SEATTLE -- A 20-foot purple eggplant has sprouted over downtown Seattle in the form of sign that heralds the opening of the produce-centric retail operation called City Greens Produce Co.
"We chose the eggplant because it's an unusual and striking vegetable and we wanted to give people a message that we are going to have a variety of things they aren't going to find around town," explained Chris Bounds, City Greens president.
The giant eggplant -- which also was an icon for the City Greens direct-mail campaign -- is "an instant landmark," said Bounds, one which helps tip off customers to the 350 varieties of produce they'll find displayed both in and outside the store.
"We are really a specialty produce store that is a hybrid cross between old-fashioned roadside stand and modern-day specialty boutique produce store," said Larry Roberts, City Greens vice president.
Roberts' description could fit an entire class of produce retailers, with produce-anchored stores that are springing forth across the nation, for the most part in and around larger urban markets.
These stores are, for the most part, on the small side and do not try to compete with supermarkets as full-service retailers. But they are sharply focused on skimming the cream from the traditional supermarkets' produce customer base, those with an understanding of -- and belief in -- the health benefits of eating more produce, and the higher income to pay for top quality.
More than 65% of City Greens' 5,700 square feet of sales space is dedicated to produce, according to Bounds. "Over 50% of our store sales are produce," he added.
Looking forward, Bounds said, City Greens plans to open two more locations in suburban Seattle this spring, both of which would offer even more fresh produce than the downtown site.
He said he hoped these two stores "could push the percentage of store sales to 60% or 70%" for produce.
Bounds declined to reveal his operation's produce volume per square foot, although he noted that "it's higher than traditional stores." He estimated that City Greens did "as much produce volume as a traditional store doing $500,000 total store volume a week."
"We are doing to produce what Toys 'R' Us did to toys by taking it to the most available extreme in terms of availability and quality," said Roberts.
Although City Greens carries poultry, bakery, dairy and deli items, "We can't pretend to be a full-service store," Bounds explained. "I would define it as a fresh-food market.
"We are trying to be a supplier of produce, and some people are finding they can do all their shopping here," he said. "People who like to cook with fresh foods can do most of their shopping [here]."
City Greens also features what Bounds calls as a series of signature, produce-based prepared food, like a chicken breast wrap layered with chiles, corn and peppers and a variety of salads.
Roberts said that City Greens strives to maintain an "authentic produce-stand kind of feel."
That extends to the retailer's pricing strategy, as well, apparently. While its target is clearly the consumer who will spend considerable money on a lot of produce, at the same time, City Greens is committed to "trying to sell high-quality fresh products at better prices than supermarkets," Bounds said.
"We routinely compare prices and make a point of undercutting the chains. We try to be slightly lower on most items and try to embarrass them with a couple of items," he said. For example, City Greens might run broccoli for 25 cents a pound on special, when it is being sold elsewhere for $1.49.
About 10% of City Green's produce is organic, according to Bounds. "We aren't trying to be dominant, we are just trying to offer an alternative."
In terms of display, "We are mixing organic with traditional and identifying that it's organic," he explained. The executive noted that displaying the two types of produce together "makes it easy to find what you are looking for. You would go to the MacIntosh apples for organic ones."
He also said that City Greens' approach to making purchases of organic products relies solely on the pursuit of quality, and not an organics selection just for its own sake.
"If organic is superior, we'll buy it. We have over 20 kinds of heirloom potatoes that are organic because the grower is organic. We probably have 20 types of tomatoes, many of which are organic."
Local produce also holds an important place at City Greens. "Right now, we are going to have over 30 kinds of apples that are local," he said.
Bounds explained that by making local product available, City Greens was hoping to foster "a relationship between the grower and the consumer." It is a tie that the Seattle retailer has been very active in trying to forge.
"We'll identify the grower in our ads and run biographies on growers. We'll even bring them into the store," he noted, explaining that the store had already had several growers in to cook potato dishes and other items since the unit opened this summer.
Spotlighting local producers is just one of series of produce promotions City Greens has also been hosting. The operator has launched a potato fest, and followed that up with apple appreciation month, "when we do tastings and bake apple pies," Bounds said. "We'll do something every weekend."
The agenda for this month includes a "fungus fest, featuring locally harvested mushrooms of all types. The Northwest forests are full of them. We are able to have a dozen different types of mushrooms, and will feature them in recipes," Bounds said.