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Built to Thrive

I believe there is a reason why so many people spend their entire lives in our industry. Maybe you need to be bred with a specific gene, or perhaps it is as subtle and soulful as finding ways to live closer to the Earth. The origin story for each person is different, but I do believe those who find their way to it discover the path instinctually.

“I can remember that moment very clearly—when I first ‘dipped my toe’ in the produce waters,” Jay Schneider, Produce Director for ACME Markets, smiles and tells me, reminiscing on the slight tug that pulled him in this industry’s direction.

Jay’s path started back in the mid-80s, working on the night crew stocking shelves at an ACME Markets store in Bordentown, New Jersey. The Store Manager came to him one morning when he was about to leave and said, “Hey Jay, I have an opening in produce for the 4 a.m. shift setup.” Something told Jay to jump at the opportunity, and he did.

“I truly believe that there is nothing more rewarding than working in this industry,” Jay expresses. “You build so many relationships and make bonds that are unlike those in any other sector. The sense of urgency, accessibility, seasonality, and passion you experience in this business is amazing.”

After working for four years as Produce Manager, Jay worked his way to a role as an Imported Field Buying inspector, and from there he became a Produce and Floral Field Specialist in store operations for three years. Jump forward another handful of years and Jay became an Assistant to the Director of Produce, where he spent a decade learning the ropes. Now, Jay has settled into his role as Director of Produce, which he has called home for the past 10 years.

Among the many reasons that Jay is drawn to the fresh produce industry is one of the most dynamic and his favorite: You must make fast-paced, quick, and nimble decisions with short timelines and any number of roadblocks in your way.

“I enjoy the many unknowns in produce that challenge us daily. From the timing of a crop start versus the previous year to freezes, rain, heat, crop yield, market cost variations…Call me crazy, but I live for it,” he laughs. “Even when it is a reckoning.”

Making those gut business decisions that are transparent to everyone holds Jay accountable and helps him grow and see the bigger picture.

“One saying I use around the office when those forceful weather events happen is, ‘We are not selling Tide or Cheerios, that would be too easy,’” he divulges with a smile. “In addition, I am attracted to the constant change and evolution of products and consumer trends. The fact that we are in the healthy eating sector of retail is very rewarding and a difference-maker for me personally. Our suppliers truly help us deal with this balance. It is a collaboration we can all benefit from."

This is why ACME’s supplier partnerships are so important to Jay.

“The table can be a meeting of the minds to build a future, not just a place to negotiate,” he suggests. “All of this is a small sampling of how different generations—specifically millennials and later Gen Xers—are shaping the changes in the industry. It forces everyone to look at his or her business and embrace a different approach to a new, and now better-connected, consumer.”

At ACME, in a decentralized environment, Jay has the ability to meet with suppliers and plan out their business strategies. It is important to him that they understand the “ins and outs” about how and why ACME chooses and sells the suppliers’ products. Jay finds it essential to look ahead at any opportunities ACME can potentially partner with suppliers on in adverse and advantageous market conditions.

Ideologies around food change constantly, and sometimes that is the only guarantee our industry has. It makes sense to me to have an open dialogue between the buy-side and supply-side on how these changes can be openings for growth and gain. The ability to adapt is key and something we take note of constantly from voices around fresh produce. Maybe that is the gene we think of when we consider the disposition that long-time veterans have, or maybe it is the life lesson they keep reinforcing over and over that becomes bone-deep intuition. Adapt. And Jay wants us to do it together.

“It is not just about being along for the ride, but also grabbing the wheel and helping to steer that movement forward—taking the feedback from your surrounding demographics and making decisions that work for your company, the consumers, and our supplier partners,” he states. “There are a lot of moving parts to consider. I will never tell anyone that it is easy; you have to think about the current trends as much as the long-haul.”

"From the timing of crop start versus the previous year to freezes, rain, heat, crop yield, market cost variations...Call it crazy, but Ilive for it,even if it is a reckoning." -Jay Schneider

Take, for instance, the change in organic consumption to the emergence of cauliflower as a pizza crust, and the many usages of kale compared to its previous existence as a garnish over consumption in salads. Who would have thought these behaviors on the plate would be so impactful, he wonders, while at the same time adding how amazing it is that so much product is grown and produced from hothouse operations now versus three to four years ago, even. The list goes on for Jay.

“Consumers are more knowledgeable and crave more insights into the supply chain,” he shares. “Seasonal gaps continue to close and become transparent to customers. As an example, clementines are now fifty-two weeks out of the year and berry-growing regions continue to expand.”

Building on those topics that are at the front of Jay’s mind is food safety, which is always a major concern and a huge priority.

From Left to Right: Bill Teefy, Ray Toscano, Nick Lewandoski, Joe Hultz, Jay Schneider, Joe Leario, and Jim Reardon

“We are in an era now that we have not been in before. Within a short time frame of a little over a year, we’ve seen consecutive E. coli outbreaks that basically shattered the industry and affected consumer confidence,” Jay says. “It is important to look at how any type of outbreak may be prevented and protect the consumer in a faster fashion. Obviously, some strides have been made on the labeling of romaine from regions and harvest dates, but is it enough, and do consumers understand what that means? There are traceability applications out there now but, basically, a lot of it is in test phases. I am confident that all the industry associations will continue to make strides in this arena to find solutions, from the grower through the supply chain.”

Transportation is a challenging element of the business as well for Jay and for many in the industry. Costs have dramatically increased over the past year and more due to the ELD regulations and truck shortages—add in driver vacancies and higher than normal turnover, along with rates increasing in double-digits year-over-year, as Jay tells me, and you have a tough animal to wrangle.

“In turn, it has been driving the cost of goods up across the country for everyone,” Jay intimates. “I hope things settle down and revisions to the ELD will improve the situation, along with improvements to the trucking industry.”

With the recent political landscape, it would make sense that tariffs and trade agreements are also a concern for Jay and ACME. This will continue to cast uncertainty across the industry this year.

“Will it force growers and companies to possibly find other markets for their crop? I’m not certain. However, the ongoing collaboration that is going on now with the United States, Mexico, and Canada Agreement (USMCA) sounds like it will help fresh produce. There is quite a bit of rapid change, however, and the effects of the cost continue to be evaluated. The continual focus here is of the utmost importance as this affects all facets of the business—not just produce,” Jay suggests.

I am glad that Jay can turn on a dime. We pull back from the ledger of topics that keeps Jay awake at night and turn to his passions once again. One of these passions is how the department has changed over time and what it can tell us about the future. Jay loves change if you had not caught onto that yet. So he takes me on a ride down memory lane, starting with the packaged salad category.

“Offerings were limited in bag salads—like garden salad blends—and a coleslaw mix was considered a packaged salad at the time. The sector does not even resemble what it once was and it is huge now. I think of it as a flavor leader and innovator in the fresh produce department. The category is a desired destination of its own,” he says. “Or let’s turn to apples. Galas were considered the Honeycrisp of its time and were the first real variety of apple that differentiated the segment for consumers in my opinion.”

Jay recalls the changeover of keypunching for customers’ orders and only paying with cash or by check. Then scanners were installed and “BINGO!” he remarks, the age of the UPC was born, along with fact-based data. That led to the infant stages of category management.

“Now, we are at a time where things are changing overnight at such a fast pace. Technology has touched every part of our business, affecting customer behaviors and shopping habits. Information can be obtained quickly with smartphones and consumers can research products at their fingertips while at home or at the grocery store,” he articulates. “They can look and compare products and be more specific on what they want. And now they can have those items delivered to their home in a short timeframe. That, in my opinion, translates into convenience for the age of the time-starved consumer.”

Ease, ready-to-eat, grab-and-go, snacking, prepped, meal kits, value-added—products are developed now with all these desires in mind. What used to work years ago does not necessarily work now.

“Does a consumer want to cut up an onion for a salad or cut broccoli for a stir fry, or do they prefer a quick solution of purchasing cut-and-prepared product?” Jay asks. “In the past, spending time prepping food was the norm. Time-starved families are looking for easier and quicker solutions and this is evident with more penetration and growth in prepared products.”

In line with this era of fast and convenient comes new demands from the consumer including sustainability, organic, food waste, and an understanding of where food is being grown and sourced, which is now more prevalent than ever. And in turn, it changes the way products are being developed and offered to consumers.

“Produce is one of the main drivers of why a consumer shops at a store. I take this seriously when we look at our format, offerings, and partnerships,” Jay shares with me. “We have over one thousand items to choose from and a wide assortment of products that fit every store in our geographical locations. We understand every community and customer is different, and that’s why we do not have a one-size-fits-all philosophy. We won’t thrive that way. We have the ability to market to the communities in a unique way.”

Let’s take a look at what he means. There may be a store that is heavy in organic penetration with more space dedicated to that consumer versus a store that has more of a traditional balanced offering in blue-collar areas. ACME makes it a point to know its communities and customers and what they’re looking for during their shopping experience.

Currently, ACME is aggressively remodeling its departments with a new layout that customers are responding to very positively, offering more of an open European-feel with updated décor and tables. This allows ACME to spotlight more variety and enhance its fresh offerings. This is key to the perimeter within the retailer’s stores.

“In addition, we have a strong Own Brands presence in produce with our O Organic label and Signature Farms. These product offerings continue to grow and gain loyalty with our customers,” Jay notes. “Also, key offerings that separate us in the market is our fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. I touched on convenience earlier, and this ties into it. We dedicate an average of over twelve feet to this category—from cut Brussels sprout halves to cut pineapple bowls.”

Jay takes a moment to stir over a few more thoughts. He lifts the silence and tells me that what truly sets ACME apart is its people. It is rare in the grocery industry to have an average employee tenure of 28 years of service.

“This speaks volumes about ACME and our culture as a traditional supermarket,” Jay says. “Acme is one hundred and twenty-eight years old and was founded by two friends—Samuel Robinson and Robert Crawford. ACME grew from a small neighborhood grocer in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to become an institution in the market. We could not have done that without a solid foundation of support and the employees’ belief in our vision and mission.”

ACME currently has 168 stores in six states and approximately 18,000 associates.

While there is much about ACME navigating the competitive retail space, the market, politics, and food safety that keep Jay up at night, I love how Jay chooses to wake up in the morning.

“I like that I have the ability to put a plan together on a blank canvas, measure its effectiveness, and use it to enhance the consumer experience. It’s so rewarding to develop a business strategy and watch it come to life. Visibly seeing how it can shape our business model while offering our customers new and innovative trends is something that gets me up each day,” Jay reveals.

That blank canvas Jay speaks of holds within it incredible opportunities, but also that potential for a reckoning. What a way to start the day. Instead of leaning into fear, though, Jay leans into the challenge—game face and all.