Founded in 1916 as a small family grocer, Wegmans has grown into a $4.8 billion company with 75 stores spread across the mid-Atlantic. Wegmans has long worked with local growers to provide fresh, locally grown produce to its shoppers. And in 2007, the company started an organic research farm, experimenting and learning about organic produce, and sharing their findings with their network of farmers. Dave Corsi, VP of produce for Wegmans, talks about how the company helps consumers embrace better food.
Fast Company: What's your definition of sustainable food?
Dave Corsi: Utilization of any resource to its optimum. Looking at any element at Wegmans and taking advantage of its potential, whether it's a natural resource, energy, or food. Utilizing those to their full potential with the least amount of waste in that particular item or process.
FC: How do we move sustainable food into the mainstream?
DC: I really believe that most consumers understand the fact that consuming healthier food will be beneficial. But the challenge is, they're not aware how to prepare these items, or they're intimidated by items they've never had in their diet before. We're focusing on cooking greens right now. Beet greens, dandelion greens—they can be great items full of flavor, if customers had more knowledge about how to prepare them. We have our Menu Magazine that comes out seasonally, which provides a lot of these solutions—recipes, techniques, ways to provide more and healthier selections. We believe teaching them how to prepare these foods differently will teach them to keep these items in their diet.
FC: Wegmans started an organic research farm in 2007—what attracted the company to the idea?
DC: We've been working with local growers for decades, supplying produce, local fruits and vegetables to our stores on a daily basis during peak season. We have over 500 local growers in our community, and we have a great source of local produce available to us in our 75 locations. Problem is, we have a very limited availability of organic produce from a local source. Our approach was, rather than have a small grower take a risk and attempt to grow organic produce in the northeast, which can be very difficult, why don't we make the investment and experiment with understanding the growing conditions in the northeast, choosing seeds that will provide great flavor, and understanding different growing techniques. Then we could create a learning center for our local grower community.
FC: How has it contributed to business, and affected what customers expect from the brand?
DC: Again, we provide a segment of the business that is a growing trend, and that happens to be the organic business. Whether it's produce, dairy, or the dry side of our business, we have good growth in organic and natural business. So we think by providing more local food, which has always been a trend for us, would be another solution for our customers to take advantage of. It continues to attract those customers.
FC: How can other large grocers get on a more defined path to sustainability?
DC: They have to know their consumer base and understand the demand. There's so much diversity in our markets these days, we need to know who our customers are and give them what they want. We have to give them not only what they are familiar with, but also explore other products that might not be a mainstream item. And in our case, that's unique vegetables and fruits.
FC: What has Wegmans learned from the research farm?
DC: That we can be successful in growing certain varieties of organic produce in the northeast. One of the techniques we explored last year was a hoop house. It's a metal frame with a plastic cover—a green house essentially—and we grew heirloom tomatoes and it was very successful. We expanded the growing season by having the hoop house, which was a major learning for us. And now we're exploring having these hoop houses for berries. We've got a summer berry hoop house and a fall berry hoop house, to extend the growing season with some of these varieties.
FC: What did you eat for breakfast today?
DC: A banana, orange juice, and a sausage and biscuit sandwich from Tim Horton's. And of course, coffee.
Read more of Eat-onomics, part of our Inspired Ethonomics series: