with shippers to bring in ripe, high-flavor products, setting strict guidelines, and he was a pioneer in creative merchandising and ways to go to market on promotions, according to Dick Spezzano, former vice president of produce and floral at Vons.

Corsi reminisces about his personal relationship with Gallucci and the most important lessons he learned from him. “He was detail-minded about each produce item we offered, conveying about product to only be displayed at its peak of perfection,” he says. “It had to be something we were proud to merchandise and never place something out on display that we wouldn’t purchase ourselves as a customer.”

Wegmans started over 100 years ago as a fruit and vegetable company. “It is no coincidence that during Steve’s tenure, we moved the entire produce department from the back of the store to the first department you walk into. We wanted the customer’s first impression to be the best impression, and Steve brought produce to life like no other,” says Corsi.

“I do recall one conversation with Steve that will give you some insight to the priority he always gave to artistry in his business,” says Silbermann. “We were riding on a bus to dinner, and the PMA Guide to Category Management had just been published.”

Category Management was the application of new analytical tools to examine and interpret the profitability of the department by segments and holistically. “Steve was concerned, saying he was worried that if we get carried away with all this analysis, we’ll start eliminating items from the department just because they don’t carry their weight.” And he explained how variety and choice had always been the focus of his departments at Wegmans. “He was determined not to lose that. It’s clear from the past 20 years that the company took Steve’s caution to heart.”

The company gave tribute to that fact: “Wegmans was named one of the country’s top produce retailers, thanks to Steve Gallucci,” says Silbermann. “Throughout Wegmans and the entire supermarket industry, his innovations stand out. European slant tables for produce displays, open fresh-cut preparation areas, continuous sampling, and the beautifully lettered chalkboards, which were all signature statements for Wegmans produce at the time. In addition, we have Steve to thank for introducing Wegmans Strive for 5 program before the national Five a Day program was launched. For Steve, the customers’ health and convenience came first. He strove for excellence and, when he passed at the age of 58, he left an eternal legacy.”

MYRA & DREW GOODMAN
EARTHBOUND FARM

Take two 20-somethings from New York City, put them on a 2.5-acre farm in California’s Carmel Valley and what do they grow? A multimillion-dollar fresh produce business with a brand that’s a household name. Myra and Drew Goodman, who founded Earthbound Farm, didn’t know enough about farming back in 1984 to think they couldn’t be successful. What’s more, the Goodmans ultimately cultivated acres of industry-changing products that even farmers with long roots in the industry hadn’t yet innovated. For this — the mainstreaming of a trend-setting trio of organic produce, spring mix and pre-washed packaged salads at retail — the Goodmans are indeed Produce Business Vanguards.

“It’s hard to imagine today, but back in 1984, when the Goodman’s started farming, ‘organic’ was mostly purchased by extremely early adopters who were making a values-based purchase and were willing to accept what often was lower quality,” says Samantha Cabaluna, who started in 2004 as senior manager of communications for Earthbound Farm, moving on to managing director of brand communications before leaving in 2016 to start her own company, Unvarnished: Communications+Marketing, in Bow, WA.

“The Goodmans also had the vision and open-mindedness to partner first with Mission Ranches and then Tanimura & Antle to scale organic farming — adhering rigorously to organic standards but also bringing the benefits of sophisticated larger-scale farming, including post-harvest handling practices,” add Cabaluna. “This was not only contributed to producing more organic produce so it was more widely available, but also ensured it was great quality, with a reliable year-round supply, and it brought the price premium for organic down because of efficiencies. That facilitated the wide acceptance of organic produce.”

A career in fresh produce wasn’t on Myra or Drew’s radar during their college days. Myra majored in the Political Economy of Industrialized Societies at the University of California at Berkeley, aspiring to a career at the United Nations or World Bank, while Drew earned a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Myra’s parents had purchased a rundown farm in California for retirement and offered the two students an opportunity to live there and make improvements instead of paying rent.

“There were raspberries on the farm, but when it came time to apply the chemicals, we both didn’t want to,” says Myra. “We knew the chemicals were dangerous, so it didn’t seem right to apply these in our backyard and eat the food grown with them. Even though we were blank-slate farmers, grew up in New York, had no idea how to farm and had up to that time bought all of our produce at the supermarket, we felt we should intuitively be able to farm and grow produce without the chemicals.”

Buoyed by $10,000 in raspberry sales that first year, the Goodmans looked for something else to grow rather than head back East to graduate school. One of the clients Myra baby-sat for on the side owned a restaurant. He told the Goodmans about the emerging interest in organic spring mix and baby greens, ingredients that were on the menu at news-making restaurants like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. The couple soon planted baby lettuces and Asian greens, which went from seed to harvest faster than other lettuces and thus were easier to grow both in general and organically.

One challenge in this early heyday was that the Goodmans were so busy they didn’t have time to prepare and eat the greens they grew. So, on Sundays, they started pre-washing and packaging the lettuces in seven Ziplock bags, one for each night of the week. When they lost a big restaurant customer due to a change in chefs, they took a page out of their personal experience and dipped a toe into trying to sell their Mixed Baby Greens to other busy consumers at retail. At first, they put their salads on Greyhound buses for delivery to small communities up the Pacific coast. Plus, they FedEx’d salads overnight to New York. Baby Spinach Salad, Asian Salad Mix and Baby Romaine Salad soon followed.

Fast forward, in 1992, the Goodmans moved Earthbound to a 32-acre farm in Watsonville and built a 9,000-square foot production facility. Now was the ripe time for Drew to employ his natural-born sales skills. Since a Costco had just opened nearby, he set his sights on meeting the retailer’s buyers at the PMA Foodservice Conference that summer. By the next year, Earthbound Salads were in Costco and soon Lucky, Safeway and Albertsons.

“I knew that I didn’t have the skills to be an actual farmer, so meeting Stan Pura and being able to partner with the Mission Ranch guys, so we could professionally farm organically, was really a pivotal point and the moment where we were able to grow the product that we needed to really have organic flourish in the marketplace,” says Drew.

Pura, a third-generation farmer and then managing director of Mission Ranches, first partnered with the Goodman’s Earthbound Farm in 1995. “We were interested in getting into organic and looked at a couple of smaller companies,” says Pura. “But what stood out about Myra and Drew was their passion for the category. They believed in organic and were passionate about it.”

By 1996, Earthbound moved its headquarters and processing operation to a 25,000-square-foot facility in San Juan Bautista, CA. They added organic romaine hearts, broccoli, cauliflower and celery. Two years later, with 5,800 acres in cultivation, Earthbound became the largest grower of organic produce in the U.S.

Over the next 17 years, until the Goodmans sold Earthbound Farms in 2013, the couple received numerous awards, accolades and acclaim. These included articles in hundreds of publications from the Costco Connection to The New York Times and Forbes.

In 2015, Myra was one of the farmers chosen by the James Beard Foundation and US Department of State to represent the U.S. in a prominent ‘conversations’ video shown at the 2015 World’s Fair. Today, the Goodmans live on their original farm in the Carmel Valley with their dogs and work actively in areas in and out of fresh produce.

“I think some people in the industry would debate that we started the whole pre-washed pre-packaged salad industry. But I think it’s true. We were the first people to successfully market pre-washed packaged salads for retail sales, and that was in 1986. So, we were definitely part of the whole packaged salad revolution. Plus, we were part of the spring mix revolution. However, what I think Drew and I are most proud of is being part of the organic revolution,” says Myra.