The family-owned regional chain in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky spotlights quality produce and excellent customer service.
Originally printed in the May 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Fresh Encounter Inc. has a vital produce operation at the heart of an array of supermarket banners across Ohio, Indiana and northern Kentucky: Great Scot, Community Markets, Sack ’n Save, King Saver, Germantown Fresh Market, Remke Markets, Chief Supermarkets, Needler’s Fresh Market and Save A Lot.
Yet, whatever name hangs over any one of its 98 stores, Fresh Encounter has the same purpose.
“Our mission as a company is to: ‘Delight our Customers, Nourish our Communities, Inspire Pride In Our Team,’” says Dave Rhodes, director of produce and floral for Fresh Encounter, headquartered in Findlay, OH.
Fresh Encounter Inc. is owned by Ohio third-generation grocers, Julie N. Anderson, director of marketing, and her brother, Michael S. Needler Jr., president and chief executive. The chain also recently entered the Florida market, purchasing more than 50 Save A Lot stores.
Local produce and floral play a big part of the stores’ offerings on a year-round basis, Rhodes says. “We kick off local in the spring with our outdoor spring floral program. That will move us right into June when fresh produce takes off and runs heavy through September and then begins to tail off. At the height, we have the listed items all local: corn, watermelon, muskmelons, tomatoes, green bell peppers, cucumbers, greens, radishes, onions, cabbage, zucchini and yellow squash, blueberries, blackberries, leaf lettuces.”
Moving into the fall, the stores are “heavy into apples, apple cider, cabbage, fall squash, pumpkins and fall mums,” Rhodes says.
Fresh Encounter promotes local frequently in its advertising and in social media, he adds. In-store signage developed to draw shoppers to local produce proclaims, “Look What’s Local.”
Seasonality is a key part of the Fresh Encounter produce operation, Rhodes says, with that particular aspect of the business firing his enthusiasm.
“This is what is so fascinating in produce, we lead the charge in the store for seasonality,” he says, using Vidalia onions as an example.
“Vidalia onions scream the change of seasons, moving into the spring. With Vidalias come corn, which moves to outdoor grilling and now you start to touch the meat department, dairy department, bakery department, GM department and the grocery department. It is a domino effect, and it does take planning throughout the departments to be successful.”
When it wants to mount extraordinary displays, Fresh Encounter executes on the basis of the commodity and circumstances involved.
“Floor bins depend on item offered,” Rhodes says. “We offer floor bin displays of watermelons, and have offered, from time to time, bins of potatoes, bins of colossal navel oranges and bins of apples in tote bags. We use 2-foot merchandisers for secondary displays throughout the year. We place them in produce, meat department, frozen foods and the checkout lanes. These are the most common areas.”
FRESH-CUT FRUIT AND VEGGIES
Fresh Encounter wants to serve its customers across their entire range of needs. For shoppers who want to grab and go, Fresh Encounter features a substantial selection of fresh-cuts.
“In all our stores, we offer an assortment of cut fruit: from fruit party trays to slices, quarters, chunks in all melons, along with cut berries,” Rhodes says. “We offer orange wedges, tangerine wedges, grapefruit wedges. We offer grab-and-go snack trays filled with assorted nuts, grapes, berries, etc. We create a variety of our own salads created with ingredients like spring mix, berries and nuts. We fresh squeeze juice in a few of the stores.”
On the vegetable side of the fresh-cut operation, Rhodes explains the stores bring in already cut or chopped items like diced or sliced onions, diced or sliced peppers, diced or sliced celery, mixed sauté items, stuffed mushrooms, etc. Cut fruit and veg sections will range from 8 feet to 24 feet.
The company also makes its own fresh guacamole in stores, but brings in national branded varieties as well.
Rhodes emphasizes remaining flexible across the store base and responding to market trends is an important, ongoing process.
“The business continues to move to prepared foods, and convenience grab-and-go items. If you are not expanding in this area, you will be left behind,” he says. Other options, like plant-based foods, continue to grow, too, and Fresh Encounter has added 4 to 6 feet in a few stores to spotlight these products.
Fresh Encounter banners carry a full line of bagged salads, too, he notes, offering both conventional and organic, including local labels Pure Green Farms and Old Soul’s. This section will range from 4 feet to 16 feet, Rhodes says.
Half of Fresh Encounter stores, including Save A Lot, incorporate a full line of greens, “with a very good crisping program for our freshness and presentation.”
The company also offers a range of related, nonperishable products in and around the produce section, such as Circle City Kombucha and Hartwell’s Salad Dressings. That product range is available 12 months of the year.
In addition, Rhodes says a few stores also offer kombucha on tap, and “some veg grab-and-go items along with our veg trays that we make in-store.”
ORGANIC LINE GROWING
As Fresh Encounter keeps pace with the times and trends, the company is also ramping up its organics business.
“The statistic I saw was 12% growth in 2020, and through most of 2021, the growth was around 3%,” Rhodes says. The stores typically offer organic options for salads, berries, grapes, citrus, apples, vegetables, potatoes, carrots, onions and mushrooms.
As the organic business has evolved, Fresh Encounter has been considering how to maximize its potential through merchandising.
“In most of our stores, the organic section is all together,” Rhodes says. “We have just started integrating in a few stores to see if the acceptance is better.”
He says what makes him proudest of the Fresh Encounter produce operation are the people and their ability to work together.
“We are a team,” Rhodes says. “It takes more than one person for us to be successful.”
Fresh Encounter Inc.
317 W. Main Cross St., Findlay, OH 45840
Operates 98 stores in Ohio, Indiana, northern Kentucky and Florida.
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Pandemic Spotlighted Chain’s Nimbleness
Fresh Encounter Director of Produce and Floral David Rhodes says the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated independent retailers could rise to the occasion — demonstrating they are as strong and even more nimble than the giant chains.
Pre-pandemic, Fresh Encounter stores were always clean, he says as an example, but when customers entered stores during the pandemic with greater expectations, they found conditions that more than satisfied them, as the company made a demonstrative effort from the display cases through to the back room.
Then, Fresh Encounter revved up its procurement to make sure customers found product assortments that kept them well-supplied throughout the coronavirus crisis.
“Our biggest challenge was making sure we were able to maintain full shelves through the pandemic,” he says. “It took our team working with our trade partners to maintain the conditions that we expected as a company, and we came through it in great shape. As customers floated from store to store looking for items, we were able to meet their needs and it continues to show today.”