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By Micah Cheek
In any business, markets shift and tastes change. Navigating these ebbs and flows is what makes a business stand the test of time. Nancy Herring, Co-Owner of Now We’re Cooking in Albuquerque, New Mexico is in the process of shifting the kitchenware store’s stock and style of business to suit customers’ new needs.
The biggest change Herring has seen is a shift away from cooking classes. “Our cooking class response has really dropped off. I think they’ve decided to spend their money somewhere else,” says Herring. Recently, she has had more success with education groups and weight loss communities that will set aside time to come in and watch a suite of demonstrations. Working with outside organizations also takes some of the administrative work off Herring’s shoulders. “They handle all the advertising and signup,” she adds.
Another changing factor is purchasing habits. Large single-item investments have given way to smaller purchases. “You’ll hear people look at a big piece of cookware and say, ‘That’s too expensive,’ but then they’ll buy that same amount in smaller stuff. I think people have been exercising caution for a while,” says Herring. Now, a large part of Now We’re Cooking’s sales are smaller accessory items. “We have always maintained our integrity as a kitchen store, not a gift and kitchen store. We have some pretty things, ceramics and things, but we don’t go heavy into that,” Herring adds. Lots of entertaining kitchen accessories now are now on display at checkout, and some of Now We’re Cooking’s specific sections, like the baking area, have leaned more in that direction. “We sell a tremendous amount of cookie cutters.”
Because customers are feeling more cautious about higher cost options, Herring keeps cookware for regular use in the break room, and shows customers the wear and tear the pans sustain from regular use. “We’ll show them what their cookware looks like after it’s been used for a while. We’ve been using this for the last five years or whatever, and this is what it looks like,” says Herring. “It’s bigger sizes than I would use at home, but we have an example of every brand we sell. And I think people like to see what they’re thinking about.”
As Herring has been reshaping her business model, she has moved to a new space to suit the new needs of her store. “About two and a half years ago, we moved to this location,” says Herring. “Better layout, better light, it was definitely time for a move. The new store is much prettier than the old store was.” When the store updated its location, the space allowed her to make changes to her previous layout that made everything easier to navigate. “We have rows and rows of Metro shelving,” says Herring. “None of them match. I’ve got old Metro, new Metro, black and white. You don’t notice, you just see what’s on it.”
There are corners dedicated to knives, linens sections and a full gadget wall as well. The only part of the store that regularly changes is three-wheeled shelving units to be moved to make space for classes, and the first row of shelves, which are altered for seasonal items. “We don’t move everything around. I know you’re supposed to keep it fresh for people, but customers know where everything is. Christmas time, we move a lot of things around the front, and bring in a few more things.”
Herring is always on the lookout for what is next for the industry. From her perspective, focusing on color and adaptations of the classics are the way forward. “Everybody’s talking about what’s new. There’s new colors, new adaptations, but we haven’t seen a brand new product,” says Herring. “I remember when bread makers came out! In terms of a new category, we’re not seeing it. It’s back to basics and color. Hot pink mixers and bright Microplanes.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Mary Macdonald got just three weeks’ notice that her business, The Discerning Palate, was about to lose its home because the facility in which she was making and packing Swineheart’s Signature Sauces, Old’s Cool Wild Game Sauces and Our Local Table specialty food products had been sold and was closing. The other New Hampshire food producers who shared the space with her were out on the street just as suddenly.
She and her husband Gavin responded by building Genuine Local, a specialty food production facility that functions as an incubator for specialty food businesses, a shared use kitchen, co-packer and the new home of her house brands. “We wanted to figure out how to make something that worked for the people who were also displaced,” she said. “We found that not only did the people who were displaced by the other facility need a new production facility, but there was also a need within the central part of the state because there were no other resources like this anywhere.”
Genuine Local opened for business on January 2016 in a 1,800 square-foot former warehouse, and now has 125 to 150 products coming out of the kitchen from 23 different producers. “We received our final notice of occupancy on January 25, 2016 at about 10:00 in the morning,” Macdonald said. “By 1:00, the first batch of sauce was in the kettle.”
In December 2016, Local Baskit, a meal kit subscription service owned by Beth Richards of Concord, New Hampshire, became Genuine Local’s first graduate. Local Baskit had launched in June 2016 using Genuine Local’s facility as the base of operations in which Richards packaged all her meal kits. As the business grew, she shifted her attention to customer service and recipe development, while Genuine Local took on assembling the meal kits. Then in December, Richards relocated her business to a space that will allow her to expand her offerings to include cooking and nutrition classes. “At lightning speed, she leaped and she landed,” Macdonald said.
Genuine Local, located in Meredith, New Hampshire, is in the middle of the state, about 40 miles north of the state capital in Concord and about 80 miles west of Portland, Maine, as the crow flies. It’s equipped as a small-scale commercial kitchen with 40-gallon kettles, which is large for a catering kitchen but small for a production facility. “We expect that people will come in and work for a year or two, but then move on as they outgrow what we’re here to offer,” Macdonald said. “The group that I’m most excited about working with are all the specialty food producers who need to take the next step.”
The facility doesn’t have a USDA license, so it’s not for meat products, and there’s no cold chain production capacity. “We don’t do cheese, but we can pretty much work with anybody else,” Macdonald said. “It’s a very purpose-built facility, so it has a very functional footprint. All of the equipment is on wheels. Everything we have is semi-automated, including the bottler and the labeler. It’s all about being the bridge.”
The 23 producers who are currently sharing the space make a variety of products, including conventional hot pack products and a range of ethnic foods that include a unique West African pepper relish, Ruth’s Mustards, Little Acre Gourmet Foods’ condiments and Bleuberet’s microbatch relishes and jams. Local caterers also use the facility. “Products coming out of here are in distribution throughout New England into upstate New York, as well as pushing down into New York City. We have one customer that’s featured in all of the Eataly stores,” McDonald said. “We have another customer that’s really happy being able to drive to every single store that carries their product, and that’s where they want to be.”
“We have everything from one company that makes a northern Indian-style eggplant relish, and that’s their only product, to Little Acre Gourmet, which is really pushing to expand their line,” she added. “I’m thinking that in three years, we’re not going to be big enough for her, but we are for now, and we’re very glad.”
The facility is also home to The Discerning Palate’s house brands. They include Swineheart’s Signature Sauces, which offers seven flavors of handcrafted, small-batch sauces representing various styles of American barbecue. “We got into the food business as a hobby gone wrong. The kids gave their dad a small smoker for Father’s Day about 10 years ago,” Macdonald recalls. From that beginning, the Macdonalds started competing in the barbecue circuit and developed their own sauces. “From there, people started wanting to purchase the sauce, and the company just grew,” she said. Once they’d decided to produce the first Swineheart’s Signature Sauces on a commercial basis, they set up shop in a copacking facility that also rented space on an hourly basis. “It was historically a culinary training program run by the county,” Macdonald said. “It was set up as a catering kitchen that transformed into a production facility, whereas ours was set up to be a production facility from the get-go.”
New brands grew up around that 2010 start, including Our Local Table, which offers a trio of onion relishes as well as salsas and spicy Peri Peri sauces, and Old’s Cool, a line of three sauces designed for wild game. “They’re fat-free and made with gluten-free ingredients with no preservatives or artificial flavors or colors,” Macdonald said.
Genuine Local is also home to Genuine Local’s Bootstraps Program, an a la carte business development program that works by subscription and offers assistance with all the myriad problems that people have to solve when they’re starting a food business: labeling and nutrition panels, licensing, market development and recipe development. “For regular business planning, we refer those out. There are simply not enough hours in the day,” Macdonald said. “We have some people who are qualified to do a variety of types of production, and they’re willing to work with people on a freelance basis, so we do make those types of connections as well.”
“We developed that Bootstraps Program out of recognition that we’d never have been able to do what we’ve done without the generosity of other people,” she added. “It’s frankly not rocket science, but there’s no manual. We have a really strong commitment, with our focus on local, to help people take the next step.”