Getting Fresh Knowledge About Strawberries

Do you know how ripe, red, sweet-smelling strawberries make their way to our shelves? To answer that question, a lucky group of Giant Eagle Team Members visited our three largest suppliers — California Giant, Natureripe Berry Farms and Driscoll’s — at the peak of strawberry season. Scott Ackman, Category Manager – Produce, shared what they learned:

How did you decide who went?

We held a sales contest to kick off strawberry season. To give Team Members from different departments a chance to win, we included strawberries and related foods like Bakery items, whipped topping, cheeses and chocolate dip in the competition. Then we kept score by looking at the sales of those items as a percentage of total store sales, which makes it fair for smaller stores.

We grouped the stores together based on sales volume and picked a winner from each group. Then leaders at each winning picked which Team Members got to go. And a produce specialist, regional leader and produce inspector went, too. We really took a good cross section of the company. It was fun. It’s a mini vacation and education experience in one.

What was the most impressive thing you saw on your visit?

I’d say the amount of work it takes to get a package on the shelf. It’s amazing how much goes into getting strawberries from the field to a customer’s mouth. The farmer has to rotate crops and know which areas to plant in at what time of year. Then there’s the work that goes into getting them to our part of the country. If berries are picked Monday, they’re usually in the warehouse by Friday and in stores on Saturday. So, a week ago that fruit was in the field in California, and now it’s in your refrigerator.

You got to watch strawberry harvesting in action. Can you tell us more about how strawberries go from field to store?

Strawberries are all handpicked right now. A lot of companies use automation to pick other fruits and vegetables, but that’s difficult to do with berries because they’re so fragile.

We watched workers go out in fields and pick them one by one, put them in trays and actually run them down to the end of the rows to be loaded. They scan a chip and put a sticker on the case that says exactly when and where it was picked. Then it goes in the truck and the truck goes to the coolers.

It only takes an hour or two from when berries are picked to when they get to the coolers. They’re inspected and ready to ship that night.

What do these farms do to earn organic certification?

A lot! Organic growers can’t use pesticides so they have to keep the pests out naturally. And they won’t grow anything in a field for years so it can eventually become certified for organic crops. We saw a few fields that were completely empty. Growing organic is a challenge, but farmers know it’s something customers want so they’re really dedicating themselves to it.

You visited at the height of strawberry season, but what challenges do you face when strawberries are out of season?

Weather is the biggest challenge. Customers expect strawberries 52 weeks a year. They’re one of our most popular items. If you get frost or a drought or too much rain there can be a gap in supply. We have to anticipate all that and work with suppliers of all sizes and in different regions to make sure customers always have the best berries.

How do you make sure customers get the best possible price?

It’s really about having a good relationship with the supplier. We meet with them and plan the calendar six months in advance. But we also talk every day because prices fluctuate with the weather, supply and demand and other factors. Plus, since strawberries have to be driven nonstop across the country and kept cold the whole time, you have to have an efficient supply chain.

If you could tell customers one thing about the farms you visited what would it be?

The farmers are very proud of their work and they want to deliver the freshest, best fruit to us. When we visit, they have more questions for us than we have for them because they want to make us happy. They want to be sure they’re packing up the best product for our customers.