At Super King Markets, produce is king. Eddie Avila, director of produce, joined the company in 2017, with more than 30 years of industry experience.
Avila, who had worked for Albertsons in Southern California for 32 years, said he didn’t realize what a produce buyer was until he got into the independent grocer arena.
“When I was working for Albertsons, our job was to fulfill the orders…now, working for Super King Market, it really opens your eyes and teaches you how to buy,” he explained. “You’re going out there and you’re looking for quality, value and cost. You want to get the right cost so that you can pass it on to your customers.”
That has been the main difference. Avila said at his previous job he didn’t consider himself a buyer because he was just fulfilling orders, no matter the cost.
“Here, it’s very important to me – and it’s important to my numbers and it’s important to my customers – that I find the right product at the right price and the right quality…that’s the biggest difference that I noticed in the 30-some years that I’ve been doing this. When I came to Super King, I learned how to buy.”
The volume of produce also has been different. Avila said three of Super King’s eight stores get two-and-a-half to three trucks of produce a day. The other locations get two. “And these are full trucks of produce…it’s a big difference in volume. We just move tonnage.”
Avila has three buyers on his team. He said Super King is one of the only retailers to go in and walk the Los Angeles produce market every day. “That’s to keep the pulse, to find out exactly what’s going on. And it’s a big benefit to us.”
He credits the Fermanian family, owners of Super King, with finding a great warehouse location across the street from the L.A. market. “We know what’s happening every day, on every commodity.”
The produce departments in the Super King stores are popular with customers, especially when their favorite items are on sale. Avila cited jackfruit as an example.
“Jackfruit is something that’s been around for many, many years but is not known by many people,” he said. “When I came to Super King, it was something that wasn’t really ever pushed. Jackfruit is an Asian fruit that Asians love. They go in and they’ll buy as much as they can get their hands on when they find a great price.”
One Super King location has a large Asian clientele. “We put the jackfruit at three pounds for 99 [cents], and we had customers fighting – literally, yelling at each other – because it was their jackfruit…they couldn’t get their arms around enough.”
Avila said the store ended up selling 10-15 pallets of jackfruit a day in that store, “which was unheard of.” Persian cucumbers are another popular item at Super King.
“They’ve been pushing Persian cucumbers here in this company forever,” he said. “In a typical retailer, the No. 1 item is banana, and then you go to a Roma tomato or some type of tomato for No. 2. Here in our company, it’s Persian [cucumbers].
“When we put them [in our] ad, customers will push each other, and you hear five or six different languages at the table…sometimes we have to separate them.”
According to Avila, those anecdotes show that customers are paying attention to the Super King ads and to the quality and price of the produce. “They like what we’re doing for the consumer.”
Avila praised the Fermanian family for knowing that produce is the driver. “We see it in the sales,” he said. “Produce is the driver when it comes to Super King. It’s the heart, it’s what keeps the company going.”
He went on to describe Super King’s produce departments as “massive,” adding that its competitors have “nothing in comparison to what we have.” Walking into the newer stores, the first thing customers encounter is the produce department.
“We have big departments, and we still try to do what we can outside with a farmers market look to entice [customers],” he said. “It is a unique concept and very, very different than what everybody else is doing.”
To deal with such a large volume, Avila said produce is ordered in advance to be “ahead of the game.”
“You order Monday for a Wednesday ad. You don’t order Tuesday for a Wednesday ad,” he explained. “All of our suppliers are getting used to knowing that we’re going to break an ad on a Wednesday, but I’m going to expect the produce in the warehouse on Monday.
“It’s just to be prepared, because a lot of our suppliers are hesitant now to give us ad pricing because we move so much volume.”
As opposed to some grocers that order one truckload, Super King is asking for three to five. “We’re running Roma tomatoes on ad this week, and I’m bringing in five truckloads. That’s almost a truckload a store, if you start looking at it. You have to be prepared.”
Avila said the other buyers on his team came into the department with little to no experience in produce.
“It was nice for me because I got to train these guys from not knowing anything, to learning what I’ve done for the last 30-some years,” he said. “And we’ve been able to maintain the volume and the commodities so that we don’t run short, and we have supply for our customers.”
The produce buying team meets every Monday morning with Peter, Vache and Jake Fermanian to discuss the upcoming ad and the previous week’s sales, Avila said. They talk about what’s coming up and what they need to do better. He said he also talks to the stores’ produce managers via conference call every other week to keep them involved and share information.
“Vache, Peter and Jake are very, very well involved. I talk to ownership every single day, three to four times a day,” he said.
As Avila noted, that communication is important. “Like we say, ‘As produce goes, so goes the company.’ We have to be right.”
Avila is married with two grown children, who are not in the business. It is a tough field, he said, adding that he gets up at 3 a.m. each day. “You either love it or you don’t. If you love it, you do it for 37 years that I’ve been doing it. If you don’t, you’re gone in a couple of years.”
Avila has found a successful career in produce. “I’ve been married 34 years this March,” he said. “I think my wife loves it that I love it.”
For more information about Super King’s departments, visit superkingmarkets.com/pages/departments-sk.
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