The first drops of rain are sifting down from the sky in Manhattan Beach, California, with a winter storm just on the edge of rolling in, inching me closer to the wide-open doors of the neighborhood Gelson’s Market. Paul Kneeland, the new Executive Director of Fresh Operations for the company, is bent over an apple display with a keen eye on the day’s presentation, adjusting handle bags and sizing up the quality as he speaks to his team of produce aficionados that helps the department run and thrive.
It takes a few hellos to pull him away from his work, and while some may take this as a dismissive gesture, I can’t help but smile at the laser-focus and calm collectedness with which he goes about his work.
“I love this business,” Paul shares with me. “And fresh produce cuts across all demographics. There is literally something for everyone. I think to myself, ‘How interesting is it what the different generations like and eat? How can we bring a fresher product to the stores? What is the balance of price that makes produce move? How do we create displays, promotions, contests, and more, to elevate our world?’ I want to make selling fresh produce easy for our teams and a great experience for our customers.”
Add the fact that Paul is a very competitive individual who revels in being pushed to be a better person and professional every single day, on top of his inquisitive mind, and you have the cornerstone of a great fresh retail concept. Evolution is a good word to describe it, but at a more aggressive pace, he adds.
Much has changed in Paul’s 38 years in the business. When he entered the industry, it was a pure commodity business and every customer seemed to know how to cut their own produce.
“However, the industry got smart and figured out how to get more people to enjoy fresh produce by cutting butternut squash first, I believe, then getting into cut fruit, packaged salads, and cut veg,” Paul reflects. “That is the way that I remember it, and it really was an amazing transformation looking back. But it wasn’t all this market research—it was consumer-driven. They consistently told us that they loved produce, but just couldn’t deal with preparing it. The value-added industry truly started grassroots and built up to be over 30 percent of the business.”
Consumers drove it, and still are driving it today. The only way to stay ahead of the game? Listen.
Listening is something that Paul does well and often, even back during his days at Roche Brothers in Boston, Massachusetts, where the produce exec was born and raised. In 1981, Paul started as a grocery bagger at Roche Brothers, which would put him on a 26-year path with the grocer that then took him to Kings Markets before joining Ahold as the Lead Fresh Merchant for Fresh Formats.
"...Fresh produce cuts across all demographics. There is literally something for everyone."
- Paul Kneeland, Executive Director of Fresh Operations, Gelson’s Markets
Now, with fresh eyes and two years in with Gelson’s, Paul is reflecting on the old as he prepares the company for the new.
“The produce department has discovered itself in new and exciting ways over the years,” Paul says. “That value-add trend I speak about has changed the design of the store—cases and displays needed to change, marketing changed. I challenge you to find an ad that doesn’t have a cut or prepared item in it! Retailers started using it as differentiation and it grew rapidly.”
But sometimes the more things change the more things stay the same. I guess that is why we call them staples, right? They have earned their long-lasting space as the foundation of a produce department.
“One thing I believe has not changed as much is the relationship part of this business. Everyone knows everyone. It is very clear that suppliers understand retailing better than ever, and they should! They know their customer, understand what it takes to get from field to shelf, and are largely brought in the loop on a retailer’s strategy. This creates a unique ‘skin in the game’ scenario—suppliers buy into the strategies and retailers need to work to convince suppliers to jump in,” he tells me.
With Paul running all that is fresh for Gelson’s, he has brought in a right-hand man to target and elevate the fresh produce spread, and that individual is Senior Director of Produce and Floral John Savidan.
John started his industry career with Ralphs Grocery Company while he was in high school as a box boy bagging groceries. He was promoted into the produce department and quickly made his way up the ranks to become a produce department manager where John spent the next 15 years. John then made the leap to Bristol Farms, where he held the positions of Produce Manager, Produce Merchandiser, Buyer and Produce Director before stepping onto a new path with Gelson’s.
“I have an incredibly strong passion for the wellbeing of the fresh produce and floral industry and an overwhelming aspiration for personal growth. The Gelson’s approach to fresh produce is all based on quality and the customer experience,” John shares with me. “It’s what the company was founded on some 65 years ago. There is absolutely zero deviation from providing the very best for our customers. Our buyers work diligently to find the ripest and best-tasting fruits and vegetables available within the marketplace. Our long-standing supplier partnerships allow us to accomplish the highest quality specifications that make us different from our competitors.”
Side by side, the two are mapping out the future for Gelson’s.
Paul describes the Gelson’s philosophy as a drive to have the best produce in California. Being so close to the source across the state’s growing regions makes the strategy particularly engaging and strong—especially when you are a company that prides itself on freshness. The model starts with the grocer’s buyers sourcing from the best growers, then flows all the way to the store teams that are very picky about what goes on display. To the discerning customer who expects the best from Gelson’s, what they see is what they get.
“Our departments are merchandised to show product, to show freshness, to make fresh produce the hero of the store. As soon as you walk into one of our produce departments you know there is something special here,” Paul notes. “Our stores have a few themes going on right now based on where they are located. The first theme is Spanish-style and the Mediterranean. The second one is beach-style and outdoor living. Both have Mediterranean concepts as Southern California is considered the Mediterranean of the United States. We like to promote outdoor cooking and living. We love when people enjoy the food they buy from us! The store atmosphere certainly adds to that.”
Gelson’s is a growing company with so much to offer its neighborhoods, customers, and teammates. The company loves to promote from within, and Paul loves that their store teams are connected with their customers.
“We will continue to grow that culture store by store, person by person. We will grow our fresh business, attract new customers, and get our customers to shop and buy more. ‘Life Tastes Better at Gelson's,’” he smiles.
Founded in 1952 by brothers Bernard and Eugene Gelson, the company came on the scene as an extraordinary grocery shopping experience for discerning consumers and called Burbank, California, its home. Fast-forward more than 65 years later, and the retailer has 27 stores in California from San Diego to Santa Barbara to Rancho Mirage—the Golden Triangle, if you will.
Gelson’s is recognized for its superior architecture and fresh concepts, including its diverse range of produce items, highest quality meat, seafood and deli, an unmatched selection of wine and liquor, and exceptional service. While working directly with suppliers to ensure the best of the best graces the prime real estate of Gelson’s’ shelves, Paul also adds that organic items have had more of an impact on the stores’ buying decisions. The inventory across Gelson’s has upward of 30 percent of its items in its organic portfolio, including fresh produce, which is its mainstay as the ambassador of fresh when you walk through the front doors.
"It is so easy to get down, so easy to join a complaint group—but not for me. Teams need to look through the fire and see the light ahead."
- Paul Kneeland
And believe me, the store leads you by the senses—sight, smell, sound, touch, taste. Your eyes pull you into the store with its abundance of fresh produce flowing out into walkways, wet racks that are vibrant with fresh produce discoveries and traditional gems. Your nose leads you to the juice bar and then around the store to the mecca of prepared foods, made in-house and with their own fresh produce. The music lulls you into calm confidence as you maneuver around and through items that may grace your basket. And taste...well, taste is there in all its definitions, from ready-made pasta, a salad bar, and sandwiches to sushi, nigiri, and an array of recipes tucked freshly behind the glass. Also, taste as in class—Gelson’s is overflowing with that. And Paul makes all the senses sing with delight as we wind around the store.
His excitement is palpable, and he radiates with optimism and enthusiasm, adding that he is very positive, even when times are challenging.
“It is so easy to get down, so easy to join a complaint group—but not for me,” Paul laughs. “Teams need to look through the fire and see the light ahead. Encouragement. I like to encourage our teams to see the big picture and not miss the details! Coaching. I love to mentor. I love to see others succeed. That is what excites me. Every generation that I see move into their careers, find their way, and grow and prosper is really awesome.”
Outside of produce, Paul’s passion does not die down, but continues to inspire—a lot of that comes through volunteering his time and participating on a few boards of directors in the industry. In a nutshell, he loves to give back.
“I have been blessed to be invited on panel discussions and to events to help young leaders grow. I love food, love to cook, and love to create new meals,” Paul shares with me. “I really love it when my food and cooking makes others happy. Living near the beach now, I have found great appreciation for the beauty of California and the amazing sunsets. I am very active in our local church and find a great sense of community and love there.”
While he sits over the stove or deep in concentration with a full cutting board in front of him, he meditates on the future.
“Fresh produce has already made its way to other departments in the store. I think foodservice and plant-based protein is a next big wave, but how do we highlight gluten-free as a lifestyle versus a health issue? How do we cater to all the other allergen sensitive customers? Fresh produce must take the lead in menu creation for this group. We hit all the conditions that make us the products of choice for dietary needs. Think about it. One department you can go to in the store that satisfies every age group and any health disparity is produce,” Paul shares.
Paul is a man of endless questions and a dynamic enthusiasm to match. If all the world is a stage, as Shakespeare would tell us, then may the “fresh” suit up, because Paul is writing the next act.