January 14, 2014 – Alicia Zuniga just started her job at Cornucopia Community Market in Carmel Rancho Square last December, but already she’s making big changes in the produce department she manages—and staffs.
“I am the produce department right now,” she laughed, adding that the management and her co-workers have been supportive, encouraging and more than helpful. Carmel born-and-raised, she’s been working on the front lines in produce, retail and marketing for over a decade, from Earthbound Farm’s Carmel Valley Farm Stand to selling Serendipity Farms’ organic produce at the Pacific Grove Farmers’ Market. “Working for Earthbound Farm really taught me what quality control should be in a produce department. I’ve always had this really high standard for produce,” she said. She managed the produce department at Erewhon Natural Foods in Hollywood and did a stint at Whole Foods, as well.
Zuniga is committed to sourcing her produce locally. “I grill my distributors!” she asserted. The day EMB visited, she had beautiful Meyer lemons from Big Sur and was arranging bunches of kale and braising greens from Serendipity Farms. It doesn’t get much more local than that—most of Serendipity Farms’ produce that’s sold to Cornucopia comes from a field you can see from the store’s parking lot.
Serendipity owner Jamie Collins was thrilled to renew her relationship with the Market under Zuniga’s leadership. She said, “Alicia has a lot of experience in produce and she has a really good eye for display. She cares about local and organic.” Collins is delighted with the partnership, because no other local stores carry her produce. Unless it’s served to you at a local restaurant or you buy it through Serendipity’s CSA starting in March, you can’t get Collins’ produce locally except at Cornucopia or the Carmel Farmers’ Market. She said it was great to be able to harvest from her farm “about a block away” and have the produce on display the same day. “It’s screamin’ fresh,” Collins laughed.
The produce department at Cornucopia is 100% organic. In addition to Serendipity, Zuniga plans to buy produce from Swank Farms and Frog Hollow Farms as it comes into season. She’s also hoping to add plants from Succulent Gardens in Castroville and Drought Resistant Nursery in Carmel Valley. In addition to her retail experience, Zuniga has a certificate in horticulture from MPC that will help her teach customers to grow their own plants.
Zuniga’s planning on inviting Kari Bernardi—aka “The Supernatural Chef”— to come in and do some demonstrations of vegan and raw food preparation; she’d also like to add juicing and food sampling to the mix. “I’m a person who has to do a lot of different things or I get bored,” she said of the job. Other ideas floating around in Zuniga’s lively imagination include coordinating local farm tours, fresh produce baskets, and fresh flowers.
She’s also significantly reduced the amount of waste in her department. Excess produce that’s still good for human consumption is passed along to a local charity that uses it to help feed people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. Other scraps go to people who are raising everything from chickens and earthworms to rabbits and tortoises.
“Customers have been very supportive,” Zuniga smiled. And why wouldn’t they be? In addition to all the visual and substantive changes she’s been making, she’s ramping up customer service by providing special orders—a service that’s been especially popular with people who like to juice. Cornucopia is part of an exclusive local club: on the Monterey Peninsula, Earthbound’s Farm Stand, Whole Foods Market and The Wharf Marketplace are among the very few grocers that source produce directly from local farmers. For her part, Zuniga wants locals to come by and say hello, check out the changes she’s making and buy some screamin’ fresh organic produce!
Elaine Hesser grew up in rural Pennsylvania and started cooking at age 6. By age 9, she’d made her first dinner and at midlife, is amazed when high school graduates can’t scramble eggs. After the U.S. Army paid for her B.A., it also moved her to Monterey County, where she served on active duty at Ft. Ord and Ft. Hunter Liggett. She has a wide variety of interests, but is most passionate about faith, writing, and food – and encourages everyone never to stop learning and looking for truth.