The Not So Fresh Market
A deep look inside the produce department - with photos
The Fresh Market was founded in 1982 in Greensboro, North Carolina and according to the company website operates more than 160 stores in 22 states. The Fresh Market does in fact have 161 stores left, down from 176 in 2018, after closing multiple stores and halting new stores it had planned to open in 2018.
It is owned by Apollo Management, a private equity firm. Apollo, The Fresh Market’s founder, and his son joined forces and bought out the company’s public stockholders in March of 2016 for $1.36 billion in cash. Former stockholders have filed a lawsuit — and you can read some very juicy details about the deal in this story by William D. Cohan (“Play It Cool” And Get Paid: How Wall Street Got Rich Off The Fresh Market Deal). It’s the typical story of rich folks making bank by using their influence and power to manipulate the system.
What’s happened since the takeover? In 2017, The Fresh Market was listed as the 4th worst place to work in the NC Triad area where it is headquartered. In 2018, The Fresh Market was determined to be the worst place to work in America. Then in 2019, The Fresh Market was designated as the 15th most hated company in America.
So What’s All That Got To Do With The Produce?
When the name of your grocery store is The Fresh Market, you self-describe it as “upscale,” and price everything higher than all the other local grocery stores, customers might expect the produce you sell to be…..um….. well……..FRESH!
I’m going to show and tell you the shocking truth.
This company is in trouble, and the quality of the produce department shows it.
The Problem Starts With Bad Produce Right Off The Truck
Here is a freshly opened box of cabbage at The Fresh Market, just taken off the delivery truck.
The cabbage is covered in what looks like mold and many heads are deeply bruised. What's The Fresh Market solution? Just peel back layers until you don't see mold anymore and put it on the shelf.
One ponytail sporting produce manager at The Fresh Market, Phil (not his real name), heard a rumor that the chain is buying their produce second hand - whatever that means. I just think any reasonable person paying a premium price for cabbage would not want to buy this cabbage if she knew what it looked like when it arrived at the store.
Tip: Don't buy cabbage that looks like several layers have been peeled off. It's probably been sitting there for a long time, slowly having layers pulled off to hide the fact it is old or damaged.
The Problem Continues With Leaving Produce In Cold Storage For Days and Even Weeks
When you grocery shop, you probably expect the produce on display was recently delivered and immediately put out to sell. That's not always the case.
We all know how fragile lettuce is. Now imagine lettuce being delivered to a grocery store, and then sitting in a cold storage room for several days or even more than a week, with ice packed on top of it in a soggy cardboard box, before being offered for sale.
Why would this happen? Because the gnarly looking lettuce already on display isn't selling. Instead of taking the loss upfront and tossing the bad lettuce, and getting the fresher (I won't go so far as to say actually fresh, but fresher) lettuce out for sale, layer after layer of wilted and decaying leaves are removed from lettuce bunches. When the bunches get ridiculously small, two are twist tied together in an attempt to justify the price. All the while, boxes of lettuce sit in damp cardboard boxes in a cold room, going bad while waiting their turn to go out on the floor.
The coloring on the bottom and up the ribs of this lettuce indicates it has sat in water long enough to oxidize.
Tip: Don't settle for anything less than fresh and crisp lettuce, which is available at plenty of other grocery stores
Tip: Talk to the people working in the produce department. Ask them when things were delivered and how long they've been out on display. They will probably tell you the truth.
Tip: Ask the people in the produce department if there is fresher produce in the cold room - and have them get it for you. They love it!
Then There Are The Problems Of Rough Handling
Much of The Fresh Market's produce is damaged by careless produce clerks and bad display design.
Produce Sits On Shelves For Entirely Too Long At The Fresh Market
No, these aren't magical bendy carrots. They are just old and dirty carrots.
There is no age discrimination in The Fresh Market produce department. The dried up grapefruit and the shrunken, wrinkled old Asian pear are placed beside their younger counterparts and priced the same.
Just like the changing of the leaves in Fall, produce at The Fresh Market changes color as time passes. Why buy boring green kale when you can have yellow and green kale and multicolored pre-wilted cabbage, too?
Look, the Brussels sprouts are getting in on the color changing act.
Just keep holding on to these Shiitake mushrooms The Fresh Market and you can sell them as DRIED Shiitake mushrooms ;-)
A $3.99 dehydrated old bell pepper.
Not one single fresh thing here.
Again, nothing resembling fresh.
Fancy cucumbers rotting away in plain sight.
Slimy cucumbers starting to grow fur on the ends.
And speaking of fur....
I opened this container of raspberries to take the photo. A few minutes later a produce clerk closed it - and left it out for sale!
No, no need to remove these old, damaged, and rotting fruit at all. See how dark and dry the stars are? With fresh fruit those stars are green.
Literally the first bag of cherries I looked in.
Normally, bok choy isn't polka dotted.
Just pathetic - so old and dry.
Never fear, Phil (not his real name) the produce manager told me the wrappers can be taken off these cabbage, the moldy leaves peeled off, and the heads put right back on the shelf for sale.
Tip: Don't be in such a hurry that you don't look at what you're buying.
Tip: Don't assume high-priced stores have the best produce.
The Displays Are Dirty, Contaminating Everything
This problem starts with not bothering to wash things before putting them on the shelves.
Then these nifty perforated shelving units catch all the grime, grow various molds, and get disgustingly slimy.
That looks like a ghost of a cilantro leaf, doesn't it?
Little bits of broken off ginger root grow into these tangled messes.
Tip: Don't be dazzled by the beautiful colors of the produce department. Look behind the produce, lift up shelves, check out the cleanliness of the surfaces your store puts fresh fruit and vegetables on. Whatever is touching the food is on the food, on your hands, and soon will be on your counter or in your refrigerator.
Tip: Wash everything you bring home.
The Attempts to "Salvage" Produce Are Ridiculous
In addition to soaking wilted lettuce and rubbery carrots in water, attempting to bring them back to life like Lazarus, other methods are employed attempting to extend the shelf life of produce past its prime. And as stated before, usually while boxes of fresher produce sit going bad in soggy cardboard boxes in the cold storage room.
When lettuce is showing its age, a little bit is sliced off the bottom. Because that fools everybody, right?
You can see the same trickery here with celery and bok choy. The problem is, it tends to make the vegetables come unhinged.
When the beet greens get beyond disgusting, they are cut off and the beets are put for sale without the greens. Never mind they are old as the hills and will be totally dried out and tasteless after being cut like this.
When All Else Fails, The Bad Produce Is Incorporated Into Packaged Products
Not all the pre-cut packaged produce is bad, but all the bad produce is sent to the "production" room to be incorporated into packaged product if possible.
For a mere $10, you can buy yucky strawberries that had to be pulled off the floor. You can see the mushy parts!
Not ALL the produce in these Kabob kits is bad, but all the bad produce that can be is put into these kits. Pineapple gone bad? Well, cut off the good parts. Box of bad mushrooms, well pick out the few good ones. Rotten bell pepper? Well, the WHOLE thing isn't rotten now is it?
There is a serious lack of sanitation in the "production" room. Just trust me on that. There is a 3-part sink no one knows how to use correctly, or maybe no one cares to use correctly. Nothing gets washed and sanitized as it should. Things are splattering all over the place. It's not a good scene.
Tip: Avoid buying pre-cut produce. The chances are high it came from something gone bad, and you pay about 3 times the regular price for the convenience.
Be picky about your produce. Your health and your family's health depends on your diligent attention to purchasing fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables. The high priced stores do not always have the best products. You can find good foods at more reasonably priced grocery stores than The Not So Fresh Market.
Note: all produce department photos are my own, taken between June 13 and July 3, 2019 at The Fresh Markets located in Cary and Raleigh, NC (in Sutton Square at 6325 Falls of Neuse Rd, Raleigh; in Cameron Village at 400 Woodburn Rd, Raleigh; and in Cary at 3655 SW Cary Parkway).