Demand is directly tied to the land on which we walk. This intimate relationship with the Earth supersedes price, competition, and showmanship. And I would call it rare.
Connected by a long kinship of choices and intentions, a berry stops being just a berry. A pear becomes an extension of a purpose, miles long and hearts deep. When someone standing in a fresh produce department reaches for a clementine, they—knowingly or not—grasp at that purpose, a swath of time, a pocket of sun: a gift. Jeff Fairchild knows this.
While many in his position may tie a significant amount of their decisions to the bottom line, he sees each product as a story, as an expansion of his own values. Don’t get Jeff wrong, his more than 40 years in the business are a testament to his prowess as a produce buyer—but his ability to balance a soulful investment with a wealth of success for New Seasons Market is truly a distinction worth noting.
“If I am not going to buy it, how am I going to sell it? It is as simple as that,” the Produce Director for the Pacific Northwest U.S. retailer tells me, smiling but stern in his resolve.
The simplicity stops me in my tracks. I cast a line of memory back to a handful of conversations I have had with suppliers, buyers, friends, or restaurant owners, who rarely eat the food they sell.
“I buy food for our shelves that I want to personally eat, that I want my family and neighbors to be able to buy. I think it’s a really different way of looking at produce. I don’t think many produce buyers consider these as values,” Jeff shares, further crystallizing his philosophy. “In a lot of cases, the purchasing of produce isn’t even done locally, and so it’s less of a personal experience. Every choice is quite personal to me.”
"If I am not going to buy it, how am I going to sell it? It is as simple as that."
Jeff Fairchild, Produce Director, New Seasons Market
Jeff is far from cut and dry, but he does say exactly what he means. Remove all the salesmanship, the negotiating table, the market prices, the fluctuating trends, and this foundational philosophy has had staying power with Jeff and is a contributor to New Seasons’ produce success. Jeff’s perspective and progressive simplicity help him keep his eye on the long game: customer loyalty. And, when complexity clouds progress, you can always cut clean through it with this ideal as your goal: Feed your family.
“We were founded on the idea of being best in the market. I know that’s a loaded term, but what it means to us as a company is different from everyone else’s interpretation. For New Seasons, what really defines our success is our focus on being a great local partner. Not just good, but a great local champion for our consumers and our vendors,” Jeff asserts. “This begins with our produce partners. We are incredibly focused on partnerships, especially long-standing ones. So, from the beginning, it has been very important for us to find growers who are the absolute best at what they produce. Then we nurtured those relationships and still do today.”
Jeff pauses for a moment and speaks over his shoulder to a team member, giving me time to let the first wave of his vision wash over me. What Jeff is sharing are the pillars of New Seasons’ fresh concept, starting with vendor relationships.
“Another of our pillars is built around the drive to ensure we have the best tasting produce in town,” Jeff adds. “And then, of course, there is customer service, which, by design, is multifaceted and constructed around value and quality over penny-pinching. We know our suppliers’ costs have been rising and that we have to meet them in the middle. We also know some consumers will pay a bit more for quality food but not all, and it has to be consistently great.”
Finding a balance within this complicated dynamic of costs, benefits, consumer demand, and vendor needs is a vein that Jeff mines well. In this regard, customer service is a pillar directed toward both the vendor and the consumer—an element you might think would only further muddy the waters, but it does not for Jeff.
This customer service tenet is deeply embedded in the forward-facing culture of each store as well as the internal culture of the company. New Seasons supports and promotes educated and engaged staff that can speak to the company’s pillars and guide consumers into a superior shopping experience. These essential individuals help balance the customer service and loyalty for which New Seasons is so well known.
“Our in-store produce teams are doing more than just pointing items out to shoppers. They are able to talk about our partnerships and the food and, with honesty, say, ‘That’s great, that product is an extension of our vision, buy that,’” Jeff reflects. “Our members can slice an apple while simultaneously rooting its fresh flavor inside the origin of a family, a region, or a purpose. New Seasons has allowed me to live my dream in this sense and care about the product more than in most buying organizations, and I am thankful for that.”
Executing this vision is what motivates Jeff to build a strong network of vendors who share the same deep investment in what a given product communicates to the customer. With the desire to exercise such a philosophy, Jeff looks for the best growers he can find: Partners who are looking to invest in a long-term relationship and, preferably, with long-term family farms.
“I love to find those people who have their name on the box,” he says. “They put themselves on the line and are willing to let their name carry that weight—successful or otherwise.”
I admire this standard of Jeff’s, and it makes a lot of sense to me. When your name is on the box, you assume a position on the front line and, for better or for worse, your name will always be associated with that product, story, and experience.
“Good, sustainable, hands-on growers—they are the heart of the matter, as is our focus on organics. With Certified Organic products nourishing nearly 70 to 80 percent of the inventory across our stores, there is an even deeper level of commitment when it comes to how we impact the Earth as an extension of our vendors,” Jeff says. He settles in to let the story unfold. “But, that being said, in the end, it’s got to be food that my customers like. I can’t buy only on politics. It’s not just a political decision, but that is a part of the decision. And, so, the big win for me is finding vendors who see the food they buy with the same passion I have to buy it. I’m trying to find people who share that passion for great food, who see the importance of growing it right, and who recognize the importance of presentation, flavor, and excellence. I want to partner with those growers who will give me stellar fruits and vegetables.”
"I love to find those people who have their name on the box. They put themselves on the line and are willing to let their name carry that weight—successful or otherwise."
Jeff is not one to mince words or his clear-cut intentions: When it comes to challenging his existing partnerships to continue to keep up with what the consumer wants and what the Earth requires in order to thrive, he will sit down at any table anywhere to distill the shared purpose. Jeff adds that this drive to bring the best produce to his “extended family” also compels him to be honest about where New Seasons’ vendor partners are falling short, deciding what’s critical, and where they could pivot for short and long-game execution.
In order to have such a dynamic and engaged relationship with vendors, Jeff ensures that he communicates with them directly, no matter if the products are going through a wholesaler or distributor.
That hands-on, deeply connected approach also drives Jeff into the produce department every day. At any given moment, he can tell you exactly how a product is bunched, what peach sizes are front-and-center that morning, how the berries are tasting, and what the texture is eating like on the latest shipment. Jeff can slice open a Navel orange and be sure that everyone will experience that same gem throughout the store because he has cut 20 by 7 a.m. and has already ushered in the best citrus of the day. Then, on top of that, Jeff can tell you about the family that grew those Navel oranges, about how they tend to the land and interpret great food.
“I’m in the store working every day because I like that part of my job. I like the artistic part of setting up the displays and the experience for the shopper. And then, every Tuesday, I walk my inventory with a couple of people that support me and we look a bit more downfield,” Jeff conveys. “We walk around for an hour and we cut almost everything—taste what is right there on the produce floor. Every Tuesday, we get a really good window into what’s going on in the market, on the farm, and in the supply chain—that helps me remain connected and aware of what our shoppers are experiencing.”
He pauses for a moment, then adds that this daily and weekly routine is something the vendors are aware of as well, and this keeps them accountable. At any given time, there are produce partners with different lots, grower networks, and situations. If they know Jeff is going to taste the produce they’re going to sell to him and that he is going to make purchases based on quality, they take care of him.
“Over the last 40 years, I’ve met and worked with so many great growers who no longer exist today, so when I find those partners that cherish their products and people, I do everything I can to keep them going and thriving. Because, in a price-driven market, there are fewer and fewer people who see the market the way I do—and it’s making it harder and harder for that special food to continue to exist,” Jeff expresses, followed by the longest sigh of our call.
I imagine that Jeff has had many a long sigh in his 40-plus years in the industry—sighs of satisfaction, of triumph, of challenges, and the sigh that comes from looking back over a long and beautiful career deeply supported by the company in which he works.
With more than two decades under his belt at New Seasons Market and an origin story in grocery that dates back another 20 years to the 1980s, Jeff’s prowess knows no bounds. Now, with 18 stores throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington, Jeff is able to maintain his connection and care while also growing the New Seasons’ concept and legacy. In the past decade, New Seasons became one of the first grocery stores in the world to be certified as a B Corporation, which is issued to for-profit companies meeting social sustainability, environmental performance, accountability, and transparency standards.
“When it comes down to those things that you really celebrate—whether it be cherries, or berries, or great apples in the fall—I want to taste them, see them, and feel them in my hands,” Jeff says. “Most people think being a great buyer is about negotiating the best price. To me, it’s about buying the best for my family and my neighbors. In this sense, I care for my shoppers as I care for my family. That’s what drives me.”
To have such values, intentions, actions, and outcomes align is a rare occasion inside of an already unique life. As Jeff peels back the light on a Navel orange at 6 a.m., he finds the slice of sweet that is his favorite part of this story.
Which, because of Jeff, is our story.