Originally printed in the June 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Specialty Chicago retailer is just big enough and small enough to fill a niche.
Sunset Foods in Highland Park, IL, prides itself on being small enough to know its customers but large enough to offer an exceptional selection at competitive prices. “We are a neighborhood supermarket dedicated to providing the finest customer service and food found anywhere,” says Vince Mastromauro, director of produce operations.
Founded in 1937 by four brothers of the Cortesi family, the store is still family-owned but has grown. The retailer has five locations (Highland Park, Lake Forest, Libertyville, Long Grove and Northbrook) employing approximately 900 employees.
Current managing directors are John E. Cortesi, Richard Cortesi and Ron Cizzon.
The store is located in a fairly affluent area and attracts a high-end clientele. “We have doctors and lawyers in our community,” says Mastromauro. “You might also find some Chicago Bulls or Bears players in our store.”
Mastromauro explains a key focus of the store revolves around customer service, which means a major emphasis on staffing, especially in produce. “We are committed to finding and training friendly, conscientious and knowledgeable staff,” he says. “This, in turn, helps us provide the best products in an attractive, fun-to-shop store.”
Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, Mastromauro reports the retail operation has continued business as usual with a few adjustments. “Our customers compliment us on all the items we have in stock,” he says. “Full shelves instill confidence. All five of our stores have remained fully stocked. It’s about good relationships and also about my guys paying attention to what’s moving and being on top of their orders.”
In fact, the stores have attracted new customers during the crisis. “We’ve seen a lot of different faces shopping our stores because our in-stock rate has been incredible in produce,” says Mastromauro. “Word gets around that we have everything and that it is good quality.”
The store’s commitment to excellence is showcased by its produce vibe. At the 32,000- square-foot Highland Park store, 7,000 square feet are dedicated to produce, which represents about 20% of store sales. “Our department may not be huge, but it packs a punch,” says Mastromauro. “We move quite a lot of produce.”
The store’s philosophy when it comes to produce is all about quality, variety and service. “It’s not about price, it’s about bringing in the best quality and best labels within each category,” says Mastromauro. “We carry Chiquita bananas, Driscoll berries and Del Monte pineapples. We have special programs with Driscoll, for example, to ensure our berry offerings.”
Mastromauro points to the start of cherry season to illustrate his single focus on [quality]. “I don’t mess around with cherry season,” he says. “As soon as it begins, I want the best cherries I can get. I don’t play the price game. I start the season large and finish the season large. It’s going to the best eating experience and flavor profile you can have.”
In addition to quality, variety plays a key role. “We have about 1,000 PLUs on our list that rotate seasonally, with about 500 on the floor daily,” says Mastromauro. “For example, in our apple display, a shopper will find 10 to 12 varieties of apples at any given time.”
Creating a Destination
Because the Highland Park store is older, the produce department is still situated in the back. However, Mastromauro and his team put in the effort to catch shoppers’ eyes with key seasonal displays at the store entrance and create a visual pull into the department.
As shoppers work their way back to produce, they are drawn in by an open, colorful and well-appointed area. Items are showcased on 12-foot Euro tables and island displays with seasonal vegetables and fruits up front. The area boasts a 24-foot wet rack that includes a separate section for organic items.
Department staff become artists when it comes to using the natural colors provided by produce. “How we use fruit and vegetable colors is important to our merchandising,” says Mastromauro. “We really use the color breaks with our main and secondary displays. As we’ve evolved, we’ve learned we can mix pears with apples and use the colors that way. It’s the same with peaches, nectarines and plums.”
Value-added items are a key sales area for the department. “We have a large selection of bagged salads,” says Mastromauro. “We do our own fresh-cut items in-house, including mixed melons, berries and other pre-cut vegetables. These are popular with our customers.”
The store’s mantra in sourcing is quality first. “My suppliers know exactly my expectations, and requirements are for premium product,” says Mastromauro.
Mastromauro reports sourcing product from an off-market wholesaler. He also uses the Chicago Market for some regular business as well as fill-ins. The store’s grower direct shipments, such as the Driscoll program, are worked through a wholesaler. “We place the order to be sourced directly with Driscoll but through the wholesaler,” he says. “It will be ear-marked for us when the wholesaler receives it.”
The store’s supply chain has remained virtually unchanged even through the COVID-19 challenges. “Before, after, during—it’s all about relationships,” says Mastromauro. “Our existing supply chain gave us the flexibility we needed during that time.”
The store put a premium on maintaining full shelves to instill shopper confidence, even with a shift in some buying patterns. “We saw a lot of movement in potatoes, onions, every type of carrot, leeks and root vegetables,” says Mastromauro. “People found comfort with those items. We noticed this shift starting the week before it got crazy. I was walking the Highland Park store and saw those items really moving and took note of it.”