Chatting April 11 with Rob Johnson, produce buyer for the Westborough, Mass.-based BJ’s Wholesale Club.

10:30 a.m. Tom Karst: What were some of the challenges you had in creating the “Farm to Club” local sourcing program?

Karst chat with Rob Johnson: On BJ's Farm to Club program10:30 a.m. Rob Johnson: The program initially started last year. I started working on the program two years ago. The first and greatest challenge when I put this program together was BJ’s mission statement as it relates to “local.” As you know, the USDA has no regulations or definition for local.

So what we decided to do here at BJ’s was that anything grown in the same state as one of our clubs, we would consider local. So presently, we have 195 clubs in 15 different states. First off, I had to have farmers in each state growing product specifically for us. Then I had to have it packaged, delivered to the distribution centers and out to the chains.

From the growing part of it, it was very challenging. The logistics part was very challenging. Obviously, in our Orlando distribution center, I’ve got all of Florida, all of Georgia, all of North Carolina coming out of that one distribution center. So I have to have all my Farm to Club items slotted by state rather than just say corn, peppers and cukes.

I had to have three slots for corn, three slots for peppers and three slots for cukes. As you come up to the New England area, our Rocky Hill, Conn., and Upton, Mass., facilities, we have six and seven states coming out of one distribution center. So if you think about that, if I have eight different items and six states, that is 48 slots I need in my DCs.

So, it is a very complex program. I have been doing this for 30 years, and it is by far the greatest challenge that I ever had in produce. But I’ve really enjoyed it and the member feedback is what I’m most proud of and how much we are helping out our farmers.

10:33 a.m. Karst: Talking about the growers, how many growers per state are you aiming for and how did you go about the process of identifying those growers you feel confident in and feel good about?

10:33 a.m. Johnson: It varies by state, the amount of growers I have. In some of our states, like Georgia, we only have five or six clubs, so I might only have three or four growers. In New York, we have 40 clubs, so I have ten different growers in the state of New York. So (the number of growers) is based on the amount of clubs I have per state. What we initially did was we went around to these different growers — people in the industry have given me names of different farmers to use, and there are a lot of farmers I have used in the past since I’ve worked at retail before.

The departments of agriculture in each state have been immensely helpful in pointing me in the right direction on what growers to use. So basically it comes down to how clubs in each states; that determines how many farmers I use. I’m constantly looking at it. Last year we able to suppply (Farm to Club) in 167 clubs in nine states. This year I will do the entire chain — I’m going to 195 club stores in all 15 states this year.

10:35 a.m. Karst: What made you confident that this program — as you began to put it together and now as it is more of a finished product — what made you confident that it would be a wining approach to local foods and for your members, too? What kind of feedback have you gotten?

10:36 a.m. Johnson: What we do at BJ’s is that we are wholesale club. But as a buyer, I take it very seriously that our members have to pay a membership to shop at the club. I constantly have to challenge myself as well as the produce division to constantly raise the bar and try to differentiate ourselves from everybody else and give our members what they are looking for.

The more and more I heard back from our members — and I read The Packer and other trade publications — all the feedback I’ve been getting for years is that people are very big into organic now, they are very big into local now. They want to know where the product is coming from, and if they can support their local communities they really want to do that rather than say if I am importing from Mexico, bringing it in from California or even New Jersey down to Florida.

So the feedback I was getting — and this started two years ago — was that our members are looking for local product, let’s figure out a way to do it. That’s basically how the whole thing started.

As far as the feedback on this program, your second question, the feedback on this program has absolutely been tremendous. The sales results, we have double-digit comps on the entire chain rolling up the East Coast in every state we are rolling into. The feedback we get on Twitter, Facebook and all that, show the members are very excited about that. They know where the product is coming from.

One thing that we are doing with the signage is that when you walk into the club - say in Florida right now because we are rolling in Florida now - on the top line of the sign it says “grown in Florida” and the second line it says the town the product is grown in.

Then when they go to the corn, or the pepper or the cuke or the tomato, they turn the package over where the barcode is and they can see the farm that it came from and the address on every package. So I’m doing this in each state as I roll up the East Coast.

What I’m trying to do is connect our members with the growers in their towns and communities. And BJ’s is just the vehicle to connect the two of them.

 10:39 a.m. Karst: Was it difficult finding growers you could work with, who wanted to be a part of the Farm to Club program? Did it take some time for them to understand what you were trying to accomplish?

 10:39 a.m. Johnson: When we first went out there were a few growers who might have wanted to just keep it local and didn’t want a big company like ours coming in. But I'll tell you a quick story about Long Plain Farms in Whately, Mass. We are already his biggest customer.  He and his brother are third-generation farmers. They couldn’t be thankful enough for us. I can support him so well with our volume that he is absolutely thrilled with it.

The whole point of this program, what I put in place, is that we need to help out these local farmers. Farming is such a tough, tough, tough industry that anytime we can come in and help these farmers out in each one of our states, I think we should do it.

 10:41 a.m. Karst: Is all the “Farm to Club” produce packaged, or do you have some in bulk?

 10:42 a.m. Johnson: We sell no bulk produce at BJ’s. Everything is in a package, a clamshell or a bag. What I do is have most of my farmers package their produce right at the farm for me. We have Farm to Club packaging, we have a Farm to Club bins. So it’s very easily recognized for our members to pick it up.

We put in a high-traffic area, we put it all by itself. It is usually like a walk around display, like a two-table display, maybe a four-table display depending on the size of the club. It is very easy to recognize when the members go in to the club.

10:43 a.m. Karst: What are your expectations on how big the program can be? Do you think this program will have staying power and be a part of your future?

 10:44 a.m. Johnson: As far as the size of this program, our boss tells us you never build a program on stilts. You always have to build a program that is sustainable. We have already expanded from nine states to 15 states within a year. I’ve already expanded the program to bring in three or four more items this year versus last year. We can’t do it on every item in the produce department, but we can do it on all the summer-related items, like tomatoes, corn, peppers, cucumbers — all the number one summer items for vegetables.

As far as the way I look at this program, this program will be part of standard operating procedure for the produce department for years to come.