Local Legends: Ryan Krebs and The Fresh Focus of Rutter’s

You don’t often walk into a convenience store to experience fresh, local produce and high quality food. Based in York County, Pennsylvania, Rutter’s is unlike anyone else in their industry, continually defying all expectations on how many define “convenience store food.” As the company celebrates 50 years of convenience, we sat down with their director of food service, certified-chef Ryan Krebs, to talk about their rich, culinary history and ground-breaking industry standards.

Q

Rutter’s is renown for constantly evolving when it comes to fresh food. Can you tell us about what you have coming up in the future?

A

Starting here in a few weeks we’ll be bringing in a few of our local produce items, which is unheard of in convenience. We’re going to have local heirloom tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and local fruits. I’m going to be incorporating this into the menu, so your sandwich will literally have local, farm-grown ingredients. Our area (York County, Pennsylvania) is agriculturally rich, so working within the community has tremendous value to our customers.

Q

Was it hard to find local produce that maintained your high standards?

A

It took us a long time. We’d worked with the Pennsylvania department of agriculture and hundreds of farmers to find places that matched our certification needs. We aren’t just buying food off the back of a truck. We had a deep dive on how to can ensure that local produce meets our safety standards and distribution needs. Our supplier has the highest standards in terms of produce they expect, so a lot of our concerns were already being met by our partners. It was a lot of work, but it was well worth it to be involved in local produce.

Q

Do you work with seasonal produce as well?

A

We’ll be playing in that world too. We can get mushrooms locally year-round and potatoes 11 months out the year, but a lot of produce isn’t in that realm. When that happens, we’ll turn to seasonal offerings. Turn to squashes, pumpkins, things that people are seeking (during the winter) without sacrificing freshness.

Q

Is it difficult to balance unique menu items with the speed typically expected of convenience stores?

A

That’s a great question. I don’t think so as much within the last year or two. Suppliers, as well as manufacturers, have done a great job around the country of bringing more options to the table. It’s a matter of us finding the right options that are best for us to execute and maintain that fresh quality. I think that across all levels, people have gotten better at handling fresh food; the sky’s the limit. You can train a passionate staff beyond expectations. We’ve been able to prove that in a convenience footprint, you have the opportunity to bring in fresh produce if you train well.

Q

Do you feel like customers are more likely to wait if they know they’re receiving quality items?

A

We started our made-to-order fresh food program 12 years ago so we’ve been doing this a long time. It all started with making things on site every day. So we’ve built that trust with our customer base from long ago. We’ve extended some ticket times, but it allows us to be able to push the envelope on quality on the basis of that trust. When you have the buy-in of brand-loyal customers, it truly allows you to take risks. Why else would a convenience store go cage-free eight years before anyone else?

Q

Rutter’s has been an active part of you local community for generations. Could you talk a little more about how you and your customers help give back to the community?

A

Starting with a little history lesson, the farm that our corporate office sits on was gifted to the Rutter’s family in 1747 by William Penn’s (the founder of Pennsylvania) grandson. He deeded the land 11 generations ago, making Rutter’s the oldest vertically integrated food company in the country. The dairy we have on site is distributed to 5 states, and our convenience stores were started to sell the milk locally. We just celebrated our 50th anniversary, so Rutter’s being a local name dates back 11 generations. So when you talk community history, jobs, and local growth, Rutter’s has been a key piece of this community for hundreds of years.

Q

our rewards program is a great example of a practice that benefits both the customer and the local community. Can you expand on this?

A

We consider it one of the most aggressive and robust rewards program in the entire country. If you hold a free card, you immediately get three cents of gas per gallon, and the price decreases further with every item you purchase in the store. We even promoted someone from within to focus exclusively on fresh, local items. As far as we are aware, the local category manager tag is the first in the history of convenience. The local footprint helps us tell a story to the customer. We’re saying, “whatever you’re buying, you’re supporting local business,” so it allows other businesses to flourish. We even put tags on any local items so customers know they’re supporting freshness.

Q

Do you think other business in your sector will start making a greater push for fresh produce and sustainability? Have you noticed anything beginning to take shape?

A

I do to a certain degree. We’re very focused on transparency and allowing people to trace items back to source, which I’ve see nicer restaurants adapting. Farmer’s markets have been doing this best for a long time, showing the story of their produce. Saying this as humbly as I can, I don’t see many (convenience stores) leading the charge the way we are. We’re punching this thing in the face saying “we’re gonna embrace it, we’re gonna own it, we’re just gonna have so many local items and transparency in our sourcing.” I don’t know anyone who’s doing that as boldly and aggressively as we are.

Q

How does local, fresh produce affect your menu-planning? Does it make it easier? Give you more freedom?

A

Absolutely. It’s a chef’s dream. I’m a certified chef, and one of the big things when you work in a restaurant is saying “when local stuff hits, bring it to me.” I may use only use it on my menu for two months, but that’s the beauty of it. What better limited time offer than bringing out produce when it’s freshest? Sourcing locally kicks everything up a notch. When it’s gone it’s gone, but i think it enhances your menu. It gives you the chance to do so much more.

Q

Are there any new food trends that you’re excited about?

A

Right now cauliflower is seeing a resurgence. They’re frying cauliflower, roasting it and grinding it up; resurfacing ideas that have always been there. That resurgence and excitement in food trends is one of the things that I love about Millennials and Gen Z-ers. They’ve brought passion and excitement back to food.

Q

What are the benefits of testing out different menu items with fresh ingredients?

A

I think the beauty of our setup is that we’re able to provide so much variety to your menu. I can provide my wife with a completely vegetarian experience, while I can get fatty funnel cake fries and beef short ribs. We can sit there and share the experience of eating together. As long as we keep being aggressive in our offerings, like focusing on the “label-reading customer,” who wants vegetarian and healthy options, we can continue to evolve.

Q

Rutter’s is known for having a long-running focus on sustainability in their stores. What initiatives would you recommend for businesses looking to decrease their environmental footprint?

A

One of the things that we did in February of this year was turning our entire to-go packaging program earth-friendly. We felt like it was very important to soften our footprint.

Q

Do you have a go-to produce item?

A

The everyday tomato. I have a five-year old son who loves tomatoes, but when our garden tomatoes ran out, he didn't want tomatoes anymore. There’s nothing more beautiful than a Pennsylvania garden tomato. The beauty of tomatoes is that they can be executed in so many ways. They can be hot, cold, braised, stewed, grilled, and I think people undervalue its power and influence. They’re everywhere, but they’re used in so many exciting and different ways.

Q

Where do you seek inspiration for new menu items?

A

I communicate with some of the best chefs on the planet and legends within the food industry that I’ve built relationships with over my 30 year career in food service. We also study trends internally, because we have a food driven culture. Some of our best ideas have come from part time employees on the store level. To be honest, a lot also comes from my passion for food. Overall, it’s a hugely collaborative effort of trends, travel, and feedback.