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What's in A Tomato? A Q&A With Chris Miller, Produce Director, MOM’s Organic Market

What's in A Tomato? A Q&A With Chris Miller, Produce Director, MOM’s Organic Market

The word simplicity evokes an immediate connection to fresh produce. How else could you describe a slice of tomato, generously sprinkled with salt, as its acidity and sweetness bloom on the tongue?

These are the notions that kickstart my conversation with Chris Miller, Produce Director for MOM’s Organic Market. A bit of a produce and category chameleon, Chris brings a distinct and unequivocal passion to MOM’s, one noted for its straightforward attention to detail. It’s the little things, like our tangential discussion about the merits of a 12-dollar hothouse tomato, that highlight why simple is powerful.

Simplicity has long been the cornerstone of the organic grocer, whose operations were first established in 1987. Its approach to the fresh produce department is a study in clarity, in how letting fruits and vegetables speak for themselves undoubtedly creates a story more arresting than we could ever concoct.

In this vein, I will let Chris’ words on MOM’s mission, its alternative approach to cross-merchandising, and his own personal vision for 2020 take you away.

Anne Allen: Before we dive into MOM’s approach to expansion and your understanding of what 2020 has brought to the market, I want to know more about your career trajectory and how you’ve helped the company flourish in this organic space.

Chris Miller: I started at MOM’s Organic Market as a Produce Clerk just after I graduated college in 2010. At the time, we had four stores. Over the next couple of years, we began to grow as a company fairly significantly, and my position with MOM’s grew as well. I went from Assistant Produce Manager to Produce Manager to Regional Produce Manager—when we had about ten stores or so—and then I took a bit of a sidewinder’s trip back to managing product, because I couldn’t imagine not working with producers and suppliers.

For the last six years or so, I was overseeing Category Management for produce, as well as category management for meat and seafood. In the past year, I’ve stepped into the Produce Director role. I am back to managing the people and product side of things, but I’m still heavily involved in category management. I got all of the fun stuff‚ is the way I like to look at it.

AA: Absolutely! You wear many hats.

CM: The finest hats at the haberdashery, if I may say so. Meat and seafood tie into produce in a lot of ways, insomuch that they each face a lot of the same challenges. It’s been a really natural fit for me. Produce has been the cornerstone of my career at MOM’s.

AA: With an expected 21-store count by the end of 2020, what are some of the key factors behind MOM’s expansion in the retail space, and particularly in organic?

CM: It’s been a relatively measured expansion over the last ten years. We’ve been through some quick growth spurts, but for the past three years, we’ve been sitting at a 19 store count in order to really hone in on our systems before we jumpstart the next phase of growth. That’s been the strategy for us: tempered and measured. Our goal is a couple of new stores every year, if everything goes as planned. We’re always looking at where we are and moving strategically forward from there.

AA: No one could have predicted COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, but what—in addition—has been top-of-mind for you and MOM’s during 2020?

CM: In the beginning of 2020 and up to now, MOM’s has been focusing on what’s at our core. That means focusing on organics, limited packaging whenever possible, and expanding our selection, while also staying true to ourselves. We don’t have super large produce departments; instead, we focus on fresh deliveries and turning over product. We essentially reset our departments every single day. At any given time, we typically have roughly a day-and-a-half or so worth of inventory. This allows us to stay sharp, fresh, and dedicated to great customer service.

On the optimistic side of the 2020 coin, I feel like MOM’s is seeing a lot of new customers, and the customers that are loyal to us are purchasing bigger carts—a trend that appears across the industry. People are getting back into their kitchens and really figuring out how to work with new fruits and vegetables and break out of their routines through experimentation. I’ve personally spent more time working in the produce departments since the outbreak of COVID-19, which has been awesome to do, once again interacting directly with customers with my Produce Clerk hat on.

As I’ve come back into this sort of role with customers, I’ve been getting a lot of ‘What do I do with this?’ sort of questions, which are the most fun to answer. It just goes to show that people are actively looking to experiment and learn new ways to play with fresh fruits and vegetables.

For the organic side of things, we don’t always have the availability of conventional, so suggesting alternative options is of great help to shoppers. For example, if asparagus is out of season, we suggest broccolini.

We haven’t increased our packaged items. In the produce world, we’ve largely stuck to what we’re good at and our customers have been very receptive as we’ve stayed the course with our produce strategy.

AA: As a shopper, I know that my habits have changed drastically, from bulk buying to limited outings. How have you seen the consumer change during COVID-19 and beyond?

CM: We saw an uptick on packaged salads right at the beginning, but I wouldn’t consider it a game-changer in terms of the bulk and loose side. We’re selling a lot of ginger and citrus, garlic, and other items that help boost immunity. People are doubling down on purchasing healthy foods during a time when health is, unfortunately, uncertain.

Opportunity-wise, the goal is getting more people familiar with how to use fresh produce and the endless ways in which produce can be used. That’s always an opportunity, no matter the situation.

Chris Miller, Produce Director, MOM’s Organic Market

AA: As you’ve weathered this particularly difficult year, what issues, concerns, or opportunities have you seen at retail?

CM: Opportunity-wise, the goal is getting more people familiar with how to use fresh produce and the endless ways in which produce can be used. That’s always an opportunity, no matter the situation. A lot of people are working to crack the code on this, and we’ve tried many different tactics over the years, whether that’s recipe cards or online posts. But, I think it always comes back to having awesome, passionate people in the department who thoroughly enjoy what they interact with every day, that can steer shoppers in the right direction. We’re encouraging shoppers to try new things and play. That direct, one-on-one customer impact has always paid off for us.

As we’ve seen demand go through the roof for certain items, the industry as a whole has to ask: Where is the extra space within the organic supply chain? Is there wiggle room around the edges, and how do we build a little bit more resilience into it for the next unexpected moment?

AA: Your approach to produce merchandising is known in the industry for its uncomplicated nature. Just how does MOM’s go about designing its produce department?

CM: One of our tenets is having a lot of open space and allowing our shoppers to have a stress-free shopping oasis. That means we have wide aisles throughout the store, and we don’t do any shippers, shelf-talkers, or signage. For the most part, we limit signage so that the products ultimately speak for themselves. That falls back into how we look at our produce departments: The produce is the highlight.

For the business that we do, we have a relatively small produce department, but it goes back to what I was originally saying: Our intent is not to stack it high and watch it fly. It’s about being able to put our hands on everything and creating an environment where customers can shop with their eyes closed. Every piece of product is going to be something that we’re proud they’re able to take home. And having smaller departments really allow us to do that.

AA: What spurs the decision to forgo cross-merchandising? How does it differentiate you?

CM: This ties back into the stress-free shopping environment that we foster in the store. We are striving for simplicity.

Our Owner, Founder, and CEO, Scott Nash, is really passionate about just letting the produce shine. The goal has always been to give shoppers the feeling that they’re walking into a farmers market stall. A farmers market isn’t going to have croutons and lemon bottles sitting adjacent to it. Conventional wisdom would say that there are sales opportunities with marketing those items next to produce, and I’m sure there are, but when we step back, we think it’s best to stay simple and be true to who we are and hope that leads to long-term loyalty. We know that these shoppers are grateful to shop in a department that’s just produce, straight up.

Perhaps it’s the passion that Chris infuses into his day-to-day, but by the time we’ve hopped off the phone, I can practically smell the sweet sharpness of tomatoes. After all, isn’t that what we hope for in our shoppers? That they will be so enamored with the product itself that all it takes to drive them to purchase is to follow their nose?

For Chris and the MOM’s Organic Market team, this hope is the everyday. 

What's in A Tomato? A Q&A With Chris Miller, Produce Director, MOM’s Organic Market