(May 22) Paul Kneeland, director of produce and floral for Roche Bros. Supermarkets Inc., Wellesley Hills, Mass., spearheads growth in the produce department for one of New England’s many independent retailers.

He’s also played an integral role in guiding what has become a successful regional produce show, as three-time expo committee chairman for the New England Produce Council.

The April 30 show drew record exhibitors and more than a thousand attendees and is headed to a more upscale location next year, the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center in Boston's Back Bay.

Q: What makes regional associations so vital to the industry?

A: Sometimes the national associations can’t focus down on what specific areas need. New England is pretty specific, as to how operators bring product to market. It’s important to have a group that knows its market and tailors programs for its membership.

Q: How many produce department employees did Roche Bros. send to the New England Produce Council expo?

A: We sent all our produce managers. A lot of the assistant produce managers came on their own. In all, about 25 from 14 stores.

Q: What is so unique about New England?

A: We have a very active terminal market in Boston, where in a lot of cities they’re starting to fade. There’s very strong competition and lots of independents. We don’t have any Wal-Mart penetration yet, but it’s coming.

Q: How is the New England industry preparing for Wal-Mart?

A: A lot of the large chains are trying to grow as much as they can, picking up some real estate. Plus, establishing loyalty with consumers is key. That’s pretty important for us. The regional players can connect with the neighborhoods. Of course, a lot of that goes out the window when Wal-Mart comes to town. People are already getting prepared for that, whether it’s adjusting pricing structure, advertising. All the competition is getting ready. Roche Bros. is fine-tuning its advertising. People are grouping their stores into zones so they can focus on certain types of advertising more in certain areas than others at times.

Q: Is Roche Bros. expanding?

A: We’re opening a store in July and another in the spring.

Q: How does fresh produce fit into your store’s marquee?

A: It’s the first position of every store you walk in. We try to merchandise a number of things within that aisle and we’re known for our quality produce.

Q: How many produce stock-keeping units do your stores carry?

A: It depends. It ranges from 250 to 450. I see that growing, but it’s like putting 10 pounds in a five-pound bag sometimes. Elimination comes into play.

Q: How do you make those tough choices?

A: Category management is one tool, but the end customer has to make the final decision. If they’re not buying it, then it’s time for it to go.

Q: What specialties do you see promise for?

A: A lot of things restaurants are using, like radicchio, are becoming more popular. People want more exotic side dishes, like portabella mushrooms.

Q: What emphasis does Roche Bros. put on value-added?

A: There are two kinds of value-added. There are things that are cut up and ready to eat, but there are also elements that add value to an item. If a customer buys a pound of strawberries and doesn’t have to throw any away, there’s added value in that. Even down to our buying process, we can add value to the consumer purchase by getting the premium product.

Q: How is your fresh-cut fruit program going?

A: We’ve had a program for about 8-10 years with a regional processor. It’s doing very well. Platters, not just the individual items, are doing well.

Q: What is your perspective on country of origin labeling?

A: It’s kind of scary. To add signage, verbiage or packaging to a product that’s going to take away from it’s natural visual appeal, that’s going the wrong direction. On the other hand, people should know where the product is coming from. It has to be non-excessive. For the bagged salad people, if they have radicchio coming from Italy, something else from Chile, they’ve got to change their film and that adds costs to the process. In the end, country of origin labeling could end up costing the consumer more. But if it’s done more moderately, it can be fair.

Q: Will Roche Bros. participate in voluntary labeling, before the rules take effect next October?
A: We plan to have a program in place months before we’re required to, to make sure it works.

Q: When did you start at Roche Bros.?

A: I started bagging groceries at 16 and then worked my way through the ranks. I joined the produce department in 1982 and haven’t looked back. It’s a great part of the business. It’s exciting. It’s colorful. Even today, I still learn things. I try to pass that passion on to my produce managers.

Q: What changes have you seen since you started?

A: The whole industry has changed. Going from a small section for bagged salads to a 30- or 40-foot case. It’s an amazing leap to see that happen in 15 years.

Q: Do you like what you’ve seen from pre-conditioned stone-fruit shippers?

A: I’m on my third year selling pre-conditioned fruit. This is really adding value to the customer, because now that fruit has really good taste. They don’t have to put it in a bag, or put it on the counter and hope it doesn’t get rotten before they eat it. Eventually, my stores will go completely to pre-conditioned.

Q: How have the setbacks to commodity boards affected small retailers?

A: I think this should be looked at more closely than it has been. The commissions have done a good job marketing and it’s a shame to see them fall by the wayside. The Washington Apple Commission did a great job and was a very valuable tool. I see them changing, not going away. It’s happened to the Mushroom Council. I see there eventually being some kind of promotion board that can help us sell apples.