Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates
Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates

When I was 8 years old, Mini-Mart came to town.

Located at a stoplight on the highway, it was built on the 1960s car culture, just like the drive-in theater and drive-through banks.

It was a new gas station business model that pushed beyond fuel and pop to sell grocery items. Mini-Marts were designed so you could drive up, dart in and dash off with some milk, doughnuts, frozen juice and canned veggies — in addition to fuel.

Until the Mini-Mart came, on the disturbingly frequent occasions my mother would forget to buy something she’d press a dollar into my hand and make me walk three blocks in the summer sun crossing a highway to Nick’s Fruit Market.

There I’d pick up a striped bag of Wonder Bread or a bright-yellow box of Domino’s sugar from Nick’s dusty, meager selections.

Nick’s Fruit Market was our alternative channel to the IGA Foodliner or A&P, which we shopped once a week — and which mother deemed not to be walking distance for an 8-year-old pursuing forgotten items.

But the arrival of Mini-Mart in 1969 changed the channel for our fill-in shopping.

Having mom pull the Dodge Coronet into Mini-Mart so I could jump out and buy some staples became an every-few-days occurrence because it involved a location we were already passing and had a better selection than Nick’s Fruit Market.

It’s a generation later: Mini-Mart has dug up its fuel tanks and turned into a take-out pizza shop and used Moped lot.

In fact, the gas station/convenience market is one food channel that has been turned off permanently in most small towns.

Nowadays the trade pubs talk about how dollar stores and club stores are siphoning off produce sales that once belonged wholly to the grocery store.

While that’s true and grocers and produce shippers must pay attention, the out-and-out revolution about to hit the produce-shopping scene is ... drum roll ... the humble drugstore. The pharmacy. The Mini-Mart for the next 40 years.

Whether you’re in small-town America, suburbia or an urban center there is now a shiny new chain drugstore on every third corner.

Data indicate the actual number of drugstores is up only about 3%, but clearly the chains are investing heavily in upgrading and expanding their stores because they’re reading the tea leaves.

In the near future, pharmacies will sell me and thousands of other baby boomers reading glasses, Depends and all manner of life-enhancing products.

They’re Mini-Mart-like, positioned to capture food dollars because they are at a location we are already passing and they will have a broader array of desirable food items than Nick’s or Mini-Mart.

New audience

Directly to the point: Drugstore chains are a wonderful, focused market opportunity for produce. Seventy percent of U.S. drugstores are operated by three chains: CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid, in that order.

Rite Aid and Walgreens — with its much-trumpeted downtown Chicago flagship — have already entered the grocery business and they’re toying with produce.

Drugstores and produce should have a fantastic marriage. We’re always claiming we want to be linked to healthy eating and healthy living, right? The very foundation of the drugstore is health and living longer, so let’s pitch ‘em on produce.

But we’ll have to package produce differently!

It’s a drugstore — they don’t have refrigerated storerooms, misting systems or produce clerks. Theirs is a different customer in a different setting. He or she is not going to buy three pounds of potatoes on this stop.

But the drugstore shopper might buy a cup of fresh-cut cucumber sticks, a potato-chip-sized bag of blueberries and some lettuce and tomatoes for dinner. After all, their prescription has just reminded them of their fragile health and the need to eat better.

Drugstores need small, bright, modern packages of produce delivered in downsized cases. Especially items that are smaller servings, have long shelf lives, are washed and ready-to-eat in packages that stand up or hang well in the case.

Yes, this will cost more — but a coalition of the willing is going to supply produce to the modern drugstore. To tune into this new sales channel you need to reinvent the package, presentation and other trappings of your already fabulous produce.

Pairing fresh produce with the modern drugstore — which will supplant Mini-Mart and Nick’s Fruit Market for fill-in food sales — allows both industries to claim the moral high ground and make money in the process.

Better news: Mom’s still around, but she can’t make me walk there.

Denise Donohue is founder of Donohue Associates, DeWitt, Mich., a marketing and public relations firm specializing in agriculture. Before that, she was director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing.

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