By Joe Taschler of the Journal Sentinel, May 20, 2014 –

Fresh sweet corn is hot.

So is just about every other fresh fruit and vegetable.

Grabbing hold of the trend in which consumers are watching everything they eat, Milwaukee-based grocer Roundy’s Inc. is building on a partnership begun last year with the Madison-based Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative to sell produce from local farms in the chain’s stores around the state.

While not entirely new, the trend of consumers increasingly asking for fresh, unprocessed foods shows no signs of slowing.

“It’s still something that is gathering momentum,” said Jim Hertel, managing partner at Willard Bishop, a retail consulting business based in northern Illinois. “They are not too late to the party by any stretch of the imagination.”

The trend is part of an overall lifestyle emphasis on personal health and environmental sustainability.

“It’s a broader-based trend of people participating or making decisions based on that,” Hertel said. “It is kind of a big deal.”

It’s a big enough deal that Steve Hoekstra, a third-generation farmer and one of the family owners of Hoekstra’s Sweet Corn LLC in Waupun, is expanding his business around it.

“My dad and I were talking and I said about the only way this business is going to grow is to get into grocery store chains,” Hoekstra said.

That led them to the farmer-owned Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative — and that has led to growth at Hoekstra’s Sweet Corn.

“We’re expanding, and I’m looking to expand even more,” Hoekstra said. “I’m fired up about it. I think it’s going to be great. We wanted to see this (Food Hub) fly, and we are dedicated to making it fly.”

The partnership with Roundy’s is designed to get food from farm to warehouse and on its way to grocery stores as quickly as 24 hours from when the produce is picked, said Ron Balsimo, sales manager for the cooperative.

“You can’t get any fresher unless you walked into a field and picked it yourself,” Balsimo said. “We work on that for most vegetables.”

The cooperative has grown to more than 100 members, “and they keep coming,” Balsimo said.

Growers in the organization grow “anything from A to Z,” Balsimo said.

That includes apples, berries, broccoli, cantaloupe, cauliflower, cherries, corn, garlic, green beans, nectarines, onions, peaches, peas, plums, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and watermelon, just to name some of the fresh produce grown by Food Hub members, Balsimo said.

“We have all the potatoes you could ever want,” he said. “We have all the onions you could ever want — all grown here in Wisconsin.”

These days, where something is grown is often as important to consumers as what is being grown.

“There are a lot of people who are convinced that the closer it’s grown, the fresher it is going to be,” Hertel said. “That perception is a pretty powerful one.”

Roundy’s said the program has been well received by customers as well as management at individual stores.

The company’s Pick ‘n Save chain, which is the market share leader in metro Milwaukee, uses point-of-purchase displays among other things to promote the program.

“Working with the Wisconsin Food Hub, Roundy’s and our customers know that the produce is 100% local from Wisconsin,” said James Hyland, vice president of investor relations for the grocery company.

All Roundy’s stores are participating in the program, Hyland said. In addition, the company’s produce team has met with growers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota to talk about the company’s emphasis on offering locally grown produce in its stores.

Roundy’s operates 166 grocery stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois under the Pick ‘n Save, Rainbow, Copps, Metro Market and Mariano’s retail banners. Of its banners, Pick ‘n Save is the company’s largest, with 93 stores.

Roundy’s and the Food Hub also are cognizant of market conditions affecting fresh fruits and vegetables, specifically the problems and potential problems brought on by extreme drought in California’s produce-growing regions. That likely means diminished supplies of produce coming out of California this year.

Having sources of local produce can help mitigate any potential supply issues.

There also is a demonstrated sales gain that comes from locally grown food programs in grocery stores, said Bill Justin, president of W.L. Justin & Assoc., a supermarket consulting company based in Atlanta.

“We find that you can actually increase the total store sales,” he said. “It’s a pretty tremendous impact.”

He has seen examples of such programs increasing sales by as much as 15% to 20% in the produce department.

“That’s big money in the supermarket business,” he said.