The produce team at Tops Friendly Markets, led by Steve Wright, center, works under a simple mantra: "Fresh Stars Here."
The produce team at Tops Friendly Markets, led by Steve Wright, center, works under a simple mantra: "Fresh Stars Here."

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When Steve Wright took over as director of produce for Tops Friendly Markets three years ago, he went to his team with a simple message.

“Fresh. Starts. Here,” Wright says, as we toured a recently remodeled Tops just outside Buffalo near Niagara Falls. “That was really a reminder not only to myself but everyone in my company — that it was going to be the dawn of a new era, and we were going to establish ourselves as a best-in-class retailer who operated well in produce.”

Under Netherlands-based Ahold’s centralized buying and merchandising, Tops had lost its sense of identity in some ways, Wright says.

“Really, when they broke away from Royal Ahold, it was an opportunity to go back to the roots of being a store of the community,” he says. “We’re really engaged in our community and doing things to be part of our culture.”

And that “store of the community” attitude is reflected in produce as well, Wright says.

“You can look at anything down to individual merchandising in stores,” he says.

Produce managers are encouraged to tailor departments to match their community’s needs. The Grand Island store has a higher percentage of organic shoppers, so it featured a wider selection of organic produce in a separate section. This is something you might not see in another Tops in the area, Wright says.

“I really preach that our guys should understand our mission, but there’s many ways for our mission to be accomplished,” he says.

That mission? Sell more produce.

“I like to keep things extremely basic, whether it be our in-store merchandising team, outside field specialists or our produce managers themselves,” he says. “We’re going to grow sales and drive units. A lot of people get caught up in percentages, but I’m not a percentage kind of guy.”

That’s the Tops produce business strategy — keeping it simple.

“Sure, there are things I have to do to keep it heading in the right direction — I’m not ignoring efficiencies and key metrics,” he says. “But it’s pure aggression. When you drive sales and drive units and drive market share, you’re putting more fruits and vegetables in carts, and that’s what I want all of our stores and all of our teams to be focusing on.”

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Wright, who got his start in the industry 31 years ago as many do — bagging groceries — credits an early mentor as a key influence in his career and the way he shapes his produce team.

“My biggest influence in the business was Marvin Damrauer, former vice president of produce at Seaway Foodtown,” he says. “Marv took me under his wing and taught me the business. He was tough as nails, but fair.”

Hard work and an aggressive approach were Damrauer signatures.

“He was in his 70s when I started working with him, and nobody was going to outwork him,” Wright says. “His tenacity and attention for detail made me a better person — better than I ever dreamed I could be. He’s been one of the most influential people not only in the business, but in my life.”

Before joining Tops, Wright was with Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spartan Stores Inc., where he held positions in produce sales, procurement and category management.

“I was working mostly in wholesale, and I missed the retail end of it,” he says. “This was like coming back to my roots. I was addicted to the pace, the people. I’ve spent 31 years in the business, but don’t feel like I’ve worked a day in my life. That’s the neat part of it — when you truly do something you enjoy, it’s not work.”

Tops, with its recently acquired Penn Traffic and Grand Union stores, as well as a new upscale test format in Orchard Fresh, is in an aggressive growth pattern. Wright says the retailer has nearly doubled in size during the past few years since he joined the company.

And Tops is a chameleon when it comes to competition.

“We’re a high-low operator as far as price strategy,” he says. “Our two biggest competitors are everyday-low-price operators.”

On a drive through the Buffalo area, I saw Tops stores head-to-head with everyone from Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans to Battavia, Ill.-based deep discounter Aldi Inc.

“We have all different size footprints,” Wright says. “What you’ll see in Tops is a great range. We don’t really have a one-size-fits-all format. That really encourages our store teams to be their own entrepreneurs, and that comes from our company president and chief executive officer, Frank Curci.”

In produce, Tops works to differentiate itself through strong vendor relationships and innovative programs.

In-store, that means produce is up front, and consumers find something they’d not see elsewhere.

“We’re really focused on freshness right as you walk in the store. We hit them right off the bat with what we call a ‘Hot Spot,’” Wright says. “This is our best price points and our unique items.”

In late August, it was an exclusive deal with Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros.’ Sweet Celebration grapes.

Wright is aggressive in his ad strategy as well. In any given week, you will find Tops really pushing produce. A recent example included a 10 items for $10, with the 11th item free, where consumers could mix or match more than 20 different items, from bagged salads to bulk artichokes and even mini bananas.

“This was a great program for us,” Wright says. “It’s what I’m all about — if I can get $10 in people’s carts, it’s a great example of being all about driving consumption. We’re really not afraid to try new things.”

Tom Brown, vice president of sales for Savage, Md.-based East Coast Fresh Cuts, says he noticed a shift at Tops shortly after Wright joined the company.

“I was amazed at the changes I saw in merchandising strategy and presentation,” Brown says. “The produce department was fresh, appealing and screaming value throughout. There are a lot of great people on the produce team at Tops, and a great leader can make great things happen. Steve is a great leader.”

Wright always wants to drive volume along with dollars, and he does it through engaging his vendor partners, says John Caragliano, regional manager for Chiquita Brands International Inc.

“Steve and his team constantly strive to perform at the highest level by driving quality and value to their customers,” he says. “This commitment to quality and value proposition resonates throughout the entire produce department.”

Wright says his key to building effective programs centers more on increasing sales than anything else.

“In vendor relationships, you should take the price equation out of it,” he says. “You’re really deciding how you can make a pie bigger, rather than dividing up a pie even more, which is the negotiations and contracts. I’d rather us use the creative energy our companies have about doing things together.”

The results of Wright’s hard work are evident, says Donna Burns, owner of Buffalo-based Chesapeake North Group LLC.

“His ‘nose to the grindstone’ approach has only increased sales and profit margins consistently every year since his hiring three years ago,” she says.

Look for more innovation and a fresher image from Tops as the company works its way through the chain, upgrading and modernizing. The Grand Island store is one of about 30 of the retailer’s locations to have been revamped with premium flooring, dark wood cases and enhanced lighting.

“This is another case where we’re emphasizing ‘Fresh Starts Here,’” Wright says. “You see the freshness, with bulk vegetables first, bulk fruit facing forward, with bags in the back.”

“I think produce is sexy, it’s beautiful, it’s good for you, and it’s a great story that needs to be told.”