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Chicago's Crown Jewel

Chicago's Crown Jewel

Is there a better city in which to roam and people-watch than Chicago, Illinois? Akin to a marble bag of cultures, this city seems to have created a mosaic of menu options that demand only the absolutely amazing will survive, and grocery is no exception. It’s in this scape that Jewel-Osco thrives. Helping to lay the pieces in place to create different yet distinctly related ingredients is Scott Bennett.

Scott would never say he is an artist, so I will have to say that for him. Listening to the Produce Sales and Merchandising Manager speak about fruits and vegetables is much like how I listen to my sister decide what materials she wants to use in her latest sculpture. 

“I really like peppers and how much color they can offer. And, weirdly, I like to put lemons in a lot of different spots instead of just the regular placement in the department. I used to, in my department, put them in five different places because the colors make everything they are next to look better,” Scott tells me. 

It’s this eye for the art of produce—and Scott emphasizes repeatedly that produce is an art—that seems to have made his department the destination for Jewel-Osco customers. As I stand in the store myself, produce feels like a greater part of the layout than what I am used to, all screaming “fresh” and “fun.”

“When my team and I are setting up a store and see it complete, that’s most rewarding—standing back and seeing that the department is beautiful and customers are buying everything,” he sums up. “From day to day, much happens with my team in the produce department. We work together all day, brainstorm, and look at the numbers, and Paul Calas, Procurement Manager of the Buyers, and I talk every single day.”

That team element spans from the hands that unload the trucks to the top of the decision-making chain. Scott says the vision that has made Jewel-Osco so singular could not exist without President Mike Withers and Vice President of Merchandising Anthony Suggs, as well as Paul Calas.

“They uphold the vision that has created a loyal following based on a consistency that has been there the 100-plus years since Jewel-Osco started. It’s a friendly place to shop. I could talk about the quality and freshness, but really it’s the people,” Scott says. “From the produce operators to the center store and the front-end teams—they are all really good people.”

It’s Chicago in the best way—if you don’t rise to the top, you sink. And the Chicago market is part of why Scott and the Jewel-Osco team get to play with concepts that other stores might not go near until they know those approaches can work. For example, the store we are currently standing in has a second level with a bar and a beautiful refrigerated section for wines and fine adult beverages, while the previous store had a cafe-style restaurant, complete with studious college kids.

“We began redesigning our structures back in 2014. We saw the industry changing, and if you want to survive you have to change as well to meet what the customer is asking for. Grocery stores can’t just be grocery stores anymore. To keep customers coming in, you have to have excitement in the building,” Scott explains. “Some of our in-house bars have bands and cooking classes, events to not just be present, but to highlight what we offer. It’s what makes ‘Jewel cool.’”

"When my team and I are setting up a store and see it complete, that’s most rewarding—standing back and seeing that the department is beautiful..."

Scott Bennett, Produce Sales and Merchandising Manager, Jewel-Osco

But being cool has not forfeited the brand’s iconic status in the Windy City’s crowded marketplace. If anything, it helps to ensure that generations to come will appreciate it as much as their elders. While intimidating, it’s a demographic that Scott tells me allows the chain to take the risks it is known for.

“You can sell anything in every store in Chicago, you just have to be willing to try something different,” he says simply. ‘Different’ is a great way to describe the layout and culture at Jewel. “Last year, we tried something different with rambutans and dragon fruit. We sold more rambutans than anyone in the United States because we educated consumers. Honestly, younger millennials will try anything, and in Chicago, we have all kinds of demographics that come out of the woodwork and buy us all out by the cases. We capitalize on everything we can, just to get shoppers in the building to purchase everything else.”

Each store is distinct by design, with no two layouts alike throughout the chain of 188 stores, each serving its area as specifically as possible.

“It’s very challenging; you want to have a consistent sales plan, a merchandising plan, and it’s difficult to get buyers the information so the team can buy right. The merchandising plan is intended to promote sales, but it’s also needed so that in-house buyers can make stronger decisions that align with our vision. There’s a bunch of wildly fun things going on out there in our stores, and you have all these great employees doing different stuff. There has to be an understanding or we’ll never go in the right direction, but we still want to set each store apart,” Scott explains.

A huge part of ensuring that singular direction is bringing everyone onto the same page, not just the buyers but the stores as well—an increasing challenge these days. There isn’t a single aspect of the supply chain that hasn’t been impacted by labor costs and shortages, retail included. Jewel-Osco’s fresh department is even more aware of this and goes to great lengths with in-house offerings.

Take the huge wall of fresh juices, for example. 

“Everything you see here is done in-house. Over 100 recipes and juice varieties,” Scott says, crediting this to both the opportunity to do a lot over a versatile fresh produce career and an interactive element with those he works with. “Another big thing right now is fresh-cut, which I am personally really crazy about because that’s what the customers want, fresh convenience. But we do everything in-house in every store with that as well. We have controlled atmosphere kitchens at 38 degrees in every one of our buildings. It is a lot of work on the team’s part.”

All this attention to detail necessitates an educated workforce. Scott not only agrees with this point—he has news for me. 

"PRODUCE IS AN ART. THAT’S EXACTLY WHY WE HAVE SUCH HIGH STANDARDS TO GET IT IN THE STORE."

“We’ve actually launched a new program to train and educate new and current employees to understand produce better. We’ve had such a change in the department that we need to ensure everyone has an understanding of what it should really look like and train them better because of it. So, we are looking to bring the ‘trade’ back, so to speak, through this new approach,” Scott explains.

What temperatures do the fresh items need? What days of the week are stronger on sales and how do you adjust a department based on those factors? These, Scott shares, are just a few questions that too few people know they will need to answer when they start their produce careers.

“On-site training with Jewel-Osco’s Operations Specialist in the displays on the floor includes how to set the wet wall, how to manicure product, and how to handle it properly from the day it comes through our doors to the minute it goes in the customer’s cart—these are all components of this system,” he details. 

Scott knows as well as anyone that many stories on the buy-side of our business start out as a stepping stone to something else. You know the one: that summer job a high school teenager works with little care while spinning grand ideas of becoming an actor or a traveling photojournalist—or, these days, an Instagram influencer—only to discover that the world of produce is an addicting one. The result is a steep but necessary learning curve, which Scott remembers clearly.

“I’ve been in produce 35 years, starting when I was about 16. I was a bagger for a week, then became the bottle boy back when you returned bottles, and then I was moved into produce. The rest is history!” he laughs. 

That first job turned into an unanticipated career with nuances to learn and grow from, which Scott shares he could not have achieved without guidance.

“I had good leaders that showed me what to do, developing and growing over time. It’s something you do or don’t have in you, but someone recognizes what is there and helps you grow and improve. You’re never really the best at anything. I’m never perfect, but I have support and am always looking around to see how we can be better,” Scott reflects.

This resonates with all that we have seen in our tour of Jewel-Osco, much like those 100-plus juice recipes Scott had the opportunity to help put on shelves.

“It took our team around six months to work the recipes right to ensure we didn’t add any sweeteners or even ice—no additives at all, just raw smoothies to keep products as fresh as possible,” he adds, sharing that it all stems from a standard Jewel-Osco carries proudly, feeling almost a fervor for freshness to this day.

Cute catchphrases playing on produce words, cards with the variety name and flavor profile, and more are just some ways to intrigue shoppers into that extra impulse buy. Scott tells me that when an unexplained dip in sales happens, Produce Managers know they will see him the next day to explore where adjustments can be made.

“Produce is an art. That’s exactly why we have such high standards to get it in the store. What we’ve been doing over the past 10 years or so is taking the ‘normal’ out of our hats and saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to put a green pepper next to a Navel orange.’ It’s only those of us in the industry that it bothers, anyway. Jewel-Osco’s ability to make different choices like this has influenced my own ways of decision making. During a promotion, for instance, we’ll put apples, onions, and oranges on the same promotional table, separate but working together. There are people who get it, some who kind of get it, and some who try but will never get it, like any other art form. Everything in life is a third and a third and a third, and the art of produce is no different,” Scott assures me.

Truly, the Produce Sales and Merchandising Manager is an artist, but, as I said before, he would never call himself that.

“I’m never satisfied with anything. I always want to do concepts bigger and better. Not everyone has that drive, which is more how I would put it. Luckily, I found a company that embraces and encourages that,” he tells me. “I always looked at Jewel as a great operator with good people, a good structure, and, when I was on the other side, a good competitor. Now that I’m here, I am a part of a team that knows what they are doing and excels at it. At its core, Jewel has always had a very strong foundation of good, hardworking people that know the business. Everything we do is always for the customer.”

He and his team have undoubtedly left a mark—a jewel, if you will—to be discovered amongst the many great treasures of the Windy City. And, like most art movements, I’m sure we’ll continue to see its influence as more and more explore which rules can bend and which can break for the better.