Market is a food lover’s playground in Portland, OR.Originally printed in the January 2024 issue of Produce Business.
One apple led Josh Alsberg into a career in produce 20 years ago. The same variety also provided his concept and niche when opening Rubinette Produce Market in 2016, in Portland, OR.
In 2003, only four months into his first produce job as a produce floor supervisor at New Seasons Market, now a 20-store chain in Portland, Alsberg’s manager asked him to set up an apple-tasting display.
“I told him I wasn’t sure what to do, because I didn’t know any of the apples,” he says.
“He told me to taste them, write a description, and sign the display next to each variety. So, I went through all these apples. At the end, there was one lone box left. It said Rubinette on the side. I cut it, tried it, and had this epiphany. It took me back to the apples I ate as a kid on family visits to the U-pick orchard near Chicago where I grew up. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to bring produce from the farm to the people,” he continues.
“Even if it was a shy little apple like the Rubinette — which has a lot of problems to grow and makes it unpopular with many growers, but is a combination is two of the best-tasting apples: Cox’s Orange Pippin and Golden Delicious.”
Rubinette Market is the produce vendor in Providore Fine Foods, a self-described “food lover’s playground” that is set up like a European-style market of shops within a shop.
The six-retailer complex is an outgrowth of Pastaworks, the anchor purveyor that sells its house-made pasta and other items, plus a Mediterranean chicken rotisserie, butcher, seafood company, bakery and florist, in addition to the Rubinette Produce Market.
High ceilings held up by Douglas fir beams and large glass windows are ambience-adding vestiges of this 1920s-built structure. It’s the perfect place for a farmers market-like setting to shop for fresh produce.
Vibrant displays of fresh fruits and vegetables are the first thing customers see when walking into the market. If it’s fall, there may well be a bountiful endcap of Rubinette apples front row center. Alsberg’s work at New Seasons and Portland’s Food Front Cooperative Grocery, before opening Rubinette, provided him with first-hand relationships with over 50 farms in the area.
“We like to tell folks that there’s a little discovery around every corner, whether that be ripe Hachiya persimmons, Rainier cherries, or purple Napa cabbage on the wet rack, or a slew of different radicchio varieties. In the fall and winter, we may have eight varieties of radicchio with different colors like reds, rose, pink and speckled,” he says.
“The Oregon State University Extension Service has a Culinary Breeding Network program where they help farmers look at winter-grown products that do well here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re in the 45th parallel, the same as Northern Italy, and we have rich clay and volcanic soils. As a result, there is a strong Brassica program there, which means we’re able to source diverse types of radicchio, for example, like Rosso di Treviso and Castelfranco locally,” says Alsberg.
LOCAL AND GLOBAL SUPPLIER NETWORK
Sourcing fresh produce starts with local farms, especially from June through early October.
“Everything is harvested, packed right on the farm, and delivered to us within a day or two. Some deliver farm direct once a week and others two to three times a week. In season, there are a good 15 to 20 local farms that we’re working with at any given time. Gathering Together Farm, Groundwork Organics, and Spring Hill Organic Farm to name a few,” says Alsberg.
“We’re constantly updating what we’re bringing in, who it’s coming from, and when it’s coming in, just to make sure we’re not over- or under-ordering. Logistics in the summertime can get a little messy at times, but thankfully I’ve great staff to help me negotiate it all.”
“What this means is that we can offer the ripest peach or Charentais melon, which has a sweet musky scent you can smell from 30 feet away. In August, I might have 50 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes being offered to me,” he adds.
“Essentially, we’re mirroring the farmers market. It’s probably our biggest competitor. But I don’t view them as such. When the farmers market isn’t open, we offer those same farms’ produce in our store and conveniently to our customers.”
Alsberg collaborates with wholesalers in the winter and for produce that doesn’t grow in the Pacific Northwest to maintain a variety of offerings. One is Organically Grown Company in Portland, which offers almost all organically grown produce, from local growers as well as those with growers in California, Mexico and throughout the world.
Avocados, citrus and bananas come this way.
The Pacific Coast Fruit Company, a predominantly conventional wholesaler, is a secondary supplier that works locally and globally, and also sources specialty items such as fresh garbanzo beans. A third wholesaler is the United Salad Co.
Alsberg says he selects his suppliers by those that are aligned with Rubinette’s local and organic mission and support local farms when possible.
A PRODUCE LOVER’S PLAYGROUND
A seasonal and ever-changing bounty of some 1,500 SKUs annually is displayed in the market’s 500 square feet of retail space. Locally made salad dressings, fresh-pressed juices, local honey, foraged wild and fresh mushrooms, ramps and local chestnuts in season, huckleberry jam, and dried Hoshigaki persimmons are among the SKUs, in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Along the east wall is a 26-foot Hussmann D-5 multi-deck open refrigerated case. The footprints for each item are small to offer variety and only enough that will sell in two to three days for freshness.
A 9-by-12-foot cooler in the back room holds additional products. In-house value-added produce is displayed in the refrigerated case as well. It’s not pre-purchased, but made in-house in what Alsberg calls the retailer’s robust pack and prep program.
“Instead of getting the precut salad mix, we bring in salad fixings from the farms and they deliver it in 5- or 10-pound bags. We’ve got folks in the back that take that salad mix and fill up zip-top plastic bags with 6 or 7 ounces. Theoretically, a plastic bag can be reused, unlike a one-and-done clamshell,” he says.
“In the winter, we’ll do a chicory mix. We also do a bulk arugula, bulk spinach, a spicy mix, whatever the farms have that we think will do well, we’ll bring it in a package it up. It’s not a cookie-cutter program,” Alsberg explains. “We’ll also pack green beans. We do a lot of herbs too, and instead of clamshells, we either bundle the herbs ourselves, or pack the more delicate herbs like basil, oregano, marjoram and tarragon in the plastic bags.”
Freestanding woodgrain displays, wicker baskets, and wood barrels offer non-refrigerated produce for sale.
“We don’t do any traditional advertising or promotion,” says Alsberg. “However, several years ago my wife, who has worked in food and wine public relations, saw an opportunity for us to get a gig at one of the local TV stations. It’s literally right across from the store. So once every four or five weeks, I go to their morning show and we talk about what’s seasonal, how to pick it at the market, and what to do with it. I don’t give recipes, but instead tips. Like chicory is less bitter when you soak it in icy salt water.”
One of Alsberg’s produce employees has taken over the social media role for the retailer, posting eye-catching photos, videos, and information about specific produce and the farms on which it’s grown, which is eliciting a lot of customer engagement.
In the community, Alsberg’s 8-year-old son led him to initiate produce taste tests at the local elementary school in hopes of cultivating the students’ love of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The first was with apples in the fall, called the Great Apple Taste Test, with six Pink Lady, Braeburn and Rubinettes among the mix. The sampling was so popular that Alsberg repeats it annually.
This year, he added a red-fleshed apple variety called Mountain Rose that’s unique in the area. Students vote for their favorites, adding math skills to the lesson. This in-class demo is always right before Rubinette’s big Apple Festival, where students are invited to bring their parents and taste 24 or more varieties such as Ashmead’s Kernel, Ribston Pippin and Pink Pearl apples, as well as foods from other retailers in the Providore Fine Foods complex.
It’s easy to see, with this description of Rubinette Produce Market and Alsberg’s initiatives such as his Great Apple Taste Test with students, why he was named one of 15 Retail Award Winners in 2023 by the International Fresh Produce Association.