3 Guys from Brooklyn’s Fresh Tradition
BY: DOUG OHLEMEIER AUGUST 12, 2020
Originally printed in the July 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Brooklyn institution supplies New Yorkers with fresh produce.
“A Fruit and Vegetable Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the Pick of the Crop”, trumpeted the 3 Guys from Brooklyn produce market in a 1977 New York Daily News advertisement. The reference to the 1940s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn book and movie is fitting as the store has provided fresh produce to residents of “The Borough of Trees” for more than 40 years.
One of New York’s few remaining open-air markets, the Brooklyn landmark attracts shoppers who desire quality fruits and vegetables from all over the greater New York region.
Run by close-knit family members and friends, 3 Guys first began operation in the mid-1970s at the corner of 65th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway. It sells produce inside and mostly outside of the 3,000-square-foot building. While produce and other foods are found inside, the main attractions are the two-dozen 10-foot-by-4-foot produce stands that surround the building. Produce accounts for 85% of the store’s business.
“Produce is everything,” says Philip A. Penta, managing partner. “It’s what we are known for. Our reputation is based on doing produce better than anyone else. Customers rely on us to feed them and keep them healthy. We have the most critical population of produce customers that exists. If something is not to their liking, they will let us know about it.”
About 80% of 3 Guys’ labor is dedicated to maintaining the produce, which is displayed and merchandised in oversized Euro stands. One side of the store’s exterior is vegetables while fruit graces the other side. Merchandise is rotated daily, stacked high and organized by category, colors and sizes. Inside the store, more stands display tropicals, greens, roots, onions, potatoes and other produce.
The store utilizes the vivid colors of produce to market freshness. “Color breaks are one of our biggest considerations when setting up daily,” says Penta. “We want the colors to contrast and pop for our customers.”
3 Guys’ pricing philosophy is great produce at fair prices versus selling cheap produce for cheap prices. Store founder Stanley Zimmerman, who was known as “The Poor People’s Friend,” wanted to ensure all people of any economic level could afford the finest fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a delicate balance,” says Penta. “We offer the best value for the dollar. Too many of our competitors have focused on price alone while giving a sub par product. Produce is number one and the reason people come here. It drives everything else.”
‘UNITED NATIONS OF GROCERY STORES’
In addition to trees, Brooklyn is known to be “home to everyone from everywhere.” People joke the store is like the United Nations of grocery stores. Despite their backgrounds, shoppers come together in the store to find the products they like and to catch up with neighborhood friends. The store is a Brooklyn institution. “What makes this city unique is the population density and diversity,” says Penta. “The benefits of sourcing and retailing in this area are the constant availability and variety via the Hunts Point market.”
3 Guys markets to a wide variety of ethnic groups. It serves an “extreme diversity” of shoppers, including people of Asian, Arabic, Jewish, Russian, Albanian, Caucasian, Italian, Latin, West Indian, and Caribbean descent, notes Penta. No single demographic occupies a noticeably dominant share of the business. To satisfy this varied buying group, 3 Guys offers a large assortment of produce.
The store merchandises up to 600 SKUs, which include grey squash, Mediterranean cucumbers, dates, sour plum, parsley root, horseradish, knob celery, plantains, tomatillos, nopales or cactus stems, and cardone, an artichoke cousin. Other items displayed can include chicory, red bunch beets and Italian chestnuts.
Top selling produce includes bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, avocados, tomatoes, green squash, lettuce, sweet corn, Kirby cucumbers, kiwi, potatoes, mushrooms, sweet potatoes; and scallions. “Obviously, we have been tweaking things as the world has changed but still operating under the ‘Eye Appeal is Buy Appeal’ philosophy,” says Penta.
All handwritten, produce signage mimics the style of the old street vendor signs. 3 Guys promotes its produce, deli and bakery items through digital marketing and direct mail coupons. It uses a blog to relay timely information, including the city’s bag ban, COVID-19 and its charitable efforts.
Produce is sourced primarily from the Hunts Point Terminal Market in the nearby Bronx borough. Organics constitute about 5% of 3 Guys from Brooklyn’s produce sales and 50 SKUs. It has been challenging to source and grow the category, says Penta. Because of New Jersey and Long Island’s relatively short growing seasons, the store does sell local produce but not as much as it would like because of the difficulty in sourcing in the city, he says.
With other stores, including supermarket chains, only blocks away from 3 Guys, the region’s retailing landscape is described as ultra-competitive. “There are stores essentially on every block,” says Penta. “There are smaller operations as well as bigger stores like ours that do exactly what we are doing. That coupled with the huge piece of the market that online grocery ordering has taken makes this a very competitive landscape.”
To succeed in today’s competitive retail environment, stores such as 3 Guys must possess the ability to constantly pivot, adapt and change. “Information moves fast these days, and you need to be a leader in the community and stay out in front of the issues,” explains Penta. The store’s philosophy is to provide large and colorful displays that show abundance and freshness.
Shoppers patronize 3 Guys instead of the larger chains because of personal service and neighborhood vibes. “People wear the Brooklyn name like a badge of honor, and a lot of them still like to shop the old-school way,” explains Penta. Shoppers will visit a butcher for meat, a fishmonger for seafood and a produce store for fresh produce. “They want the products from the stores that are the best at what they do.”
Existing in New York in various locations for more than 45 years, 3 Guys began in 1975 when Stanley Zimmerman erected a fruit store at the store’s current location. In 1978, Zimmerman along with his brother Howard Zimmerman and brother-in-law Harry Leader, the original Three Guys, moved to another Brooklyn location but later closed.
In 1998, when the corner of 65th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway became available, Howard and Scott Zimmerman, Stanley Zimmerman’s sons and friend Philip C. Penta, Philip A. Penta’s father, restored the business. The new “3 Guys” worked in the produce business all their lives and kept the store’s ideals and history alive and flourishing. A Hofstra University television production major, Philip Penta joined in November 2001 to help his family after many people had left following the September 2011 attacks.
A family man, Stanley Zimmerman was known as a hardworking and tough, but fair, leader. He died in 2009. In 2003, Howard died in a motorcycle accident. The city designated the store’s 65th and Fort Hamilton Parkway location as Howie Zimmerman Corner