Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Steve Gallucci of Wegman’s.
Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.
“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.”