Getting Fresh | NACS Online – Magazine – Past Issues – 2014 – June 2014
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Getting Fresh

How one North Carolina retailer has found success — and a healthier life — with fresh produce.

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​By Sarah Hamaker

For most convenience stores, cigarettes, beer, packaged beverages and foodservice rank as best sellers. But at Mark’s Food Market in Greenville, North Carolina, one of the biggest draws has nothing to do with tobacco, alcohol or packaged goods — it’s fresh fruit.

At Mark’s Food Market, fruit outsells potato chips and candy. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done for my business, for my customers and for myself,” said owner David Rizek, who has been in the convenience store industry for three decades.

A Fresh Idea
For years, Rizek chugged along with the same merchandise. Then a few years ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Pitt County, where Mark’s Food Market is located, a Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant.The county decided to use the funds to transform its food deserts into areas with healthy, affordable food.

Working with the county, students from nearby East Carolina University stopped by Rizek’s store for a healthy food evaluation. “They came in looking for healthy foods like bread, canned goods and milk, but what I showed them wasn’t good enough,” he explained.

The students contacted Pitt County to see if Mark’s Food Stores would qualify for a pilot program to stock fresh produce. “A county official asked me if I wanted to try fresh fruit because of my location near a mobile home park and the university,” said Rizek. Because no customer had asked for fresh produce before, he wasn’t keen on spending $5,200 on a cooler for fruit he wasn’t sure would sell. Pitt County offered to buy the cooler and changed Rizek’s mind.

“We went with the easy stuff like oranges and bananas first,” he said. Within a month, he added pears, grapes and apples. Now, he stocks two kinds of apples, three types of grapes, pears, oranges and bananas, as well as strawberries and other fruits in season.

A Fresh Stock
For many convenience stores a big hurdle to adding fresh produce is where to get it and how to display it. Rizek sources fruit from a variety of places, using a local supplier during the local growing season, Sam’s Club during the winter months and local farmers during the summer.

Today, the volume of fruit sold at Mark’s Food Market means produce is delivered three times a week. “I want to keep it fresh, so I only buy as much as I can sell before the next delivery,” said Rizek.

In the beginning, he bought a scale and customers had to weigh produce by the pound. That didn’t last too long because “customers kept asking, ‘How much for an apple?’ or ‘How much for an orange?’ I had forgotten that this was a convenience store, not a grocery store,” he said.

Rizek quick.ly jettisoned the scale and purchased clear plastic containers with lids to pack.age and price the produce separate.ly. Now customers quickly grab a package contain.ing two apples or a bunch of grapes, for example. “The plastic containers are cheap — I pay $3 for 100 trays — and having the fruit pre-packaged has increased sales,” he said.

As word of the fresh fruit spread, customers began flocking to his store. Given the success with fruit, Pitt County’s Healthy Store Initiative also bought Rizek’s store a wooden stand for potatoes, onions and tomatoes, and he added lettuce and peppers to his cooler.

A Fresh Revolution
With the closest grocery store about two miles away, Rizek says he’s filling a need he never knew existed until the students’ survey pointed it out three years ago. “It’s been extremely profitable for us — my profit margin for fresh fruit is between 30% and 35% on average,” he said.

The fresh produce also creates a ton of good will from his customers, as students and other locals have thanked him for stocking it. “A lot of people have start.ed coming into my store to buy fresh fruit,” he said.

As a result, Rizek has become a strong believer in the power of produce to change people’s lives. He himself has lost about 20 pounds because he’s re.placed snacking on chips with apples, bananas and grapes. “Health is very important to us all, and we retailers need to help our towns and our communities to stay healthy,” he emphasized.

Sarah Hamaker is a NACS Magazine contributing writer. Visit her online at www.sarahhamaker.com.