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How Cosentino's produce produces $100,000 a week.

Phil Cosentino, co-owner of 25,000-square-foot Cosentino's market in San Jose, has a somewhat unorthodox style. He makes shoppers wait in line to have produce marked for the scanners, barters with immigrants who sell him fruits, vegetables and herbs from their backyard gardens, and merchandises bananas from a giant wooden spool acquired from Pacific Gas & Electric. But this style has built produce at the store he owns with his three brothers into a department often exceeding $100,000 in weekly business.

"As an independent, we must offer our customers something special, something they can't find at Safeway, Lucky or other chains. What we offer is better quality and a bigger selection," says Cosentino.

Cosentino's computer lists 400 fruit and vegetable items in the produce department and another 200 are being added to the file. That gives the store twice the variety of most chain supers.

Produce has been the hub of the business since the company began decades ago as a fruit and vegetable stand. Now it accounts for 23% of sales in a store that does nore than $400,000 in weekly volume.

All produce is sold bulk, yet is scanned at the front end. Four weighing stations are positioned at the end of the produce department. The stations are always manned by full-time produce personnel familiar with the myriad of products sold from the department.

Cosentino has a logical reason for this set up. "We only have seven registers at the front end and lines can get rather lengthy on weekends and in the evening. Weighing and pricing produce at the front end would cause evenk longer backups. The IPC labels allow the checkers to scan the produce and move people through quickly. Speed of checkout is the primary reason we are scanning fruits and vegetables. Customers don't seem to mind waiting in produce as much as at the front end.

"The weighing stations provide a natural place for servicing our customers. And they improve our accuracy tremendously. Our produce employees have a better knowledge of the fruits and vegetables and their corresponding prices than anybody at the front end." To keep traffic flowing, an express weigh station for customers with six or fewer items is added during busy periods.

Maintaining a quality selection of almost 600 produce items keeps Cosentino quite busy. The 53-year-old produce man still travels to the produce terminals twice a week and to satisfy his overriding passion for top-notch quality, he visits three different produce terminals in the Bay area.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Cosentino's workday begins at 1 a.m. He drives first to the Oakland market, where he spends two hours buying the majority of his fruits and vegetables. To complete his product mix with unusual items, and to find any items that he might not have been able to find in Oakland, he travels each night to the markets in San Francisco.

Cosentinop supplememts these buying trips with periodic excursions to Salinas, Watsonville and other towns in California's fertile agricultural valleys. Over the years he has become friends with many small farmers from whom he buys some of his produce. "The small farmer is like the independent grocer. He has pride in the quality of his crop, a hands-on attitude that makes his produce better than that grown on the corporate farms," says Cosentino.

Cosentino will talk to anybody selling produce, and believes that this openness has helped him attain a quality and selection of fruits and vegetables unsurpassed by an super. He has encouraged many gardeners in the community to bring him their products to sell. Some items are purchased outright; others are sold on consignment.

"San Jose has a greater mixture of ethnic groups than almost any city in the country," says Cosentino. "We have customers who are Vietnamese, Hindu, Iranian and so on--they all have special fruits, vegetables and particularly spices that are essential for their traditional foods. These people will shop at stores that carry these specialty products."

But because it is so difficult to find many of these products, many people grow them in the backyard. To raise some extra cash, they sell the excess to other immigrants. Some entrepreneurial growers also attempt to sell their crop to local markets. Cosentino welcomes these growers with open arms and ready cash.

"We have built a reputationfor being godd people to bargain with," says Cosentino. "The word-of-mouth has spread, and people come in here almost every day to sell me something. If what they have is good quality and a market exists for it, we will buy it."

The store has been particularly adept at moving Persian vegetables and gourmet wild mushrooms harvested in the California woods. An Iranian who resides less than a mile from the store provides Persian leeks, lemon grass, jobo root and several other Persian items. The mushroom selection includes hedge hog mushrooms for $4.69.

Cosentino's also offers at least 15 fresh herbs to please its ethnic and American clientele. Salsify, cilantro, winter melon, bitter melon, rosemary and tarragon were all available in December. As well as pleasing people who use these ingredients in traditional dishes, the herbs attract Californians who enjoy cooking with fresh spices. The market also stocks a broad selection of peppers and spices used in Mexican cuisine.

When items are not available from gardeners, local farmers or the three terminal markets, Cosentino brings them in from abroad. Strawberries from New Zealand, figs from Greece and cropolini from Italy were all on display recently.

The selection and quality of the fruits and vegetables has made Cosentino's possibly the best produce operation in a state known for the quality of its fresh produce and its supermarkets. Phil Cosentino's unconventional approach and untiring devotions to his business have paid off handsomely.
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Title Annotation:Produce Talk
Author:Dyer, Lee
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Feb 1, 1985
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