Big organic and sustainable produce section helps make ‘guests’ happy every day.
BY ELISSA ELAN
Fresh, organic produce is at the root of success for Roots Market, a two-store, independent, full-service supermarket concept located smack in the middle of Maryland’s Montgomery County. The company, in operation for nearly 20 years, opened its flagship store in the upscale neighborhood of Clarksville, MD, and the second one in Olney, another suburb near Washington, DC.
Roots was founded in 2000 by Jeff Kaufman, who started his retail career as an employee of Whole Foods, but was determined to create what he thought was a more personal experience for his customers, one that was more intimate, community-based, and catered to special dietary needs he thought other full-service grocery stores did not. From the beginning, Kaufman focused his attention on sourcing the stores with the best organic, sustainable and allergen-friendly products he could find, and he continues that trend today.
“Roots exists to serve the health and well-being of our local communities,” says Kaufman. “We do this by offering the cleanest, healthiest foods available, and by educating our customers to live a healthier lifestyle. But no matter what kinds of foods our guests enjoy, we are here to help guide them along their path. That is our mission.”
Evan Saulsbury, store leader for Roots in Olney, says owner Kaufman, a vegan, cares so deeply about the environment, animals and animal welfare, it is the main reason why he is more determined than ever to offer the most sustainable products grown or manufactured.
“Jeff has always envisioned a better way to do things; that is why he started this business,” says Saulsbury. “He 100 percent tries to spread the gospel of healthy eating and being environmentally responsible.”
For Kaufman and Roots, the terms non-GMO, fair trade, environmentally friendly and gluten-free, are more than just buzzwords. The staff members who run his stores are committed to practicing what they preach. They work hard to ensure the products on the shelves are, whenever possible, free of chemicals, preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, synthetic pesticides, corn syrup and trans fat. Roots also partners with the Non-GMO Project to help customers identify products quickly and easily; and the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to ensure the seafood it sells is raised, caught and sourced sustainably. Roots also encourages its customers to shop from a big selection of plant-based, vegan and vegetarian foods, both fresh and prepared.
In addition, the store runners make sure to place signage throughout the locations that feature bold callouts focusing on various diets and dietary concerns, such as Keto, Paleo, Whole 30 and gluten-free options. Saulsbury says the mission is to make things as easy as possible whenever possible. That is why each sign, or tag, on a shelf contains the following information: a picture of the item, the price and its place of origin, as well as a note about whether or not it is fair-trade certified.
“We want to get these items that people are looking for at eye level,” he says. “At the same time, we also try to let everyone know we support small local farms that make sure their employees are paid fairly. That said, our guests sometimes have to pay a little more to support that mission, but we are devoted to treating humans in the right way, and making sure they are paid livable wages.”
STAR OF THE SHOW
Saulsbury clearly acknowledges that produce is the star of the Roots show, noting each store’s square footage averages around 1,600 square feet and about one-quarter of that space — 400 square feet — is devoted to showcasing the fruits and vegetables on display in the produce departments. Furthermore, each unit also carries approximately 1,200 SKUs, with 300 to 350 of them devoted to produce each day.
“Honestly, the produce department is the face of each of our stores,” he says. “We even start displaying our items outside the front doors. We purposely place seasonal displays outdoors so our guests – we don’t call them customers – can immediately see what we have. For example, right now we are focusing on watermelon, obviously a popular item during the warmer months. And not only do we have watermelons outside the doors for our guests to see, but also plants, and seeds before they even walk through our doors. Then, when they do, they’re on display inside in abundance.”
Saulsbury also notes Roots purposely focuses on seasonality and working with as many local and organic farmers as it can. The reason? It’s good for the environment and for local businesses, plus the customers are savvier about food and are determined to know more about how and where the foods they purchase are grown and manufactured.
“Right now, of course, the main thing our guests are going to see are berries and melons,” he says. “In the fall, we’ll tend to focus on root vegetables, apples and apple ciders. The beauty of all of this is we know what people are going to look for, even if they don’t actually know it at the time. That’s why it is in everyone’s best interest that we place the items so they can find them instantly and don’t have to go looking for them. We believe in seasonality and affordability, or what’s on sale, first. Then we focus on our top-selling items, which traditionally are avocados and bananas.”
Saulsbury further notes during the summer months, each store typically generates between $35,000 and $40,000 per week in produce sales.
He says bananas are always popular because they’re inexpensive, flavorful and can be bought in any state, or varying levels of ripeness. Avocados, he says, are just a trendier food now, especially because of the perceived health benefits.
Julio Chica, Roots’ produce lead and buyer, says the brand’s focus on organic items reflects consumers’ desire for healthful and natural options, especially when it comes to the fruits and vegetables they purchase.
“If I had to guess, I would say that 99 percent of our produce is organic and the other 1 percent is seasonal or hydroponically grown,” he notes. “That is the cornerstone of our brand. For us, even though it is more mainstream and in the media a lot right now, we have always tried to provide as many organic items as possible. For us, it’s never been a trend; it’s really just what we have always done.”
UNENDING MARKETING OPPORTUNITIES
So how does Roots go about getting the word out about their offerings each day? The answer is a combination of social and traditional media methods.
“We do use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook,” notes Saulsbury, “but we also do a weekly email blast as well as some monthly ones, too. And if we’re planning some kind of crazy sale, we’ll promote those with flyers and other materials so we can educate everyone about what’s available.”
But the marketing opportunities do not stop there. In addition to writing and talking about the foods it sells, Roots is also all about showing off its merchandise to the public in appealing, accessible and interactive ways. For example, they’ve put a salad bar in the produce section so guests not only can sample the products, but also get new ideas on how to prepare and serve them.
When asked what sets Roots apart from its competitors in the segment — Mom’s Organic, The Fresh Market and even Whole Foods — Saulsbury asserts even though there is some overlap between all of the brands, it is the high standards the company sets for itself daily that he thinks make the biggest difference.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things, but most especially, it is our commitment to providing the cleanest foods possible and our ability to cater to so many different dietary needs,” he says. “Our guests have high standards, and they know we constantly try to meet those high standards. And even more importantly, it’s the way we treat our customers, our guests. We always strive to make them feel extra special, like making sure they receive excellent guest service, fair pricing and a wide selection of organic and environmentally responsible items every time they walk through our doors.”
He also says the company is always trying to “solicit the customers’ opinions on everything. We care about what they want and we want to be able to respond to their needs as quickly as possible.”
So what is in store for the two stores in the future? Produce lead Chica says he is hoping to incorporate even more local items into the mix. “I’d love to work with even more local farms, even though the pricing can sometimes be a bit tough. We want to figure out a way that benefits all of us — the customers, the farmers and our stores. Really, we just want to keep making our guests happy every day.”
5805 Clarksville Square Dr.
Clarksville, MD, 21029
Hours: Mon-Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
16800 Georgia Ave.
Olney, MD, 20832
Hours: Mon-Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.-8 p.m.