Steve Wright
Steve Wright

Steve Wright’s career in retail started as many do, bagging groceries, but the director of produce for Buffalo-based Tops Friendly Markets said retail has been a natural match.

“I’ve spent 31 years in the business but don’t feel like I’ve worked a day in my life,” he said. “That’s the neat part of it.”

Wright, 48, joined Tops three years ago after working at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spartan Stores in the wholesale division.

He was eager to get back to the retail side, he said, hence the move.

Wright was named the 2013 Produce Retailer of the Year by The Packer’s sister publication, Produce Retailer, due in part to his aggressive attitude toward sales and promotions.

Wright has a “nose to the grindstone” approach that consistently has increased sales and profits at Tops during the past three years, said Donna Burns, owner at Buffalo-based Chesapeake North Group LLC.

“Working in the food industry for the past 25 years, I have certainly crossed paths with many individuals,” Burns said.

“Of them, Steve has stood out as a man of integrity, vision and passion or both his work and people. He’s a rare find,” she said.

Wright said his approach to vendor relationships focuses on the end result — increased sales.

“We have great partner relationships within the industry, and we’re doing critical things to drive produce sales,” he said.

“We all want to buy something safe, but complacency is a recipe for failure,” he said.

Tops has been on an aggressive growth strategy over the past several years, with the acquisition of Penn Traffic and Grand Union and an upscale test format called Orchard Fresh.

The look of Tops produce departments is getting an overhaul as well, Wright said.

The company has completed a remodel of about 30 stores, featuring a new look to including upgraded fixtures, premium flooring, dark wood cases and enhanced lighting.

The changes are evident, said Tom Brown, vice president of sales at Savage, Md.-based East Coast Fresh Cuts.

“Fresh, innovative and first to market is obvious when you enter the store,” Brown said.

“Take a look at the new Orchard Fresh store, the produce department sets the stage for a tremendous shopping experience.”

Tops, in a competitive market with strong players in both gourmet and discount grocery, is focusing on its role as a “store of the community,” Wright said.

“You don’t have to have a super mega store,” he said. “We’re focused on who we are – a small, local retailer who is really involved in the community and in touch with what’s going on.”