Originally printed in the January 2018 issue of Produce Business.
Local market encourages the public to become more interested in local foods and offers one of the largest selections of organic produce.
New Morning Market in Woodbury, CT, is on a mission to rebuild a healthy, local, sustainable food community. It’s always been an admirable goal, but owner John Pittari says it’s one that’s getting easier to meet all the time. His mission matches well with a number of values that are becoming more important to consumers, including purchasing healthy, high-quality food; understanding how food is grown and treated; supporting local growers and producers; and trying new and diverse products made by food entrepreneurs.
New Morning was founded in 1971 by a group of 20 people interested in supplying healthy food and wellness items to their community (which is located about 40 miles southwest of Hartford, CT). Pittari purchased the business outright in 1981 and has been the sole owner ever since.
The store has expanded four times since it first opened. The current location has 12,000 square feet — a big change from the 4,000 square foot building it occupied previously. The new facility has given New Morning significantly more room for a grocery section, full-service butcher, bulk foods, prepared food counter, beverage bar with items such as coffee and fresh juice, nutritional supplements, wellness products such as yoga mats, and crafts made by community-based artisans. “We offer just about anything you’d want in a healthy, sustainable lifestyle,” says Pittari.
Produce has always been an important part of the store. The department now totals 1,000 square feet. It has 52 linear feet of refrigerated cases and several dry tables, which are sometimes stacked with packing crates, bushel baskets, woven baskets and other display pieces. Produce accounts for 16 percent of the store’s total sales.
Most fruits and vegetables are organic, although Pittari makes exceptions if it means procuring quality products from local farms. The store’s apple program provides a good example of this. “We’ve had local apples from a farm that has integrated pest management, but isn’t organic,” he says. “We made it very clear these apples are not organic. We keep records about what they were sprayed with and when. Our competitive differentiation is that our customer has great confidence in what the produce is and how it was grown and handled. We’re very strict about labeling and identifying exactly where things come from.”
Products from local farms have house-made laminated signs that show a picture of the farmer or his crop, and share part of their story. Non-local products are identified and priced with polymer signs.
Produce purchasing is done by the department manager and an assistant. “We’re always developing our people,” says Pittari. “We have somebody next in line who is participating in certain orders and on certain days.”
Pittari’s team sources fruits, vegetables and herbs from regional farms whenever possible. Items that aren’t grown locally or are out of season are supplied by three regional and national distributors, including Albert’s Organics, located in Logan Township, NJ.
Buyers new to farm-direct sourcing often find it challenging to locate growers reliable enough to supply them on a regular basis, but Pittari says New Morning has gotten high profile enough that growers often approach them. “I’m on the board of the Connecticut Northeast Organic Farming Association, and they keep a directory of farms,” he adds. “We go through it and see who’s in our area. We’ve found people that way.”
Not every farm comes prepared to be a good partner. “Someone might be able to sell these cracked tomatoes very well at their farm stand, but in a retail environment, tomatoes with cracks in them may not be purchased,” says Pittari. “It takes a while to work with the growers.”
Once they develop good relationships with farmers, they work to nurture and expand them. “This time of year, after the holidays, we’re sitting down with growers and saying, ‘This is working really well for us, can you do more of it? We have a gap here, can anyone get us fresh scallions year-round?’” says Pittari.
In addition to fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, produce has a cut vegetable program with spiralized carrots, beets and squash — something the store did long before it was trendy. “We make them every day with a hand spiralizer,” says Pittari. “It makes a wonderful presentation.”
The department carries supplies and equipment for sprouting alfalfa and bean sprouts, and for pickling and canning vegetables. It’s hoping to add another refrigerator case so tie-in products such as sauerkraut and lacto-fermented vegetables can be relocated.
Produce is home to a small floral department that sells cut flowers, mums and other potted plants, and wreaths and cut branches in season. The department also acts as the store’s garden section. “It’s something that grew slowly and over time,” says Pittari. “We commissioned one of our local produce vendors to grow vegetable and herb starter plants. We sell tens of thousands of them. Many of our customers really want to grow their gardens organically, so we have all the amendments, including compost and fertilizer.” Seeds are another huge seller.
Gardening items are only available seasonally, but Pittari says it’s something his staff looks forward to every year. “It really boosts our sales, and customers really enjoy it. It ties into our philosophy that we want everybody to be growing food because that’s the most resilient and sustainable way to live.”
Produce does some cross-merchandising with other departments. For example, the staff will place Buffalo mozzarella from the cheese counter next to the tomatoes in the summer. Pittari says the more important tactics for increasing sales are demoing and educating customers about organic produce. Some of that teaching is done in the department, where staff will talk customers through how to peel and cook a squash or why an organic pear will never look as beautiful as a conventionally raised one. Some of it is done more formally through instructional seminars in a second-floor conference room.
“Our main model for the community room was to bring in professionals from outside the store to do presentations or education,” says Pittari. “Right now, we’re working on an in-house cooking class curriculum where we focus on basic cooking skills and the nuances that you have when dealing with organics and foods that don’t have preservatives and a lot of salt and sugar.”
Notably, New Morning isn’t planning to refer to these events as classes. “With our younger customers, talking about education and teaching is a turnoff,” he says. “They’re much more empowered. They’re in control; they do the research. So we talk now in terms of sharing. We’re sharing and suggesting, not teaching. We’ve banned the word going forward.”
Thirty-six years after going whole hog into the natural food business, Pittari has no regrets. “The reason I’m even doing this is I wanted to have a livelihood that was going to have a positive impact on the community and our local land,” he says. “I really am greatly encouraged that our mission is becoming more and more evident and tangible. I can see New Morning’s fingerprints on positive things that have happened in our local food economy and community.
New Morning Market
129 Main St., N.
Woodbury, CT 06798
P: (203) 263-4868
Hours: Sun – Sat 8 am – 8 pm