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Suppliers praise Gelson’s as a cut above

By
Tim Linden

The message is clear when talking to a handful of the produce suppliers that work with the 27-store Gelson’s Markets: the chain is extraordinary rather than ordinary, and providing the best possible produce and customer experience is operational not aspirational.

Patrick Lucy, vice president of sales for Del Rey Avocado Co., based in Fallbrook, CA, handles the Gelson’s Markets account for the Southern California avocado shipper. “We have a great relationship with Gelson’s especially with our California avocado program. They like to be the first in every season and the last to exit. That is a perfect match for our philosophy,” he said.

When the maturity of the fruit allows it, Del Rey likes to begin shipping in January, often giving its retail customers some fruit for the avocado promotions that are standard for Super Bowl weekend. At the end of the season, Del Rey represents the Morrow Bay avocado program from the central coast, which is the last region of the state to have fruit. “When we launched that program several years ago, Gelson’s was the first retailer to promote it. They are always looking for something different and are very easy to work with. The No. 1 thing for Gelson’s is quality. They demand the best and that works for us. They have promoted our Gem and Reed avocado varieties as well,” he said.

Lucy said Gelson’s buys both conventional and organic avocados and is always looking for the large sizes, such as 32s and 36s in conventional fruit and the 48s on the organics.

He believes Gelson’s and Del Rey are perfect partners as they each bring the concept of family to their produce teams. Gelson’s has many long-term employees and Lucy said that the Gelson’s buyer can always get hold of one of the owners of Del Rey 24/7.

“I take great pride in handling the Gelson’s account,” said Bill Lalliberte, owner and founder of WJL Distributors, based in Thousand Oaks, CA.  “They are exceptional people that want exceptional product, and we try to give them exceptional service.”

Lalliberte began working with Gelson’s in 1974 when it was a small chain with only a handful of stores owned by the Arden/Mayfair group.  “It was Ted Fuji (older brother of current Buyer Supervisor John Fuji) that turned their produce departments into something special. I worked with him for 40 years until he retired a few years ago. Gelson’s has always had excellent people and that continues today.”

He added that one of the strengths of the chain is the consistency of its buying team. They have all been there many years and know exactly what they want. “We take great pride in what we send them. When I come across some produce that is absolutely the best, I offer it to them first,” he said. “Gelson’s wants the best product and they are willing to pay for it.  It really is all about the people. They are passionate about what they do. Passion creates excellence and excellence creates results.”

WJL Distributors does a lot of apple, pear, cherry and berry business with the chain.

Peter Steinbrick, national sales manager of Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, based in Los Angeles, has been handling the Gelson’s account since he transferred from Melissa’s New Jersey office to the California headquarters more than two decades ago.  

“What sets Gelson’s apart is their commitment to the consumer, their commitment to excellence and their commitment to the best quality, assortment and innovation,” he said.

Steinbrick added that the “company culture is amazing from CEO Rob McDougall all the way down to everyone in the store.  They are all drinking the same Kool-Aid… and I mean that in a good way. Everyone gets it. They are great at execution, great at merchandising and great at the customer experience.”

He said that the two companies align very well as both have that family-run vibe and both appreciate being first to market with new products. “Pioneering is Gelson’s middle name. They always want to be first and best in class,” he said rattling off some items that the two companies have worked on together. “Harry’s Berries. Pink grapefruit. Jackfruit. There are so many different items that we have pioneered with them.”

Steinbrick added that Gelson’s is continually getting better with new ideas from the top that add to the chain’s excellence. He noted that McDougall came from the produce department, which can’t help but enhance that sector of the supermarket, and he said both Paul Kneeland and John Savidan have added their voices in recent years, which has also led to an improved department. “We have a unique relationship with Gelson’s and are proud to call them our partner. I don’t like using that word too often because it is over-used and under-appreciated,” he said. “But they are a synergistic partner of Melissa’s and very much a part of our fabric and foundation.”

The Giumarra Companies, a vertically integrated California agricultural organization, has been working with Gelson’s for more than 30 years. The list of products that the supplier sells to this niche retailer depends on what is in season and if the product is a good fit for Gelson’s, according to a company spokesperson. In recent history, Giumarra has supplied Gelson’s with Australian mangos, California peaches, Comice pears from Oregon, various varieties from their proprietary ARRA grape line, New Zealand Fuyu persimmons, Australian citrus, and their Santa Maria avocados grown in California.

“From serving as Giumarra’s flagship Australian mango retailer in Southern California, to being the test partner for our first autonomous plane delivery of fresh California peaches, Gelson’s always brings its ‘A’ game to consumers,” said John Corsaro, CEO of the Giumarra Cos. “It is exciting to work with a retail partner who is dedicated to bringing the newest, best products to its shopper base. This commitment to flavor, quality, and grocery innovation will help ensure the strength of our industry for generations to come.”

Corsaro continued: “Gelson’s helped pioneer our Australian mango program several years ago with in-store sampling, beautiful displays, and excellent customer service in its produce departments. Each year, the Gelson’s produce staff outdo themselves even more and have grown the mango program to now provide multiple varieties for their customers from October through March.”

Gelson’s has been a loyal and trusted partner of Oppy for years. “They’re always open to new ideas and to thinking outside the box which is refreshing,” said  Oppy’s Senior Business Development Representative Ambar Rodriguez. “This also means that our collaborations can be very effective because they know what their consumers want so well, and they’re able to articulate those needs exceptionally well.” 

Rodriguez said working with Gelson’s is always exciting because they’re constantly trying to outperform themselves, pushing toward improvement, even when things go well. “A great example of this is their work with Envy apples in 2016 — partnering closely with Oppy, they focused on Envy so wholeheartedly that became the No. 1 item in terms of top dollar sales in their entire store, not just in produce. Their experimental spirit and strategic approach allow us to collaborate creatively without merchandising confines,” she said.

She added that Gelson’s commitment to the local community is also unrivalled and is the undercurrent that drives all that they do. She relayed an experience Oppy recently had with an Envy apple promotion on Los Angeles radio with personality Ellen K. of The Ellen K Morning Show. The promotion raised funds for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“The promo was an incredible success at Gelson’s, which outperformed the market — a testament to their passion that is only matched by their effectiveness,” she said. “Some in the industry are keen on being first to take second, but Gelson’s is happy to charge into the unknown, and their results speak for themselves. They manage to succeed spectacularly while also prioritizing the health of their team and their consumers.

“Because of how seriously they’ve taken their approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, they’ve prioritized preserving aisle space to maintain social distancing, instead of erecting massive displays that may spur sales but take up far more space. The bottom line is that they are entirely consumer focused, which is a common value that binds our strong partnership together and makes the future of our collaboration incredibly exciting,” she said.

Photo: Gelson’s staff members with John Corsaro, CEO of  Giumarra Cos. (second from right).

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