How Trader Joe’s founder uses ‘fresh’ and ‘local’ to sell recovered food

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daily table produce

Located deep in what many would consider “the hood,” the Dorchester section of Boston, is a lesson in how to convey “fresh” and “local” when you’re dealing with food that is usually discarded because the sell-by date has passed.

Daily Table, a not-for-profit, one-unit (so far) operation described as a “retail store/restaurant,” is the brainchild of Trader Joe’s founder Doug Rauch. Here’s how the store’s website describes its model and mission: “Simply put: Use one challenge to help tackle another challenge. Use the excess, available food from growers, manufacturers and supermarkets to provide affordable healthy food for the food insecure … Think of us like a T.J. Maxx or Marshall’s for food.” The food, it clarifies, is safe even though it may be several days past its sell-by, use-by or best-by dates.

Much of the media coverage of the store’s opening this week has focused on the food-waste portion of its mission. Its own site notes that 80 billion pounds of food is wasted in the U.S. each year, about 40 percent of everything we grow.

But one step inside the doors of the small retail space immediately reveals that freshness and community are the much bigger message. How those are conveyed holds lessons for foodservice as a whole, including c-stores and noncommercial operations.

How does Daily Table play up fresh when the food it’s selling technically is not?

Prepared meals

It appeared that about 40 percent of the food on offer at Daily Table was prepared meals. Closest to the door are refrigerated cases stocked with a variety of housemade soups for $1.49 and similarly priced individual meals, including Salisbury steak and brown rice—a set up not unlike the take-home meal sections at higher end grocers such as Standard Market and Whole Foods. Another case held single-serve containers of fresh pasta.

By using ingredients that are safe, even if past their best-by date, Rauch’s operation gives the food new life, in a form that he is able to sell.

Transparency, literally

Not only is the store up-front about the nature of the ingredients, but all the prepared food is packaged and labeled in clear plastic containers so customers can see the quality of the food they’re purchasing.

A large picture window next to the cases of prepared food provides shoppers a full view of the staff in the kitchen making the entrees.

Whatever’s available

Because Daily Table sells overstocked product, there was a hodgepodge of grocery items on the shelves and in the cases on the day I visited. There were lots of cans of tuna fish and of tomato sauce, a full freezer case of bagged fish fillets, bags of uncooked pasta offered two for $1.00 (“all shapes!”), boxes of one kind of cereal and one brand of protein bars, for sale by the box for $4.49 or as loosies for $.49 a bar.

A farmers’ market feel

Daily Table also buys some items from growers, and there were about four different kinds of fresh produce that day. Large wooden crates in the center of the store were overflowing with a bumper crop of corn; the husks weren’t the clean, green color you’d find in supermarkets, but peeling them back revealed perfectly good ears underneath.

There also were a few plastic bins in the refrigerated case: one brimming with fresh stalks of celery, as well as fresh cucumbers and leafy collard greens.

Chalkboard and handwritten signs

Not only practical to keep up with the ever-changing switch out of product for sale, the handwritten signs labeling what’s on the shelves and the more artistically drawn chalkboard signs on the wall explaining the concept to customers, suggest a “what’s good today” vibe that reinforces Daily Table’s freshness philosophy.

Free samples

Another way it proves to shoppers that the food is fresh and good to eat is by offering free samples, something Trader Joe’s is known for. That day, it was the protein bars Daily Table was doling out.

At times, Rauch himself passes out free bites, all the while watching for the reaction and acceptance of customers to the new kind of operation.

Daily Table’s location is no accident. The health-minded store shares a building with the Healthworks Fitness Center, which provides health education and exercise classes for the Codman District in which it is located. It’s also is across from an elementary school, and its approach to “fresh,” healthy offerings and prepared meals serves as powerful countermessaging for the children and families of the community, which is regarded as a food desert.
 

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