Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Dave Corsi of Wegmans Food Markets.
Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
In the tumultuous aftermath of the 2006 Spinach E. coli crisis, Tim York (at the time, president of Markon, and now CEO of LGMA), made a prescient, vital call to Dave Corsi — a venerated retail star and industry pacesetter. Now 35 years at Wegmans in Rochester, NY, Corsi is extoled as a veracious, active force in moving the industry forward, raising the bar and leading by example, yet unduly bathed in humility of his impacts.
Through his many years of all-embracing volunteer service to the produce industry, Corsi’s trademark is ultimately as a consummate consensus-builder, often working tirelessly behind the scenes, and invariably quick to credit others, underlaid with his admiration for the Wegmans family and the collaborative, people-centered culture it fosters.
York knew no more influential, respected person than Corsi to convince other retailers to get onboard to build a buyer-led food safety initiative. Wegmans was a pioneer in food safety, and Corsi was already aligned, immediately struck by the gravity of the spinach crisis. He understood the importance, as well as the immense challenge, of getting buyers united in holding the line, and only purchasing from suppliers abiding by strict food safety standards. He supported the mission to generate and enforce common industry food safety protocols and commodity-based metrics that were measurable and verifiable.
York praises Corsi for his inimitable role in crafting the mission to form a buyer coalition and advance food safety industry wide. Wegmans has developed a long-standing reputation for selecting product produced at higher food safety standards over less expensive product.
“At Wegmans, food safety is not a competitive issue. The buyer coalition is based on that premise,” said Corsi, of that industry watershed, in a captivating Q&A in the Perishable Pundit in 2007, as a Single Step Award Winner, presented by Jim Prevor. “There is no room for rivalry when food safety is concerned. We should all feel very comfortable to talk to our competitors about what is needed in the industry.”
When news of the spinach E. coli outbreak surfaced, FDA advised consumers not to eat any fresh spinach. “At that moment, I knew it wouldn’t be food safety as usual, but I didn’t know yet the magnitude of the number of sick and the tragedy of the three deaths,” said Corsi. He was being honored for his leadership after the spinach crisis and invaluable role in instigating change. “I became acutely aware that I had to do something to make a difference.”
“Tim York and I shared our passions and decided to take action and bring others along with us,” said Corsi, placing most of the credit on York for driving the buyer-led initiative.
According to York, Corsi’s “behind-the-scenes” involvement in enlisting buyers and shaping the dialog unquestionably made a difference in accelerating change in food safety, working in tandem with key industry organizations. Corsi was also on the executive board of PMA at the time, which was very involved with commodity-specific food safety guidelines for leafy greens, helping to generate specific metrics to measure. The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement became a model, extended to other states and template to target different commodities.
“We helped expedite the process and bring it to the forefront. We placed calls to our suppliers saying this is important and you need to sign it,” said Corsi. For Wegman’s, this was in line with its philosophy and practice to require and uphold premium food safety standards in its operation.
Corsi wanted to ensure the entire industry followed suit, but also to set up mechanisms to bolster produce food safety, accounting for the challenges and the complexities of the industry supply chain. He was an advocate for the creation of the Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis. “The confluence of industry, government, academia and consumer groups should make a difference in information exchange and training. We need a blend of individuals with various interests and vantage points to affect change. And we need better research to alleviate pathogens,” said Corsi, who envisioned CPS’s potential during his Single Step Award interview. It would foreshadow his strong commitment to its cause, including becoming Chairman of the Board of CPS in 2018, turning over the reins in 2020.
For Corsi, the position capitalized on his skills and desire to steer and partner with myriad stakeholders, and work across the supply chain to effect important industry change. Corsi received the PMA Bryan Silbermann Collaboration Award in 2018, fittingly presented to him by Tim York, in no small part for his dedication to advance food safety. But also, for his leadership on numerous PMA committees and task forces, including serving on the board of the Center for Growing Talent, to recruit and groom the industry leaders of tomorrow.
Corsi identifies with the people he mentors. He was generous in sharing the trailblazing achievements and influence of his caring mentor, Steve Gallucci. (See his Vanguard profile in the Produce Business, December 2020 issue).
Wegmans has developed an iconic, consumer-centric brand, enveloped with a vibrant, innovative fresh produce department, championed by Corsi. He’s a creative, out-of-the-box thinker in all aspects, from product development and procurement to marketing and merchandising. As the company continues its regional expansion, Wegmans wins stellar company rankings in both trade and consumer reports, consistently voted a top retail choice by consumers to shop, by employees to work for, and according to produce suppliers to partner with.
Miles Reiter (see his Vanguard profile in the Produce Business, November 2020 issue) puts it this way: “Dave Corsi and the whole Wegmans organization, but Dave’s leadership within it, is unrelenting in its mission to delight consumers, and in kind to align with its customers and growers.” He continues, “Dave really reached out, and we created a relationship that was so engaged. It wasn’t just a buyer and seller. We have our Quality Assurance people working together, our merchandising teams working together, and of course Dave and me, and Joe Hansen, category merchant of produce at Wegmans. They’re very proactive and we’re on a really friendly basis with the Wegmans community.”
Reiter is keen to point out, “Dave has that philosophy that to make this kind of business work, you’ve got to be all in. Dave is iconic in that role. He also provides a lot of industry leadership. He does so much for the industry. He’s a really great guy, and Wegmans is just such a great company with a lot of great people. I think you’ll find any of their suppliers will say the same thing. They’re side by side with you. Wegmans actually helped train our next generation and really helped us on understanding what the consumers think of the product,” says Reiter.
In 2013, Wegmans received the Produce Business, Retail Sustainability Award for its many accomplishment. One of the components of its sustainability efforts was strong commitment to local growers, and the chain’s growth of organic produce to address a broadening interest by Wegmans’s customer base. To that end, Corsi epitomized a truly hands-on approach in entwining the synergies between sustainability and produce. He became very involved in the running of Wegmans Organic Farm, a unique venture and vehicle to develop and grow organic produce in the Northeast to build local organic supply, expand offerings to its customers, develop techniques to share with other growers and to showcase Wegmans’ commitment to organics.
Corsi has no delusions of the challenges growers face, and the value of close, long-term partnerships: “We have great respect for the effort our growers put forth. That respect is much higher because we’ve experienced it firsthand.”
Corsi embraces that empathetic trait in everything he does to better the industry. Thankfully, many people across the spectrum — from growers to consumers — have experienced Corsi’s influence firsthand.