I visited a Wegmans store in upstate New York about 18 years ago.

With all its huge expanse of space, rolling sandwich wagons that popped up during the lunch hour, and mobile ice cream wagons that could tantalized the most disciplined shopper, one item that stuck out was as simple as anyone could imagine: green onions.

The chain’s green onions were nearly three feet long. With double facings and flanked with good color breaks, the display was unlike any I had seen before. It was … cool.

Signature items set stores apart
Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

“That’s their signature item,” one of my cohorts said.

A signature item? It’s a subject that until then I had never really given much thought, especially in produce.

After all, doesn’t every chain that carries a full produce line have everything like everyone else? As the reference to the green onions demonstrates, apparently not. Everyone else carried the trimmed-down version. The long version didn’t cost much more, and gave an image of value.

A signature item, I came to understand, is something an organization carries or does that sets them apart from its competition. Sometimes you even see the signature status as a label in its own right, such as on soup, clothing lines and so on.

Sometimes foodservice gets in on the act. From little Mom & Pop diners that paint on their window “Home of the Tacorito!” to something as widespread as “Home of the Whopper.” Other names fit too: Shelby is a signature Mustang, FUBU is a signature line of clothes, and Newman’s Own is a signature line of many food and pet food products. Many founders/owners literally sign their names to the product labels, assuring quality but also seeking recognition beyond brand recognition.

We all have our favorite products. Whatever the item, it must pass the test of distinction or quality to qualify as signature. Beyond this is exclusivity. Trader Joe’s has been successful at this for years, known for selling a value line of wines, Charles Shaw, dubbed Two Buck Chuck.

But back to produce. What is your signature? Is it service? Or maybe you do in-store cut fruit, or stock a premium label or push value-added, tote bags or commodities. Maybe your store is exclusive with a certain item, size or pack. Whatever draws your customers in, and whatever makes them say to a neighbor “I go to this store because nobody else stocks/makes/does this better,” it becomes part and parcel of your organization.

From then on, unless someone can do it better, you own it. You can sign your name to it, and call it your own.

“It” may not set you free, but it will set you apart. Which these days is saying something.

You can even hang your hat on it.
Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail armandlobato@comcast.net.