Evan Kirtses, dubbed by Cosmopolitan Magazine the hottest bachelor in Delaware in 2011, lives at upscale Residences at Justison Landing on the Wilmington Riverfront.
Until last month, he drove to 20 minutes to Whole Foods in Glen Mills, Pa., whenever he needed fresh vegetables. So did some of his neighbors.
Now, Kirtses walks a few blocks to Produce Express, his family’s newest business at 340 South Market St.
While the Kirtseses don’t want to compare it to the Swedesboro, N.J.-based Produce Junction chain, the store they opened on March 8 has a somewhat similar mission: Deliver fresh fruits and vegetables at low prices.
One difference: the market offers a large selection of gourmet Mediterranean foods, in addition to produce and flowers.
Another difference: The store features an attractive tasting station where foodie-staffers share samples and explain what’s what in the fruit and cheese arena.
“We can tell you down to what the weather is in California and how the produce is growing right now,” Kirtses said. “The cheeses, we’ve tried all of them. With the tasting station, we’ll be cooking things up for people to try. We want to be known in the community. We want this to be a unique experience. We want people to say, ‘Wow. What are they going to have today?’”
From frozen spinach pies to specialty oils, their Greek inventory is so large that they offered a freemium to members of the Greek community to woo them to their soft opening.
Kirtses, 34, vice president of P.K.’s Foods, the family’s centerpiece business, orders all the produce for the new venture with the locavores in mind.
Fresh produce is trending up with $61 billion in annual sales nationally, according to the Arlington, Va.–based Food Marketing Institute, and a grocery basket with fresh produce averages nearly $30 more than one without it.
“They built the towers at the riverfront and now they’re building more units, so we figured there will be more demand for fresh produce,” said P.K.’s Founder Pete Kirtses, who began thinking about a fresh produce business seven years ago.
Their business niche is simple: They already deal directly with local farmers in the summer and California farmers in winter for their P.K.’s Foods business. They can buy for Produce Express, too, and cut out the middleman.
“Let’s put it this way, when I go to the supermarket with my wife, I get sick,” P.K’s Founder Pete Kirtses said. “I don’t want to go, because I know what it costs and I know what they’re charging. Deli turkey? Wholesale, it’s $2-something. Go to the market and you’ve got to pay $9.99.”
The family business has an added advantage compared to competitors: almost zero spoilage. If produce doesn’t sell in a couple days, they replace it and rotate the days-old product back into their wholesale business.
Until Kenny Family ShopRites of Delaware opened a 70,000-square-foot supermarket at 501 S. Walnut St. in 2008, the area immediately surrounding the riverfront had no walkable supermarkets.
Evan Kirtses envisions bringing local children into his market to try the fruits, “It’s not just about selling. It’s about bettering the community as well. I love
Produce Express offers fenced parking practically in the shadow of the luxury River Tower, but the Kirtseses know their stretch of the waterfront can be a hard sell to consumers in search of kale and arugula.
“The biggest problem right now is the media saying how bad Wilmington is — how dangerous it is,” Pete Kirtses said. “I’ve been here total for almost 30 years, and I feel safe.”
“We need people to support the small businesses because the big businesses left. MBNA left. ING got bought out. And, of course, GM and Chrysler, they’re gone,” he added. “We’ve got to start again. We’ve got to start with small businesses and build it back up. Big business will come if there’s enough buzz.”
The family also owns Celebrations, a catering company that shares the same lot as Produce Express.