OPN Connect Newsletter 191 · November 5, 2020

In Their Words: MOM’s Organic Market’s Chris Miller

Chris Miller is produce director and meat and seafood coordinator at MOM’s Organic Market, a natural foods retailer headquartered in Rockville, Maryland. Featuring an organic-only produce department, MOM’s mission is “to protect and restore the environment.” Over the last decade, the Mid-Atlantic chain has grown from 5 stores to 20, and it is currently in the process of opening its 21st location in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Chris joined OPN for a chat about MOM’s rigorous sourcing standards, what it was like to experience the COVID-related retail surge, and more.

Chris Miller, Produce Director and Meat and Seafood Coordinator, MOM's Organic Market

How did you get started working in the produce industry?

Stemilt August 2021

I grew up in Maryland (near where MOM’s is headquartered) and then went to school in North Carolina and got a degree in environmental studies. When I graduated in 2009, it was the height of the recession, and there were not too many jobs to be found. My on-paper plan had been to do the DC nonprofit thing, but I realized there wasn’t really anyone hiring.

So I applied on a green jobs board to be a cashier at MOM’s organic market. I came into my interview and started talking about my interest in agriculture and the farms that I hoped to go to, and they called me back and said, “Hey, have you thought about maybe working in the produce department?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t think about that, but that sounds pretty cool!” And so I started my first day working in the produce department in January 2010 and fell in love with it.

MOM's organic produce display

Country Sweet August 2021

Why is MOM’s produce department organic only, and has it always been that way?

It has always been organic only! Scott Nash is our founder, owner, and CEO, and he is a great example of how to walk the talk as an environmentalist. Our purpose at MOM’s is to protect and restore the environment. Every decision we make is made through the lens of environmental impact. We like to think of ourselves as an environmental company that happens to sell groceries. So that’s why we’ve always been an organic-produce-based company. Selling certified organic produce is the best way to drive positive environmental impact on a large retail scale.

Scott Nash, Founder, Owner, and CEO, MOM's Organic Market

What are MOM’s sourcing standards for its organic produce?

Valent August 2021

The way I look at it is there are three tiers. First off, as I just noted, you’ve got to be certified organic to have your produce in MOM’s produce department. It’s never going to be different. So that’s the number one.

And then, obviously, we have to focus on quality. And when I say quality, I do not focus just on aesthetics. Aesthetics are very important, but even if a blueberry looks fantastic, if it doesn’t taste great, or it’s a little bit mealy, then it’s not right for us. It has to be an amazing eating piece of produce, and it has to hold up for our customers at home.

"Our purpose at MOM’s is to protect and restore the environment. Every decision we make is made through the lens of environmental impact. We like to think of ourselves as an environmental company that happens to sell groceries." -Chris Miller

And then I’d say the third tier is if we can get it locally, all the better. But most importantly, our produce is going to be certified organic and extremely high quality. We’re not going to choose a local organic option if there’s an objectively better-quality item from California.

Chelan August 2021

Organic produce at MOM's Organic Market

Can you tell us about your direct-sourcing relationships with local farms?

So we have a few key small local farm partners who grow some amazing Mid-Atlantic produce for us. And we really, really rely on our great grower partner Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op for the majority of our local produce. They’re a wonderful co-op of about 150–200 Amish family farmers.

NatureSafe August 2021

What wholesale distributors do you work with to source your organic produce?

Our primary partner is Four Seasons Produce. We couldn’t do what we do every day without Four Seasons. They are just fantastic people. They hold values that align with ours in so many different ways. They know what we want—and they do right by us every day

Chris Miller, Produce Director and Meat and Seafood Coordinator, MOM's Organic Market

Does your relationship with Four Seasons mean you carry Equal Exchange’s fair trade organic bananas?

Yes! We were actually one of Equal Exchange’s first large retail partners, so we picked up their banana program right when it began (just before I got into produce) about 12 years ago. We have a 100-percent Equal Exchange banana program, and whenever their avocados are in season, we carry those as well.

Equal Exchange is one of my favorite supplier partners. They make sure that their growers are getting a better life than they had yesterday, and it’s so inspiring! They are tried and true in terms of their values, and they absolutely deliver on quality. Supply-chain transparency, shared values, and honest conversations are the cornerstone of our relationship.

Starr Ranch August 2021

Organic produce at MOM's Organic Market

MOM’s is a designated CSA pickup location for a number of local organic farms. Can you talk about that, and why it’s important to your company?

I’ve always thought that the CSA model is an amazing way to connect people with their food. From where I stand, you could look at mixing a CSA with a retail outlet like, “Oh man, our customers are getting peppers and eggplant and all this stuff from the CSA—that means they’re not buying it from MOM’s.” But the way I look at it is that anything we can do to connect people with sustainably grown food and the farmers that grow it is what’s important. It’s bigger than just what can you sell out of a produce department. It’s bigger than MOM’s.

What are your company’s marketing and consumer-education efforts related to organic produce? 

So from a marketing standpoint, we focus on our purpose. We always try to tell the story of what a supplier is doing to align with our values to protect and restore the environment.

We also really focus on genuine interactions with customers in the stores. We look at those human-to-human interactions as our biggest opportunity and moment for consumer education. We have to talk to people about why food is important (and without being too preachy, obviously). To me that’s the biggest marketing we do—just having passionate people in the produce department who love the food that they’re selling. There’s nothing better than that!

Chris Miller, Produce Director and Meat and Seafood Coordinator, MOM's Organic Market

Can you share what it was like to go through the COVID retail surge at MOM’s?

Sure—I just got my first vacation about a week ago, so I’m feeling a little bit better talking about it. It was nuts! In the early days, in mid-March to mid-April, it really felt like going into a war zone. I don’t think there was a single retailer in food that didn’t see the same uptick and chaos that we did.

I will say the people working in our stores were just amazing. The passion that I saw in them to not only just get through the day but to provide healthy food to people was so inspiring! I was working at the stores a lot during that time period. My daily routine for about a month was to go help open a produce department and then go do my day job in the office. 

"We look at those human-to-human interactions as our biggest opportunity and moment for consumer education." -Chris Miller

There was one day early on in the crisis in mid-March when I realized things were about to get really crazy in our stores. I opened a produce department in the morning and then went to our warehouse, grabbed one of our 26-foot trucks, and drove it up to Four Seasons in Pennsylvania (I’d never done that before). I drove it back down and delivered produce by the pallet to about seven of our stores. I think that was a 22-hour day from start to finish. There was a fair amount of caffeine and adrenaline running that day. 

Miller's Four Seasons Produce pick slip 

Wow—so you saw an immediate need for product and realized the only way to get it fast enough was to do it yourself?

Absolutely! I knew the pain people were going to feel because we have produce managers that are so passionate about serving our customers and about how their produce departments look. So I was like, “I’ve got to get them more produce!”

I kept my pick slip from Four Seasons from that day—it’s at my desk right next to my computer. I keep it there just to remind myself that it’s possible to do whatever you need to do to get through the day.

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