How Barons Market Takes Local to Heart: A Q&A with Produce Ops Manager Greg Dunne
Local is a hot trend in produce departments, but the benefits double when it’s a local, family-owned business buying from local farmers to sell the product to consumers.
One of Southern California's independent grocers, Poway, Calif.-based Barons Market, and one of Progressive Grocer’s 2018 Outstanding Independents – VP Rachel Shemirani also is a Top Woman in Grocery this year – takes that local message to heart, with up to a quarter of the department sourcing product from local farmers.
Produce Operations Manager Greg Dunne and his team have spent years cultivating the relationships needed to supply the company’s seven independent grocery stores. Dunne is also on the receiving end of one of the advantages of working for a family-owned company: He’s preparing to leave soon to trek the Pacific Coast Trail, an endeavor that will take several months and has the full support of his “family” at Barons Market. I had a chance to chat with Dunne before he struck off into the wilderness.
Kat Martin: Describe what the Barons Market’s produce department is like.
Greg Dunne: We are definitely into local and organic. We have a larger-size organic section than any conventional stores, and we buy a lot of our seasonal stuff locally, whether it’s avocados or pomegranates. We have seven stores, and all of our produce managers basically are independent buyers. They have to run everything through me, but they’re all pretty much on their own. We have a produce meeting once a week. We discuss things like what’s coming in season, what’s going out of season, what fruit or vegetables are looking really good.
Martin: Do the farmers have to be able to supply enough products for all seven stores?
Dunne: Yes, and sometimes that can be difficult. We have Persian cucumbers that we buy direct. Since they can’t ship up to the North County because the farmer is in San Diego, then we drop them off at our Point Loma store, and then one of our Barons trucks takes them up to our other stores. We have our warehouse and our Barons trucks, and they deliver to the other stores when we’re buying locally, if the vendors can’t. Some vendors are so small they can’t deliver to all the stores.
Martin: How does Barons define local?
Dunne: We try to do it within 100 miles [excluding Mexico]. It’s usually less, but anything local is going to be California-grown.
Martin: Because you’re so focused on local, are there times where you’re willing to just not have a product and have to explain to your customers, “It’s out of season, we can’t get it?"
Dunne: If the product isn’t good or we can’t get it locally, yes, we’ll be out and then we’ll just get it back in, because we’re just focused on the quality and the service to the customer.
Martin: And customers are OK with that?
Dunne: They really are, for the most part. They really know Barons is looking out for them. We very seldom bring in any imports. We wait for the season to come in. For example, when peaches and nectarines go out of season here shortly, a lot of the big-box stores will bring in peaches and nectarines from Chile. We will not. We’ll just wait until the next season that starts in early spring.
Martin: I hear you’re getting ready to go on some crazy trek? How lucky are you that you can put your life on hold in order to do this? That’s got to be kind of exciting.
Dunne: I’ll tell you what – you’re so right. I’m so fortunate to be working with Barons. They would rather have us to say that we work with Barons than for Barons, because they’re just a great organization that takes care of their employees, and it’s a mutual relationship.
Martin: Not everybody would be able to take off three months to do this.
Dunne: No. You are so right, and I even felt a little sheepish, a little embarrassed, but Joe [Shemirani, owner] said, “You don’t worry, Greg. Your job’s here when you get back.” And I said, “Are you sure?” And he said, “You make sure you go, because we love you.” The feeling was mutual, and I said, “I’m going to make that trek as fast as I can, and I’ll be back.”
Martin: You’re lucky that you have talented people who work with you who can pick up the slack while you’re gone, as well.
Dunne: I really do. I’ve been doing produce since 1978 here in San Diego, and I’ve seen a lot of product managers. I know a lot of produce managers. And really, our staff is really, really awesome. It’s really an outstanding team. It really is. They love what they’re doing. They’re good at it. And they enjoy the company, and it is ... it sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but it is very true. We have almost zero turnover, so that tells you a little bit.