Gourmet market in New Jersey has full-time buyer who walks Hunts Point market for fresh buys.
Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Market Basket, of Franklin Lakes, NJ, is a gourmet market that makes a statement about its high-quality produce at old-fashioned, fair prices to consumers before they even reach the doors.
That’s because to enter the store, shoppers walk by a produce-laden Model T Ford wagon, one that actually runs, although its days are now spent stationary as part of an outdoor fruit and vegetable display.
The Franklin Lakes store is the company’s 28,000-square-foot flagship location and a little larger than the original location in nearby Wyckoff, NJ. However, half the Franklin Lakes store is dedicated to back-room, prepared food operations, part of a major catering business.
The business is reflected in the extensive prepared food presentation in the store, which runs from sandwiches and soup to roasted asparagus and cauliflower puree to General Tso’s cauliflower to a Harvest Chicken dinner with rice and vegetables. And that’s in addition to the fresh-cut produce. The stores employ chefs from the Culinary Institute of America and the French Culinary Institute, who are involved both in catering and putting together meals behind the stores’ service counters.
The company also operates a 60,000-square-foot warehouse and commissary, which suggests how important prepared food and catering is to the Market Basket business.
Fresh produce, however, is critical and is a differentiating factor for the store. Market Basket uses the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, NY, as its main source of produce year-round, and employs a full-time buyer who walks the market at least three times a week. Then, in season, the company heavily promotes local produce. In both cases, the company operates its own trucking fleet to source from the market and growers.
Zachary Chernalis, Market Basket chief operating officer, says the Franklin Lake area is affluent and the store has a gourmet orientation, emphasizing the peripheral departments. However, Cernalis makes the point that he will squeeze margins somewhat on certain produce products to keep what he’s charging in line with more mass-market competitors, counting on making it up on other gourmet items. He does so because a lot of his customers are middle-class people who are drawn to superior food products, but who also are a bit more price-conscious. Chernalis wants to convey the quality he offers is so high that the price/value equation favors Market Basket over food retailers that might charge less for items that don’t deliver as much in the way of freshness and flavor.
To put it another way, his customers, whether middle class or affluent, tend to be foodies.
TERMINAL MARKET ESSENTIAL
“One of the reasons we started going to the [Hunts Point] market years ago — and I’m a third generation owner of the store, my grandfather started it in 1960 and expanded from the Wyckoff stores to this location — was an emphasis on things being fresh,” Cernalis says.
Mike Rubinsky, Market Basket’s produce buyer, has spent lots of time on the Hunts Point docks, selecting the fruits and vegetables that are right for the store.
“He’s had years of experience working in the market,” Chernalis says. “We’ve had a lot of really long-standing relationships with a lot of the businesses there. We like to go in there. It gives us the availability. We have contracts with some vendors there, making sure we’re getting the best lots that come in. Really, just having such a long relations with these guys, they treat us very well.”
Cernalis spent a year as a buyer on the market, so he’s familiar with how it operates and understands the advantages a terminal market offers to a grocery store operation.
“Having my buyer going into the market and visually inspecting the produce, it really helps,” he says, noting the company’s trucking fleet hauls what’s chosen. “The produce goes directly to our warehouse. We have three different produce refrigerators for different climate zones.”
Buying is done to satisfy the company’s in-store customers, but also to use in processing back of store, and one of the factors that makes produce buying so critical for Market Basket is the various uses the operation has, from store floor to catering.
“Produce affects everything down the line,” he says. “If we have tomatoes that are overripe or underripe, that’s going to go through our entire food process, from our bruschetta to our salsa, or our tomato and mozzarella platters. Everything starts with our produce for the most part, so, really, it has to be fresh.”
“If we’re doing a 400-person product launch or a $300 a person wedding at a venue, we have to make sure we have top-notch produce.”
Catering began about five years after the business began in 1960, Cernalis says, and was a major reason why Market Basket added the second location in Franklin Lakes.
“My grandfather saw the need for prepared food before most companies did,” he says.
Garden State produce is a favorite with Market Basket customers, and the stores feature it prominently in season. At the Franklin Lakes location, the storefront Model T is a touchpoint where New Jersey produce gets staged.
Customers entering the store don’t immediately arrive at the main fruit and vegetable space, but at prepared food. Shoppers can pick up meal and meal items, including fresh-cut produce, and proceed directly to the checkouts just a few feet away.
Produce takes up a position further into the store and adjacent to the bakery as a dual draw through the store. Near the top, the company offers more cut fruit, cider and the company’s own line of organic juices. Fresh-squeezed orange juice is nearby, a product line that uses 750,000 pieces of fruit a year, Cernalis says. Also prominent are Market Basket clamshell salads, cut vegetables and the company’s own salad dressings.
Market Basket offers a lot in a small space, but doesn’t vary deeply into exotic or tropical produce, although it carries a bit of each, such as pineapples and mangos. Cernalis says he’s not looking to go big with such items, but will feature top-quality specialty product in bulk, as fresh-cuts and in prepared food to give shoppers the choice, while ensuring what comes into the store isn’t wasted.
Avocados get big play, as do tomatoes and apples, which the store merchandises even more conspicuously in fall, when the local apple harvest is in full swing. As the fixtures are modular, Market Basket can do a lot in a little space by expanding and building the profile of items.
Organic produce has a strong presence, too, although not growing as fast as once was the case. Cernalis says he maintains an abundant presentation in proportion to the department size for customers who are steady organic consumers and those who like an organic option even if they may buy conventional, too.
Cernalis isn’t chasing every trend, but focuses on having a solid assortment, meeting shoppers’ needs in terms of variety, but exceeding their expectations as to quality.
“I try to make it so that my customer can look the other way, pick, and it’s going to be good,” Cernalis says. “I have the confidence. We look at the market and check, then it comes into the warehouse, and I have a warehouse foreman who will check all the main products, break open a box and make sure everything looks good. Then, we have a third check here where my produce manager looks at everything. We have three steps, fail-safes, to really check our products to make sure they’re top-notch.”
Employees are trained to check every single item as it comes off the flat, “rotate it and make sure everything looks good.”
Rubinsky, produce buyer, reiterates a Cernalis expression when he says, “We specialize in quality.” Shoppers are smart today, he adds, and know quality produce when they see it. So, when confronted with anything other than product that suits Market Basket standards,“we’d rather walk away.”
Innovation is also important to Market Basket’s proposition to the consumer. The company’s emphasis on fresh and healthy, for instance, has generated a line of items called Clean Eating, with input from a nutritionist.
Cernalis says he wants Market Basket to be an experience, a place where shoppers can discuss the food they’re buying with trained employees and experienced chefs. Still, the key is superior product at a fair price.
“We specialize in quality,” Cernalis says.