DAVIS, Calif. — There is nothing subtle about what section gets the emphasis at Nugget Market Inc., the Woodland, Calif.-based chain of nine stores.


The favored section often greets shoppers before they enter the market.


“All of our stores lead with fresh produce,” said Adam Bazarnik, director of produce.


A case in point is the Nugget Market on Covell Road in Davis, where the produce section is positioned at the very front of the market, stretching from one side of the building to the other. Shoppers must enter through the produce section to reach other departments.


The produce display actually begins before shoppers enter the market. Outside, melons, avocados, tomatoes and other fresh and packaged commodities are displayed on shelves and in bins standing guard at the front door.


The chain, founded in 1926 by the Stille family, which still owns and operates the markets, takes a can-do approach to tasks not normally shouldered by retail staff, Bazarnik said. For instance, all employees are encouraged to provide input on a store’s interior design, decor and product displays, he said.


The intricate ironwork in the Davis market’s produce department is homegrown. So, too, was the concept of covering the ironwork with a tough spray-on product designed for the beds of pickup trucks, Bazarnik said.


“It doesn’t chip or flake off as paint does,” he said.


While layouts vary store-to-store, Bazarnik said, the emphasis on fresh produce is a constant. A variable is what’s displayed in each market’s produce section.


“We cater to our neighborhoods,” he said.


The Davis store reflects that approach. Among the market’s neighbors are the University of California-Davis faculty and students, many of whom prefer organic produce.


“Organics play a big role in this store, in all of our stores,” Bazarnik said.


Nugget Markets are not new to organic produce. The chain began stocking a wide range of organic produce in the mid-90s, Bazarnik said. Despite the recession, the demand for organic produce remains strong, he said.


On the surface, Nugget Markets, with their custom ironwork displays in the produce section and unique architecture throughout the store, appear to target upper-income shoppers.


In addition to the wide range of produce, the markets feature coffee, juice and smoothie bars, gourmet foods and beverages, delis, full service bakeries, sushi and in-store pharmacies. Prices are competitive, however, Bazarnik said.


To press the point, Nugget Markets developed the Price Challenge and Price Challenge Scoreboard. Random customers are given $100 each to purchase groceries at a competitor’s store, Bazarnik said. The customer then returns to a Nugget Market, where prices are compared.


The results are posted near the front of each store on the Price Challenge Scoreboard, which reflects the chain’s wins and losses against competitors. It has been a particularly effective tool during the recession.


“People have never judged us more on price than they do now,” Bazarnik said.


The Price Challenge Scoreboard also helps customers save on gas money.


“They don’t have to drive around town to visit several stores to get the best prices on specific items,” Bazarnik said. “The scoreboard reflects just how competitive we are in all of our departments.”


The Nugget Market chain, with stores from Roseville northeast of Sacramento west to Vacaville, may have remained a dream were it not for a fire 83 years ago, said Gene Stille, the company’s chairman of the board and son of founder Mack Stille.


As Mack was planning to open the first Nugget Market in Woodland, his contractor father, William, was building a church about 100 miles north. Before the uninsured project was completed, it burned down, Gene Stille said, and William relocated to Woodland to assist his son.


The Stille family does not take all the credit for the success of the chain.


“It’s the people, the staffs,” Bazarnik said when asked to pinpoint how the chain remains successful in the face of competition from larger regional and national chains.


Bazarnik, himself, has known no other employer since starting as a teenage part-timer 17 years ago, he said. There are reasons for the loyalty.


For several years running, Fortune magazine has put Nugget Market on its nationwide list of 100 Best Companies to Work For. Among the reasons given for the selection, published this year in January, was the company’s eight decades-plus history of no layoffs.


The success of the produce section is not due solely to the staffs at the Nugget Markets, Bazarnik said. He pointed to the chain’s relationship with Nor-Cal Produce Inc., West Sacramento.


“We would not be where we are today without them,” he said. “They are a great partner.”