Garden of eating

With a large selection of local produce, a 48-foot salad bar and local artisan groceries, Fruit Center Marketplace is a foodie’s paradise on earth.

Fruit Center Marketplace has been in business for 40 years, but on Friday, April 19, scores of new customers discovered it for the first time.

With Boston and its immediate suburbs under lockdown while authorities saladbarsearched for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev, many locals ventured to the South Shore to do their grocery shopping and stumbled upon the quaint grocery store.

“The Boston lockdown had an interesting effect on us because it was school vacation week here and normally that Friday is very quiet, but we were incredibly busy,” says Michael Mignosa, store manager and son of founder Don Mignosa. “We had such long lines and I saw a lot of people I hadn’t seen before. People were coming in from other parts of the city because they couldn’t shop anyplace else because everything was closed down.”

They learned what residents of Milton, Dorchester, Hyde Park and South Boston have known for years: Fruit Center Marketplace in Milton is something special, known for its 48-foot salad bar, massive produce selection, homemade prepared foods, competitively priced wines and scores of hard-to-find local and artisan grocery and perishables products.
“I think people in this area really respond to what we do,” says Michael Dwyer, marketing director. “We offer a lot of quality so they are willing to travel a lot further than your typical supermarket customer.”

Fruit Center Marketplace—also known as FC Marketplace—traces its roots to 1889 when Sicilian immigrant Carmelo Mignosa opened Mignosa’s Fruit Stand on West Broadway in Boston. In 1973 his son Don opened a store called Fruit Center in Weymouth, Mass., (since closed) followed by a second location in 1976 in Hingham. In 1979 the Milton store opened. In 1981 it moved across the street to the Milton Marketplace where it co-anchors with CVS and four smaller stores. The original Milton building is now the corporate office, while the Hingham location, some 20 minutes south and managed by Mike’s brother Mark, operates in a far more competitive environment against Whole Foods, Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Roche Bros., Hannaford, The Fresh Market and Market Basket, with Trader Joe’s and Wegmans coming soon.

“There are five supermarkets in Hingham and the fact that we are able to do very well in the Hingham store, despite the competition, really makes us feel pretty well about where we are and what we do,” Dwyer says.

Fruit Center continues to grow by sticking to old-fashioned business acumen. It eschews loyalty cards, TV and radio ads, although it has developed quite a following on Facebook and Twitter. Many of its employees have been with the company for decades, and last year Fruit Center was named one of the area’s  “Top Medium-Sized Places to Work” by The Boston Globe.

“From a marketing perspective it is high-tech versus high-touch,” says Dwyer. “Stop & Shop and CVS are high-tech with their loyalty cards and fancy checkout devices, whereas we are ‘high-touch’ with our interactions by our staff and that sort of thing. It is a more personal approach to shopping.”

Shoppers appreciate the freshness and selection found in Fruit Center, especially in the produce.

“What is different from an average supermarket is that our buyer is our general manager and he is in the produce market himself,” says Mignosa. “We do it ourselves. We don’t use produce brokers. We want to see what we are buying day in and day out.”

The person doing that is Steve DiGiusto. He started with Fruit Center Marketplace in 1976 as produce buyer and manager at the Hingham store. Today he is general manager for both stores.

“The mainstay of our store is the produce,” DiGiusto says. “We have a large produce department, huge salad bar and big cheese department and deli.”

By working directly with suppliers DiGiusto says he is able to get the best quality at aggressive prices. “We are actually as competitive—if not more so,” he says. “I was in Whole Foods—their prices on produce! On groceries we’re a touch higher, but on everything else, over the years we’ve gotten more aggressive with our margins and we buy smarter and pass that on to the customer.”

DiGiusto says “buying smarter” means working more closely with brokers and directly with manufacturers for grocery products and “knowing what the market is” when it comes to produce. “We pull a lot of organics now out of New York, which gives us quite an advantage,” he says.

For many items, Fruit Center Marketplace works with Baldor, one of its suppliers. “Baldor has a place in Boston, but I deal with New York. They bring product up from New York, leave it at their plant in Boston and then we pick it up. So we are basically up to six days a week down in the markets,” he says.

He is also down on the farm.

“In the local growing season we are heavily involved with local farmers,” DiGiusto says. “We seem to add more every year. We have farmers from Rhode Island, New Hampshire, actually all of New England, but the bulk of them are located within miles of our stores.”
DiGiusto says the ability to buy local gives Fruit Center a distinct advantage over its large chain-store competitors when it comes to freshness and flavor since hundred-store operations cannot logistically deal with small mom and pop farmers. “The other advantage is that we are cutting out the middleman so our pricing is better,” he says. It seems customers agree; the produce department accounts for 25% of sales.

A world of produce
After walking into the store and picking up a few bottles from the large display of Simpson Spring soda just inside the entrance [see sidebar], most shoppers turn left and enter the produce department where everything is neatly merchandised in wicker baskets or artfully arranged in diagonal linear displays.

Fruit Center carries produce from near and far. Fiddlehead ferns sprouted in Hadley, Mass., while the Bibb lettuce was flown in from Holland. Packages of cooked and peeled red beets hail from Lithuania. The section includes organic lemons, fresh lemongrass, organic baby arugula, tri-colored carrots, frisée and Upland Cress.

Many of the produce items find their way into Fruit Center’s famous salad bar. At 48-feet long and with at least 100 different items it is quite the draw. “We have customers coming in two or three times a week—and some come in two or three times a day for the salad bar,” says DiGiusto.

One look at the spread and it is easy to see why. This is not just chopped lettuce, sliced onions, croutons and dressing, but a full range of accompaniments, including pastas, cheeses, chicken nuggets, peas, wheatberry salad, roasted cauliflower, quinoa, balsamic tofu, meatballs, breaded eggplant and bite-sized triangles of ruby red watermelon perfectly aligned like teams of soldiers, to name just a few.

All of the items are prepared throughout the day at Fruit Center Marketplace’s kitchen on the second floor. It shares space with the Café, which is open for breakfast and lunch.
The kitchen is also where Fruit Center’s assortment of chilled prepared foods are created. Specialties include Fruit Center’s Own brand stuffed green beans, mashed root vegetables, maple glazed carrots, quinoa stuffed peppers, haddock with jasmine rice, homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes, along with a Bleu Cheese and Cheddar Spread that is a definite best-seller.

Items in the bulk foods department are also packaged upstairs and include a broad assortment of nuts, grains, dried fruits and candies.

Leased meat
Prepared foods and the Boar’s Head deli are sandwiched between sushi and service seafood. Sounds like the layout in many of a typical supermarket, but in an unusual twist, sushi, seafood and meat are all leased departments operated by outside vendors. Seafood is run by Rocky Neck Fish, sushi is operated by Mike’s Fresh Sushi and the meat department is run by Kinnealey Quality Meats.

“One of the reasons we do this is because our thought process is ‘let the people who do it best do it,’” says Mignosa. The operations are run “old school,” he adds, with customers having to pay at each concession. “Most of our customers are regulars. They know the system and have been shopping in our stores for eons so it is not really an issue.”

All three operators are top of the line, Fruit Center Marketplace officials say. Rocky Neck is primarily a wholesaler supplying Boston’s best seafood restaurants with top-quality day boat seafood. When it comes to meat, the same can be said of Kinnealey.

“Kinnealey’s is basically known for servicing high-end restaurants and some colleges,” says Sue Barney, a Kinnealey associate. “Our only other retail store is John Dewar & Co. in Wellesley. Our prices might be a little bit higher than a Shaw’s or Stop & Shop, but the quality is excellent. We find it definitely an advantage to be inside Fruit Center,” she says.
Mike’s Sushi is also a cut above the standard supermarket competition. In addition to the standard California rolls, atypical specialties include cooked eel and avocado; spicy tuna and strawberry; spicy tuna, cashews and wasabi sauce; and battered cooked soft shell crab rolls.

Many customers might want to pick up a bottle of wine to go with their sushi. Merchandised on stylish wooden racks, the small wine department does a booming business. “We have a real mix between domestic and imwineported,” Dwyer says. “It is a small area, but we sell an incredible quantity of wine.”

A similar story unfolds in the bakery department where breads, rolls and desserts are brought in from the area’s top artisan bakers, including Hearth Artisan Bread, Nishoba Brook, Calise, Central Bakery from Cambridge, Piantedosi out of Malden and Ginger Betty’s Bakery.

That local flavor carries over to Fruit Center’s gourmet and regular grocery departments too.

“The trend is for local product now. We are definitely taking advantage of that,” says Dwyer. At Fruit Center “local” runs the gamut from tiny mom and pop firms to larger companies like Stonewall Kitchen. The store devotes an entire wall display to Stonewall Kitchen items and was one of the gourmet grocery firm’s first customers when it was founded in 1991.

“Fruit Center Marketplace is a great destination for Stonewall Kitchen products,” says Kathleen O’Brien, regional sales manager for York, Maine-based Stonewall Kitchen. “Over the years, they have expanded their assortment and today carry our entire product line. Their staff is friendly and knowledgeable and we have partnered with them several times by providing samples of our jams and mustards to be used as giveaways. We appreciate their partnership and support to help increase brand awareness.”

Dwyer estimates that local products represent a good 25% of Fruit Center’s product offerings. They can be found in just about every category: Ooma Tesor’s pasta sauce from the Berkshires; Boston Bean Dip out of Pembroke, Mass.; Shoe City Tavern bar pizza out of Brockton; NoLa’s Fresh Salsa from Jamaica Plain; Quinn microwave popcorn from Arlington; Red Eye Roasters coffee out of Hingham; and Thatcher Farm chocolate milk from right in Milton.

“We are really aggressive about carrying a lot of local products and dealing with a lot of local people,” says Mignosa. “We deal with a lot of small companies and start-ups too. People come to us all the time and say, ‘I have this great product and I would love to sell it in your store.’ We take them through the process of what they need to do and we have started a lot of people off that way.”

Fruit Center’s charity efforts also keep customers coming back. “Every year we give to over 100 charitable organizations, local organizations and schools,” says Dwyer.

One eagerly awaited event is the School Fundraising Week where vouchers are given to parents of school children in Milton and Hingham. When presented at checkout, 20% of their total is donated to the school. The program is heavily promoted by the schools; “Last year we gave back over $11,000.00,” Dwyer says.

Giving peace cookies a chance
Officials at Fruit Center Marketplace work closely with local vendors, so when Ginger Betty’s Bakery in neighboring Quincy created a cookie to raise funds for the family of eight-year-old Boston Marathon bombing victim Martin Richard it was only natural the Fruit Center Marketplace would be stocking it.

Modeled after a poster that Martin made, the round peace symbol-shape gingerbread cookie also contains a red icing heart and blue scripted “M” for Martin. The cookies went on sale for $5.00 each on April 25, with all proceeds going to the Richard family.
“We’re selling a lot of these cookies and had to re-order within three days,” says Michael Dwyer, marketing director.

“I’m hearing from our folks on the floor that customers are just handing money over at the register saying to give it to the Richard family, or they are purchasing the cookies at the register and then placing them back on the display simply because they just want to donate to the family,” he says. “The outpouring of support for the victims of this incident is amazing.”

Pop-ular new addition
The newest local product at Fruit Center Marketplace is ironically also one of the oldest. This spring the store began stocking Simpson Spring brand soda, produced in Easton, Mass., by Simpson Spring Co., at what company officials describe as “the oldest bottling plant in America.”

“They are a very small old-fashioned outfit,” says Michael Dwyer, marketing director, pointing to the display of unevenly filled 12-ounce glass bottles just inside the store entrance. “We have been carrying their product for only about a month and we are already their largest customer by far.”

The hand-mixed sodas are made using water from Simpson Spring. Indians discovered the source in the 1500s and believed it had healing powers. Samuel Simpson acquired the land in 1830 and farmed it for 50 years until his grandson-in-law realized the commercial value of the pure water and started selling it to Boston shoe factories. “Carbonation had recently been invented and he started experimenting with that, adding natural flavorings and creating the soda that made us popular,” says Chris Bertarelli, co-owner.

The sodas are available in several flavors including Cola, White Birch, Fruit Punch, Ginger Ale, Sarsaparilla, Root Beer, Cream, Lemon Lime, Grape, Orange and Coffee. The Coffee flavor was carried exclusively by R.H. Macy in New York until rationing limited sales of coffee and sugar during World War II. “They would open up the Northeastern Train Depot in Easton when we had a delivery and it would take them all day to load up the train to ship it to Macy’s in New York,” Bertarelli says. “They called it Sparkoffee.”

Now Simpson Spring is developing a Fruit Center Marketplace-exclusive flavor: Raspberry Lime Rickey. “Fred Zagrodny, the buyer at Fruit Center, asked if we could sell a Raspberry Lime Rickey,” she says. “We worked with a chemist who helped us develop a recipe and began shipping it in May.”

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