At PCC Community Markets, the health of people and the planet are a priority, and quality organic produce is a great way to make that happen.
Originally printed in the August 2022 issue of Produce Business.
A sign atop a display offering bananas, plums and mangoes at PCC Community Markets reads ‘Kids Forage Freely. Have a Piece of Fruit or Vegetable on Us.’
A commitment to nourishing the communities it serves is one part of the Seattle, WA-headquartered retailer’s mission statement. The second half is to cultivate a vibrant, local, organic food system. The latter is something this largest consumer-owned food cooperative in the U.S., with 16 stores in Seattle and the larger Puget Sound area and over 100,000 active members, also excels. A much larger sign, one that spans the length of the refrigerated multideck case, depicts a farmer in a field with the words: ‘our produce selection is 95 percent organic, 100 percent of the time.’
“As a retailer, PCC thinks holistically about the product we carry. Not only do we want the best produce for our shoppers, but the best grown produce for the planet,” says Kevin Byers, senior produce merchandiser.
A COOPERATIVE HISTORY
PCC, originally called Puget Consumers Co-op, began as a food-buying club with 15 Seattle families in 1953. Founder John Affolter, who lived through the Great Depression as a young man and became committed to cooperative community efforts, found an ‘optimistic and idealistic’ vibe in post-World War II Seattle and started his food club in his basement.
PCC was renamed PCC Natural Markets in 1998, and then to its current name, PCC Community Markets, in 2017. What hasn’t changed over the last nearly 70 years, is the retailer’s efforts to focus on the health and well-being of its customers, communities and planet.
SOURCING ORGANIC PRODUCE
The produce department is a vital component of PCC. It’s the department customers see first when walking into the stores and it sets the tone for the retailer’s priority: cultivating vibrant local, organic food systems.
A good example is the nonrefrigerated displays. There are six to eight or more wood-built, naturally colored, modularly configured, stepped display units spaced over several yards. This planogram makes it easy for several customers to shop at once from all sides. Each display is fully stocked and color-blocked. For instance, there are vibrantly colored avocados, tomatoes, garlic, lemon and limes in one; the greens, oranges and yellows of a hard squash selection in another; and the earth tones of a variety of potatoes and onions in a different display. A sign atop this last display reads: ‘We partner with more than 40 Northwest farmers.’
PCC works with a variety of produce suppliers, both wholesale and local farmers, primarily located in the Pacific Northwest. All fresh fruits and vegetables, like other products the retailer sells, must adhere to a Product Sustainability Standard. In the case of produce, this means a priority for certified organic, in-season, locally grown produce, so long as it is commercially available and not cost-prohibitive for customers, balanced with staples offered year-round from reputable organic and non-GMO producers.
PCC also favors soil-grown produce. Thus, the standard encourages hydroponic growers to be transparent about their production methods via labeling on the shelf to inform customers of how the product is grown. Produce vendors need to comply, too, with PCC’s packaging standard, which encourages them to reduce the use of plastic bags, clamshells and netting. All products must be approved before hitting the store’s shelves.
“Store produce managers have a lot of autonomy. We really want them to ‘own’ their business: They take care of the day-to-day buying for their departments, based on the items that have been approved,” says Byers.
The retailer doesn’t have a distribution center, but works with a few wholesalers and dozens of local growers. It supports seasonal products “heavily,” he adds, and leans into the local season and local growers.
“When it comes to imports, it is a balance. We are 95% organic 100% of the time, so this puts guardrails on what we may carry. We blend unique items, with everyday staples to achieve this goal,” says Byers.
SHOPPERS WILLING TO EXPERIMENT
PCC’s SKU list ebbs and flows during the year. In the summer, stores carry roughly 700 different items, with local products accounting for roughly 70% to 80% of sales. In the winter, produce SKUs average 500.
“Variety is an area where we have also really separated ourselves from our competition. We pride ourselves on not just the quality of the product on our shelves, but how many different products we carry, and the fact that we hold high organic standards,” says Byers.
While nutrition is and has been a big selling point for many PCC members and shoppers, Byers adds he’s now seeing more demand for products that pop on the plate, taste great and are unique. “Our shoppers are curious as ever and willing to try new things. They want to know more about what they are buying. We are calling out more varietal names than ever and bringing in as many unique offerings as we can find. Tropical fruit, like jackfruit and rambutan, purple snap peas, mixed sweet peppers, purple sprouting broccoli, and wild-harvested items like nettles and fiddlehead ferns are some of the more unique items that we are selling successfully now when in the past we could not.”
“The number of new apples on the market now is incredible,” Byers adds. “Driven again by flavor, club apples have pushed out old stalwarts like the Red and Golden Delicious, but we have also found a customer base looking for more unique heirloom varieties as well. The department has pivoted with the customer base, it has become more diverse, dynamic, and fast-paced as ever.”
Produce deliveries arrive seven days a week to PCC stores.
“This means we are always turning our product on the shelf. I talk to all our vendors, growers, shippers, and stores daily to keep updated on products, as well as tour fields, coolers and stores to see our product firsthand to ensure we are keeping up the standards our customers expect,” says Byers.
“We have a food safety manager on our operations team that supports all our stores, who also works closely with our buyers. Each PCC location has multiple staff members who have gone through advanced food safety training to receive food safety manager certification. We believe that food safety and quality control live across the entire organization,” says Bridget Milligan, food safety manager.
The co-op promotes its produce through emails to members, updates on its website, and through social channels. PCC also publishes the Sound Consumer, a bi-monthly newspaper available in stores and online that tells in-depth stories about growers, as well as relevant issues connected to organics and agriculture. In addition, Byers says, it offers members special offers throughout the year that include offers for free produce.
The retailer also uses mainstream social media channels to connect to customers. A good example is Instagram, where produce is highlighted in multiple ways from recipes to a focus on local producers and products.
“We are accountable to our members and our community, not to private investors or Wall Street,” says Byers. “Because of our 100,000-plus membership, we can provide fresh and flavorful food to our customers. At the same time, we are working toward a socially and environmentally responsible food system for everyone. Everyone is welcome to shop the co-op and we work to ensure that everyone who walks through our doors has a positive experience.”
PCC Community Markets
3131 Elliott Avenue, Suite 500, Seattle, WA 98121
Operates 16 stores in Seattle and the Puget Sound area in Washington State.