The rise of the produce butcher

Feb 16, 2018

Since Whole Foods launched an in-store produce butcher in New York early last year the service has become commonplace in premium supermarkets across North America. GDR’s Hannah Hunt investigates why so many grocers are turning vegetable chopping into a theatrical event, and explores whether it is convenience or the rise of veganism that makes it so popular with customers.


In the last few years, traditional supermarkets have increasingly struggled to compete with e-commerce grocers like Amazon and Blue Apron. One of the most recent attempts we’ve seen to combat this is the development of in-store “produce butchers”.


The rise of the produce butcher

The idea of a produce butcher can be traced back to a New York City dinner in 2010. Installation artist Jennifer Rubell was having a late meal with her friend Mario Batali, the celebrity chef and owner of Eatly, when Rubell suggested the store feature a vegetable expert who would be as helpful as a cheesemonger or traditional meat butcher. As a result, Rubell became the world’s first official “produce butcher.”

What exactly is a produce butcher? The counter works in a similar way to traditional meat or fish counters; it lets customers shop produce and instruct a member of staff how they would like their vegetables chopped. Customers can choose to have their produce diced, sliced, grated or julienned.

Produce butchers are becoming more and more common in premium supermarkets in North America. There is one in Whole Foods Bryant Park in New York, Toronto’s Pusateri’s and Chicago’s Treasure Island. There are even three different grocers in Minnesota now; in Hy-Vee, Coborn’s and Sartell. While some grocers, such as Pusateri’s, offer the service free of charge, others, such as Whole Foods, charge $1/lb on top of the cost of the produce.


The produce butcher in Whole Foods Bryant Park


Promoting staff expertise

There are a number of reasons why retailers are starting to offer produce butchers, but the core reason is that it allows them to offer a level of service that cannot be replicated online.

Pushing staff to the forefront and promoting their expertise, for example, is a great differentiator. In this way, the service echoes one of the most popular case studies that GDR has covered in recent years: Household’s SuperValu redesign in Dublin where hero images are displayed above each counter featuring the people who work behind them. As well as championing their expertise, this also makes them feel more approachable for customers.

Part of the produce butcher’s role is educational. Customers can ask questions about cooking and preparation. Not sure how to trim a fennel bulb? Ask them. Looking for a tear-free way to chop onions? Watch their technique closely as they do it for you. This is a level of service that supermarkets simply cannot give customers online.

Produce butchers also empower customers to buy a wider range of produce. Whereas previously a customer might feel intimidated by exotic produce like a dragon fruit, and thus avoid buying it, now a produce butcher can alleviate their fears and make sure they know exactly how to best prepare and eat it.



Experiential retail and useful shortcuts

Experiential retail is another contributor. Something that was once done in a backroom (chopping fruit and vegetables) is now being done front and centre on the shop floor, adding an element of theatre to the grocery shopping journey.

“Everyone’s always happy to see their food prepared in front of them,” said Martin Birgholtz, a Minnesota grocery store produce butcher.

One of the biggest bugbears of online grocery shopping is the fact that customers have no control over what size their produce is actually going to be. Additionally, some in-store shoppers perceive that pre-chopped and packaged produce is not as fresh as buying individual items. A produce butcher solves both of these potential barriers to purchase. Customers can choose the exact fruit and vegetables they want, and then hand them over to the produce butcher for a convenient and personalised service.

“One of the problems with vegetables is that they’re really high maintenance,” said Traci Mann, director of the Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. “The smallest little obstacles stop people from eating vegetables: scrapping a carrot, cleaning lettuce, chopping it.” In this way, produce butchers offer useful shortcuts to people who want to cook, but who may lack the skill or the time to prepare certain ingredients from scratch.

“It just saves time,” a Hy-Vee customer who was getting his peppers and onions diced, is quoted in The Star Tribune. “So you stop by the grocery store, pick up the chopped vegetables and it cuts down on your cooking time.”


McDonald’s vegan burger


Change in customer expectations

Aside from convenience, another significant reason why produce butchers are resonating so well with consumers is that they align with considerable shifts in customer expectations and values.

Firstly, the ideals of veganism and flexitarianism have never been more popular. In the last 12 months alone McDonald’s has developed a vegan burger in Scandinavia, Coop Switzerland has launched a vegetarian-only store, and Colorado Whole Food’s stores have begun selling meatless burgers in the meat aisle. A Pew study found that 54% of Americans pay more attention to eating healthy foods than they did 20 years ago. Foods like processed cereals and high cholesterol meats don’t hold the same appeal for shoppers that they once did. Furthermore, there is a growing acceptance that plant-based foods offer a more sustainable global food system.

Viewed through this lens, elevating vegetables to the status of meat makes perfect sense.

It is important to point out that produce butchers have been negatively received in some quarters for infantilising shoppers and championing laziness, and it is possible that in the past this criticism would have been even more widespread. However, the overwhelming strength of the concept is that it makes so much sense in this space and time. They offer physical grocery stores a useful tool to hit back against e-commerce disruptors, while resonating very precisely with a changing tide in how shoppers view food, and vegetables in particular. It’s a win-win for physical retailers and shoppers.

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