MINNEAPOLIS -- Customers had a chance to ask Professor Produce about the mysteries of the garden, get the latest tips from the Master Gardener and sample greens picked fresh from the fields of local organic farmers during the grand reopening here of the Wedge Community Co-op, a single-unit food-retailing cooperative, after an extensive remodeling.
The promotional activities served to highlight Wedge's remodeled produce department, which has doubled in size and now accommodates 2,000 square feet of retail sales space.
"Professor Produce was on the floor for two hours during the grand opening asking trivia questions for prizes at the customer service desk," explained Edward Brown, Wedge produce manager, about the four-day celebration, held at the end of July.
"People got pencils and T-shirts for answering Professor Produce's questions," said Brown, "like 'What's the food with the highest amount of protein?' "
He said Professor Produce, a Wedge employee named Barth Anderson, is "a takeoff of Dr. Science on National Public Radio," Brown said.
Professor Produce's bimonthly column in the cooperative's newsletter is sent out to Wedge's members, posted at the store's web site and given out to customers when they shop.
In the column he answers questions like "why do organic lemons sometimes look more like limes?" and "why do green grapes turn yellow?" Brown said, "It's meant to be entertaining and educational."
Meanwhile, the Master Gardener, also known as Wedge health and beauty aids staff member Therese Martin, fielded consumers' gardening questions and offered solutions to common problems for several hours during the last day of the promotion.
Brown said the highlight of Wedge's produce promotion was the daylong presence of two of the largest local organic farmers on the sales floor, to answer questions and sample their homegrown produce.
"We had a little booth set up for them with displays and their pictures and a little blurb about what they do," explained Brown. "We used to invite farmers to sell produce out of a truck outside, but it was causing too many accidents."
He said the promotion is as much about selling the farmers to urban consumers as the products they grow. "That is one of my trademarks, getting farmers in here talking about what people are eating. They talk about how they grow their product and give tastes. We try to get consumers interested in farmers because they forget that produce comes from the soil."
Much of Wedge's marketing year-round also focuses on the products of individual farmers.
"The local growers put custom-made signs on their products so our consumers can pick out which farm they want to support, and some people won't buy produce unless it's from a certain farm," noted Brown.
Produce sales were up 15% during the weekend of the promotion but, Brown said, "this was an exceptionally high increase, because it wrapped up a four-day grand opening."
However, he said, this type of promotion more typically has a longer term payoff, producing "sustained, reliable and consistent growth. I'm not sure if it immediately ups your sales."
As a cross promotion during the grand opening, the co-op also put its juicers on special at cost, said Brown. "We had juicers for $149 instead of $199 and sold 21 of them in four days."
Opened as a cooperative in 1974, Wedge has 4,600 members, according to Brown, and the store is aiming to serve them better through this remodel.
In the produce department, Brown said, Wedge wanted to "provide excellent customer service even when we are working in the back room. We wanted to see the customer shopping while we were working so the prep counters look out onto the floor."
Brown said 20% of the store floor space is dedicated to produce, which in turn makes up 24% of the store's dollars. Brown estimated that the volume per square foot in Wedge's produce section, which is 72% organic, runs about $1,400.