Fresh Produce is coming in from the coast.
The $50 million brand, which has been synonymous with shore living, is moving inland as it looks for growth beyond traditional seaside locales such as Key West, Destin, St. Augustine and Sanibel, Fla.; Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C., and St. Simons Island, Ga., where it’s opened stores.
“Fresh Produce has always been known as a coastal destination,” said cofounder Mary Ellen Vernon. “Now, we’re taking it from the boardwalk to Main Street. We’re not walking away from the coast. It’s more of a mind-set. It represents a coastal lifestyle.”
Vernon said Fresh Produce will retain its core values of comfort, value and bright color, while introducing textures and colors to stores in Gilbert, Scottsdale and Tucson, Ariz., and Boulder, Colo., which is considered a lab. “In the Boulder store, we carved out a back room that we call the back porch,” Vernon said. “We’re testing the idea of bringing the community into the store. It could be a meeting place for a book club or a place for a class about beekeeping. We want the store experience to be more than just coming in for a pretty dress.”
Fresh Produce plans to operate 100 stores in the next five years. There are 27 units now with stores opening this year at The Villages, outside Orlando, and Delray Beach, Fla. Three or four stores are slated for next year with the number of new stores doubling each year thereafter. “All of a sudden, we see an opportunity to launch and expand,” Vernon said. “Texas is a big next step for us. We have zero stores there.”
Fresh Produce stores do an average of $550 a square foot, said John Harris, chief marketing officer.
Vernon, who started Fresh Produce 30 years ago with her husband, Thom, believes that she, at age 55, is the target customer. “We market to 45-year-old women and up,” she said. “The Baby Boomer is underrepresented and underappreciated.
“Our customer shops at Chico’s,” Vernon said. “We look at [Chico’s] more as careerwear. You can go across a few lines, but what you find with Fresh Produce is that there’s an ease and comfort women look for in all stages of life.”
The Vernons, who met on the Kansas State University track team, moved to Long Beach, Calif., after school. During the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Mary Ellen silk-screened T-shirts in bright colors and made custom jewelry, which she and Thom sold in the parking lot across the street from the Coliseum. “We would print T-shirts all night in my apartment, sell them all day and buy new T-shirts to print. We sold $40,000 worth in three weeks.” At that point, the Vernons decided to quit their day jobs and launch their own business.
Vernon decided early on that the company didn’t have to produce every category itself. “We take key brands and bring them in, such as Kut for denim, because we don’t do denim,” she said. “We do the same thing with jewelry, scarves and footwear. Sweaters are also a big deal. We go out, explore and build partnerships.”
With more stores in cooler climates opening, Fresh Produce is embracing fall in a bigger way. “We spoke very loudly to the fall message and how we can play there,” Vernon said. “We’re also exploring new fabrics, such as rayon and Lycra that take you from day to evening. What we want to continue to do is find fabrics with comfort and ease. Today there are dresses and items that can take you into the evening. As we continue to evolve the brand we’ll continue to move in that direction.”
Radio in Color, Fresh Produce’s latest marketing campaign, is a custom-programmed radio station with its own DJ. Launched in celebration of the brand’s 30th birthday, Radio in Color is available on freshproduce.com and its mobile app, called Tune-in. Vernon said Radio in Color has 8,000 unique listeners who spend an average of 40 minutes with the station.
“Music has always been a nice connective tissue between brands and their customers,” Vernon said. “We’ve made it very authentic.”