The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
Consider the Ohio peach, all plump and rosy, glistening on your Heinen’s shelf.
When you do, your thoughts well may turn to pleasures like pies, cobblers or even the sweet sensation of peach juice dribbling down your chin.
But did you ever think about how that peach – or those local green beans, or that Ohio cucumber — got to Heinen’s in the first place? It’s not as easy as you might imagine.
Happily, the men responsible for the annual debut of locally grown produce at Heinen’s are among the most experienced, enthusiastic and committed produce buyers in the industry.
Take Mario Grazia, a 38-year veteran of Heinen’s who started out at the company while in high school. It was only natural, of course: Mario’s father was Heinen’s director of produce at the time. “My dad encouraged all his kids to work here,” Mario recalls. “At first, it was just a job, but when I saw what a great company it was, and realized Heinen’s commitment to quality, I knew it was the right fit for me.”
Grant Werner, Mario’s co-worker, also launched his career “pushing carts and ringing registers,” in a grocery store while in high school. Now, 13 years later, he calls working as a Heinen’s produce buyer “addictive,” thanks to the thrill of meeting its constant challenges and responding to its rapidly changing circumstances. “I started out in the produce field almost by accident,” he says. “But now I am very passionate about the work I do.”
Such passion is vital, Grant explains, because purchasing the best local produce for Heinen’s customers is as much a lifestyle as a job. The men are responsible for more than 150 local growers over the course of a season, many of whom provide Heinen’s with more than one product. Not only do Grant and Mario help recruit farmers who share Heinen’s high standards of quality (higher standards, in fact, than the USDA’s), they also work extremely closely with those farmers in terms of developing best practices: pouring over heirloom-seed catalogs with them to choose new products, for instance, or taking their calls in the middle of dinner to respond to their concerns.
“We have a passion not only to find the right farmer who aligns with Heinen’s standards, but we also have a passion to find the best produce, the best quality and the newest products for our customers,” says Mario. “We get comments all the time about how long our produce lasts in the refrigerator. That’s one of the beauties of local produce: It doesn’t spend four days on truck before it gets here!”
Another challenge for a produce buyer is keeping shelves stocked in the face of the vagaries of farming. “We are continually trying to find new avenues outside our regular supply channels,” says Grant, “because something will always go wrong: rain, blizzards, hail damage, extreme heat or cold, or insect problems. So we have partnerships with other vendors in and outside the local area who we can call to help make up for any shortages. They have to adhere to the same high quality standards, of course. But we make those kind of calls daily – to ensure that there is always product to choose from, even in the most difficult circumstances.”
It all boils down to relationships, the men say. “Knowing our sources is a huge deal,” Mario tells us. “We spend a lot of time on that, and it is a continual process. We want the suppliers who really care about quality, who take care of their land and the earth. In return, they know we genuinely care about their ability to make money. We want the very best they can grow, not the cheapest, and the farmers respect that. Tom and Jeff Heinen have always told us to pay for the best, and that’s what we do. We treat our vendors and growers as part of our family.”
Ultimately, though, both men will tell you, the proof of their success is in the eating. “It’s really all about the taste,” says Mario. “When we are in the right part of the season and the Ohio produce eats fantastic, I get really excited. When it starts to fly out of our warehouse, and the customers are loving it, it’s very gratifying.”
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” adds Grant. “It’s like, ‘Oh man, game on!’”