By Lorrie Baumann
As love did for Mama Cass Elliott, Peter Lovis’ parade for Crucolo cheese just started quietly and grew. Last December’s 100-yard parade route around the Walden Street corner from Main Street to the front of The Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts was the sixth annual Cheese Parade hosted by Lovis in honor of the arrival of a 400-pound wheel of cheese from the Italian village of Scurelle, where Crucolo has been produced by the Purin family for the past 200 years.
The parade started out six years ago as a couple of 8-foot red carpets that rolled out along the street from a delivery truck into the store. But like Cass Elliott’s love affair, it’s getting better and growing stronger, until last year it included, not just a horse-drawn wagon to carry the cheese along in style, but dancing mice, Miss Crucolo Universe, Miss Crucolo USA, Little Miss Crucolo, a marching band, and a military escort of His Majesty’s 10th Foot, on furlough from their Revolutionary War service in the British army. “Now they’re friends. We don’t hold a grudge in Concord,” Lovis quips. “When it turns on Walden [Street], that’s where the band picks up and the dancers and the mice…. There’s nothing like a cheese parade. Go big or go home. It’s just fun. It’s really just for fun.”
When the wagon stops outside The Cheese Shop, the tractor tire-size wheel is rolled ceremoniously off the wagon onto red carpet, to be welcomed with the reading of a proclamation from the Concord Board of Selectmen; the waving of Italian flags; a speech by the Italian representative of Rifugio Crucolo, another by Tyrolean-hatted and white-aproned Lovis, each line of his text echoed by the crowd; and a protest march by local vegans carrying signs announcing that “Milk comes from grieving mothers.” Lovis says that he didn’t arrange the protest, but he admits without shame that, “If I’d thought of it, I’d have set it up.”
The event, held annually on the first Thursday in December at 3:30, so the kids have time to get home from school first, has become something of a tradition in Concord. People take the day off work for it, some driving in from out of town. “It’s over by 4:30 because it’s dark,” Lovis says. Last year, more than 1,500 spectators showed up. The parade has been featured in news reports all over the world, and the YouTube videos have been seen by thousands.
At the very end of the celebration, someone cuts the cheese to reveal its ivory paste laced with small irregular eyes, samples are passed out to the crowd, and the whole 400-pound wheel is gone in a week. For most of the rest of the year, the Crucolo lovers will have to get by with wedges cut from the 30-pound wheels that arrive in the shop without benefit of a parade. Crucolo, an Asiago fresco-style raw cow milk cheese with a mild, buttery taste and a tangy finish, is one of about 200 cheeses in the case at The Cheese Shop at any given time. The 200 rotate in and out to make a total of about 1,000 cheeses offered to The Cheese Shop’s customers over the course of a year. “We’re always out of about 80 percent,” Lovis says. “People come in and ask for what they want. We can’t have everything all the time.”
The cheese is sold by Lovis and his 16 year-round employees, who are augmented by seasonal employees during the winter holiday season. Lovis has eight seasonal employees who’ve come back year after year during the holiday season, so that they’re now fully trained in every job in the store – one now in her eleventh Christmas at the Cheese Shop, another in her tenth year. “They love it. They love the work, they love the place, they love the customers, and they know I love them,” Lovis says.
Lovis has been in the business since 1976, when he was 15 years old and started a career that has included retail, wholesale, importing – every link of the supply chain. He signed the agreement to purchase the store in 2001 and closed the deal in 2003. “My whole life has been an apprenticeship for owning this store,” he says. In that time, he’s learned a lot about selling cheese for prices that range from about $8.99 to $40 a pound. “One thing I work very hard is not to be a cheese snob about the cheeses we sell,” he says. “The point of being in business is to give the customers what they want…. What we need to focus on is not how good we are about selling cheese. What we focus on is how we get you what you want.”
How you sell people a $40/pound piece of cheese is to give them a taste, he says. “You should never buy a cheese if you can’t taste it first. Have a taste. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. If you can’t afford it, I have other cheeses in the same family. But there’s a reason why it’s $40. It’s not cranked out of a machine; it’s made by hand. But if you want something less expensive, I’ll get you something less expensive,” he says. “Give people a taste. It’s not about the cheese. It’s about the customer.”
By Lorrie Baumann
This is a good time, and Nashville is a good place for a tiny cheese shop that operates as a cut-to-order counter inside a specialty butcher shop, says Kathleen Cotter, Owner of The Bloomy Rind.
The Bloomy Rind is tucked inside Porter Road Butcher, a whole-animal butcher shop that specializes in locally sourced pasture-raised meats. The pairing of a cheese shop and specialty butchers came about after a local farmer introduced Cotter, who was selling cheeses at local farmers markets, to business partners James Peisker and Chris Carter, who had been working together as caterers when they realized that what Nashville lacked was a good source of high-quality local meat. They were getting ready to open a butcher shop in East Nashville to meet that need, and when they met Cotter, it just seemed right that they might also team up with Cotter and her specialty cheeses. “I pitched the idea to sell cheese in their shop. At that point we didn’t know what the setup would look like,” Cotter says. “As their plans for the space crystalized, they worked a small cheese counter for The Bloomy Rind into their layout. So I was able to open up inside Porter Road instead of having to find the funds to build out my own shop.”
Cotter can’t focus on local cheeses the way Peisker and Carter focus on local meats because there just aren’t enough cheeses made locally to Nashville to meet her customers’ needs, but all three partners share a similar passion for sustainably produced foods. “Our philosophy and our passion were very much in alignment,” she says.
Part of their job is educating Nashville residents who are more accustomed to shopping for all their food needs at conventional grocery stores rather than stopping in at a variety of specialty shops, Cotter says. “It’s a change of habit to have to make an extra stop for specialty meats and cheese. But people are more and more willing to make that extra stop as the desire grows to know where their food comes from and how it was produced.”
“There’s also a population who comes in and says they grew up going to the butcher shop,” she adds. “They come back to that experience, which is cool…. We’re having a lot of people moving here from big cities, where they’re a little more used to specialty shops and come in looking for a personalized cheese experience.”
Her corner of the 1,500 square foot store houses a cheese case and a cutting table, and she shares a market area where she has some logs of chevre and a few other cheese accompaniments in a grab-and-go case. She carries 40 to 50 different cheeses in the case, all cut to order. At the moment, she has one particular favorite cheese in her case: a wheel of extra-aged St. Malachi from the Farm at Doe Run that she acquired when the farm sold extra wheels of a cheese they were entering in the American Cheese Society awards competition. “It’s sort of an aged cheddar meets aged Gouda, firm and crystally and brown-buttery,” Cotter says. “I find cheese is very much a mood thing. I don’t know if other people feel the same way. Sometimes you want a cheese that’s mild, fresh and creamy. Other times you want something with a more challenging profile and stronger flavors.”
In addition to her retail business, she operates a thriving wholesale business in which she works with about 20 restaurants in the city on a regular basis. “That helps me to move product through the case so inventory never sits fr too long and I can rotate the selection more frequently,” she says. “The combination of retail and wholesale also makes it possible to earn a living, which can be tough as an independent cheese retailer.” The wholesale business has become more integral to the shop than Cotter expected, which has been a pleasant surprise, she said. “It’s another avenue to market the cheese counter. If people order a Bloomy Rind cheese plate at a restaurant and enjoy it, then they come into the shop and want to try other things as well.”
As she’s grown her business at the shop, Cotter has also founded the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival, which started five years ago and which she has organized each year since then. “It’s been fun to watch that grow and to be a part of growing the awareness of Southern cheese,” she says. “I think Southern cheeses were under appreciated, but along with greater appreciation of Southern food in general, people are becoming more aware of it. We have people from different cities asking for Southern cheeses to be sent to them. It’s on the upswing. People are really excited about it.”
Nashville’s growing food culture makes this an exciting time to be selling specialty cheese there, Cotter says. “I happened to get into this at a good time when American cheeses are getting better and better and better. There are many great cheeses to introduce people to and chefs are more into interesting domestic cheeses,” she says. “Nashville has become the ‘It Girl’ of food and is attracting more chefs, although we already had good ones, as well as visitors who are interested in good food. It’s a fun time to be in Nashville and to be in cheese.”
By Richard Thompson
On Highway 202, just across the valley from Chateau Ste. Michelle, in the northern woodland region of Washington, stands the Sky River Mead and Honey Wine Meadery. Nestled comfortably off the scenic green-way of the Sammamish River Trail since 2012, this award-winning Washington meadery has tantalized customers with its line of quality meads and honey wines – including its flagship product, SOLAS – through its tasting rooms, community engagement and guiding principle that “in life, you get to make your own cubicle.”
“We only make mead.” says Denice Ingalls, President and Wine Maker at Sky River, “We keep it simple and try not to make it too complicated. We like to keep things relaxed.”
First opening in 1997 in the foothills of Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountain Range, Sky River Meadery debuted its first bottle, SOLAS, in 1999, but eventually moved to the Woodinville Winery district in Washington in 2012 to what Ingalls considers to be “a little Washington Napa Valley,” as interest in mead grew. It was in this region that Ingalls and her sister, Glenda Downs, who joined the company in 2005, grew up, valuing the craft of working with honey as an ingredient in gourmet breads and home breweries. “If there was any place to reintroduce [mead], it would be Seattle.” says Ingalls, “We found a building, started with a blank slate and got the ball rolling by making a nice tasting room.” The space is so big, according to Ingalls, that the sister team sublets space in the two-building facility to a couple local grape wineries, Icon Sellers and Pleasant Hills, that serve out of their facility.
Both Ingalls and her sister took an unorthodox path into the mead business, but now that they’ve found it, they wouldn’t give it up for the world. Ingalls graduated from Pepperdine University in California, earning a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and after years of working alongside her father-in-law who ran the operations of a honey packing plant, remembered learning of mead in an Old English literature course she took years before, starting her journey into mead making, she says. Now she is involved in every step of the process, from selecting the honeys that will be used and dealing with the hefty paperwork that comes with running any business to collaborating on packaging and teaching customers about mead itself.
Downs graduated from Western Washington University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Non-Profit Administration and Fine Arts, and worked in the restaurant and marketing industry. Currently handling outside sales, Downs is responsible for sales and marketing, social media, the tasting room and the company website, sharing her knowledge of mead making with customers as she learns.
Sky River offers 10 different varieties of mead – with nine currently available – that range from traditional honeyed meads to fruit-inspired honey wines for those who are looking for a beverage that isn’t as naturally sweet.
The Sky River Sweet Mead is reminiscent of a fine German Riesling and is enjoyed as a delicate aperitif whose flavor notes are heightened with a touch of cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamon. The Sky River Semi-Sweet Mead hints of pear and is best served with the herbal flavors of pan-Asian and Mediterranean dishes, while the Sky River Dry Mead’s subtle honey flavor pairs perfectly with Thai and Indian cuisine. A 750 ml bottle costs $14.50, but a half case or a full case is also ready for purchase for $87 (six bottles) and $174 (12 bottles).
The traditional Brochet Mead that Sky River offers has a darker, richer quality due to the honey being caramelized before fermentation and exhibits a shadowy, sweet and alluring experience that is great on a summer evening, according to Ingalls. The Ginger mead has a sassy ginger note that harmonizes with the honey base into a fresh taste that zings with a spicy finish. “Our Rose mead is the ‘boudoir’ wine, luscious and indulgent, and pairs beautifully with meals where there are a lot of pistachios, like Persian and Middle Eastern foods,” says Ingalls. Both the Sky River Ginger Mead and the Brochet Mead are available in a 750 ml bottle for $16.95, $101.70 for a half case and $203.40 for a full case of 12 bottles. The Rose Mead starts at $17.95 for a 375 ml bottle and $107.70 and $215.40 for a half and full case respectively.
SOLAS, the meadery’s flagship mead, is a tribute to Old World meads. Using saturated, smoky whiskey barrels from Dry Fly[TM] Distillery, SOLAS is a very sweet mead that combines honey and wheat whiskey flavors and is definitely an indulgence that should be sipped. Available for $25.95 per 750 ml bottle, $155.70 per half case and $311.40 for a full case.
The Sky River Raspberry Honey Wine has warm honey notes that are offset by the lush raspberry flavor, making for a versatile beverage that pairs well with a pork roast and berry chutney or a very rich cheese cake. The Sky River Blackberry Honey Wine goes well with salmon, cheesecake or even just on its own. “This [honey wine] goes well with food or without food,” says Ingalls. Both honey wines retail for $15.50 for a 750 ml bottle, $93.00 per half case and $186 for a case of 12 bottles.
Ingalls speaks with a folksy wisdom when talking about why people purchase her mead, “We’re the grandaddy of the mead world….We’re still out plugging because we know what we’re doing.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Urban Radish is a little like Cheers, the bar in the television show that ran in its original release from 1982 to 1983 – it’s that place “where everybody knows your name,” says General Manager and Head Buyer MacKenzie Aivazis, who is also the daughter of Owners Michael Aivazis and Keri Johnson. The store in Los Angeles’ Downtown Arts District was designed around the idea that shoppers would be visiting daily rather than weekly. “We designed the store for urbanites,” Aivazis said. “That means that the focus is on the freshness of the ingredients. Our customers are aware that we’re meeting with local farmers several times a week to buy the freshest produce. Customers are aware that when they see produce in our store, they know it was on the farm a day or two ago.”
“Sausages from the meat department have been made that week if not that day,” she continued. “There is a sense of community. I know my customers. I have the same customers who come in every day. I know what’s going on in their lives…. We strive for that. It really is what makes the store special, in my opinion.”
Urban Radish’s neighborhood is in the process of redeveloping from an urban-blighted industrial area into a mixed-use neighborhood with manufacturing, high-occupancy residential and retail uses. Over the next two years, the neighborhood’s population is expected to triple. “Just two blocks after Skid Row ends, you have this really high-end community that’s developing here,” Aivazis said. As a result, the people who’ve moved into the new residential developments tend to be affluent Gen Xers who value transparency about their food sources and prefer fresh locally-sourced food when it’s available. “During lunch, there’s a lot of manufacturing surrounding the store, so we get a very, very hip crew that comes through, all in their 20s and 30s who are very avant-garde, what most people would identify as a hipster. It depends on whether they’re working in the area or actually live here,” Aivazis said. “They’re urban couples and singletons. When they have babies here, they tend to move away, which makes sense because there are not a lot of amenities for children here.”
The redeveloping nature of the neighborhood means that the store is unable to offer its customers free WiFi, since the infrastructure in the area doesn’t allow enough bandwidth for that yet. Despite that, Urban Radish has a customer following who are engaged with each other and with the store, and they’ve made Urban Radish into a local hang-out spot. The store encourages that with a range of high-quality prepared foods as well as weekly live music sessions. It’s a great event, a great time. All the regulars come and we turn on the grill for a full dinner, and we usually have someone come in and sample wine,” Aivazis said. “That speaks to the community that we try to create for people who are our customers and people who are not our customers…. There are peple who are interested in this area and who come down here just to see what’s going on down here. I believe that this area will draw people who are interested in food. Our mission is to inspire that foodie in everybody. Sometimes you just have to put it in front of them.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Avie Rosacci, Chief Operations Officer of family-owned Tony’s Market, with four stores in Denver, knows exactly how her father started the business: that happened when her little brother pointed out an abandoned 7-11 store to their father one day in 1978. Her father could not have imagined at that time what the little butcher shop he’d always dreamed of would turn into, she says. “It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” she says. “We opened as a little butcher shop, and we thought that was going to be it.”
Tony Rosacci started working at the age of 9 in a small Italian corner market in Detroit. He earned $3 a week. Except for a stint in the Army, he was in the grocery business all his life. By the late 1960s, he was in California working for Ralph’s and moved the family from California to Littleton, Colorado in 1970 to work for King Soopers, now part of The Kroger Company before moving on to a smaller butcher shop, Ed’s Meats. “As we were growing up, he always talked about how someday he’d have a little butcher shop of his own,” Avie says.
The family talked about it so much that the idea was the foundation of some of the family games: Tony would tell the kids stories of his own butcher shop, and Avie would be behind the cash register while little brother Danny and brother Mick would help Dad. Then in 1978, Tony and Danny drove past the abandoned 7-11 on their way home from church one Sunday, and Danny suggested that the building could make that little butcher shop.
“They went to the bank for a loan, didn’t get the loan, so they sold the house and took the proceeds to open the store,” Avie remembers. “He left Ed’s, and we did open, literally, a small butcher shop.” That store had white powder-coated meat cases, and Tony wasn’t a grocer; he was a butcher. “No produce, no deli. It was a butcher shop,” Avie says. “I don’t think we even had seafood. We might have had some frozen crab legs. I remember painting the special on the front window when I was much younger.”
Customers came from the neighborhood, and the store was staffed by one employee plus Avie’s mother and father and the three Rosacci kids. Over the years, the store grew out of its space and gradually into the spaces that had been occupied by the other businesses in the small shopping center. Tony’s Market added a deli department, a bakery and a center store. The meat orders during holiday seasons started to generate so much business that customers lined up around the building, and Tony had to bring in a police officer to keep the crowds of customers within the fire marshal’s regulations. “Our little building couldn’t handle it, so we opened our second store,” Avie says. “Then we added the other two over the next 10 or 12 years.”
“It was kind of Dad’s dream that came to fruition, but Dad never dreamed of what it is today,” she continues. “It grew over time. It took us close to 20 years to open that second store.” Tony’s Market now comprises four Denver metro area stores ranging from 2,500 to 8,000 square feet, plus Tony’s Burgers, a casual restaurant inside its downtown Denver store, and Tony Rosacci’s Fine Catering, a full service catering division that entered the picture in 2004 and serves weddings and galas as well as supporting the company’s headquarters, warehousing,floral department and commissary operations.
For 11 years, until the team built a new facility with its own kitchen, the catering division fed the Denver Broncos, and today, Tony Rosacci’s Fine Catering is in its second season of feeding the Colorado Avalanche hockey team and its coaches. “That’s been fun, feeding the team and the staff,” Avie says. “With the Broncos, we started at 4 a.m. and would end most nights around 9 p.m. feeding them up to four meals a day and snacks, and that would go on until the season ended.”
Each of the four stores is unique to its neighborhood, with the product assortment at the downtown location favoring organic and local produce as well as prepared foods featuring whole grains and low fats for the urban professional clientele there, and stores in the neighborhoods populated by families and seniors offering products that lean more toward comfort foods like twice-baked potatoes, fried chicken and pasta dishes as well as the local and organic favorites. Each store still does its own meat-cutting in-house, with butchers at each location. All the beef is premium choice, and it’s all aged. Beef is ground several times a day, and all the meat is sold fresh. Anything that stays in the store too long to be sold fresh is frozen and then donated to charity. “Tony’s is still really known for the beef and the meats. People still call us by our own name of Tony’s Meats, which is what we opened as,” Avie says.
Today, Tony has retired to the golf course, Daniel Rosacci is now CEO of Tony’s Market and Mick is the company’s head chef. As chief operations officer, Avie is in charge of employee training and compliance with government regulations and is also attending school to learn nutrition therapy, an area of study that she became interested in while she was feeding the Broncos. “I like to see people take better care of themselves, whether that’s 10 percent better or 60 percent better,” she says.
A wide range of customers shop at the stores, but what they tend to have in common is that they have busy lives and they want high-quality products and they want to get into the store, find what they need, and get out fast, which is why it’s so very important to Avie that the 280 to 300 employees in the stores are well-trained and that customer service is excellent. “Our customer service is above and beyond. We tell our employees to hug them with your words because they have many choices,” Avie says. “We understand the pace of how America lives today. We’re really aware of getting them in and out. When they come in, we want to take care of them as quickly and efficiently as possible and get them out to their soccer practice or wherever they need to be.”
By Lorrie Baumann
A visit to one of the Southern Season stores in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; or Raleigh, North Carolina; isn’t just a grocery shopping trip; it’s something like a quest for the specialty foods, the wines or beers and the kitchen gadgets and skills in using them that can elevate dinner into a celebration of life. Also, it’s fun. The four-store chain will celebrate its 40th anniversary this fall, says President and COO Dave Herman.
He’s been running the operation for a little more than a year after a 35-year career as an executive for a variety of companies that make or sell high-end products, including a stint as Vice President of Retail for Lenox and one at DANSK. This is his first foray into specialty food retailing, and the only real downside is that he’s having to spend more time at the gym, he says.
Southern Season is often described as a culinary mecca or a food-lover’s paradise. Three of the stores are each roughly 50,000 square feet displaying about 80,000 SKUs of specialty groceries, kitchenware, prepared foods and deli, floral, candy, coffee and tea, small electrics and tabletop items. There are 4,000 kitchen gadgets, 5,000 wines, more than 1,000 craft beers and 500 cheeses. The smallest and newest store, located in the Cameron Village shopping center in Raleigh, is called A Taste of Southern Season, and the 3,000-square foot store offers a curated selection of specialty food, wine and beer, often to customers who’d been driving the 26 miles to the Chapel Hill store.
“Our customers cut across the spectrum. If we have a wine festival or we celebrate wine, we get a more mature audience. When we celebrated beer, the audience skewed a lot younger. Candy goes across the board,” says Herman. “The spectrum of customers is very wide. It depends on what that person’s individual passion is…. There are people who are very, very passionate about their cheese. There are people who are passionate only about blue cheese.”
Catering to those passions has made each of the three larger stores a destination for shoppers who bring their friends and come to hang out in the store for a few hours at a time, sampling tea or coffee or a locally-made barbecue sauce, indulging in an ice cream cone from the old-fashioned soda fountain, having lunch at the in-store restaurant, taking a class at the cooking school or planning an event with a menu supplied by each store’s special events coordinator “We give a lot of small vendors a chance to start. It could be someone who was an investor on Wall Street and who decided to quit and make his grandmother’s jam,” Herman says. “That’s when the magic happens – when people walk through the doors, and they meet these vendors, and they learn the stories of these products.”
Providing that entertaining shopping experience for customers is one of the three legs of the triangle that make Southern Season what it is, according to Herman. The other two legs of the triangle are the stores’ dominant assortments of products and the customer service skills and passion of the stores’ sales associates.
The stores’ product assortment varies by location, with each of the three large stores incorporating 10,000 products made in its home state. Each department manager in those three stores has a say in exactly what the product assortment for his or her department will be, especially with respect to locally-made products. “Each department manager in each store has the ability to tailor the assortment and localize it. You’re trying to be a big company, but you never want to lose the fact that the department managers speak to people every day,” Herman says. “They want to do something; let them try it. Customers come in and ask for the department managers because they trust their opinions, but no one’s ever asked for me.”
Excellent customer service is a natural outcome of hiring sales associates who love the products and love to help customers, Herman says. “They come with a born passion for the product, and they probably learned to be nice from their parents. They get to share the products they love,” he says. “They come to us with a passion for cheese or a love of wine. I don’t think we can take a lot of credit for that….. We have a sales team that’s exceptionally passionate about what they sell. They love these products, and I think that our levels of service, our passion comes across. They’re telling incredible stories behind these products. Our story is the stories: the stories of our sales associates, the stories of our vendors.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Foothills IGA is located Marble Hill, Georgia, a community of around 30,000 people in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains, about 75 miles north of the Atlanta airport. The store was recently named an IGA 2015 USA International Retailer of the Year.
Owner Jeff Downing started his career working for various grocery companies and was a vice president of A&P before deciding to go into business for himself in 1996. His first venture on his own was the purchase of a store in North Carolina that had been an A&P. He was living in Atlanta and had a weekend home in Big Canoe, a gated resort community that’s adjacent to Marble Hill, so when he decided to expand his company, he looked around the neighborhood close to his weekend home, where a shopping center was under construction. The development company heard he was looking and got in touch with an offer for the storefront in which the Foothills IGA is now located. “It just fell into place,” Downing says now.
Foothills IGA broke ground in 2001 and opened in January of 2002 with a mix of gourmet products and everyday staples to meet the grocery needs of a very diverse customer base – the town has an estimated median household income of around $50,000 and about half of Foothills IGA shoppers have high-end incomes and want better wine, organic produce and all-natural beef while the other half buy more pantry staples. “It was the intent to appeal to everyone to succeed because we have very few people,” Downing says. “The needs of some require more thought, more research, a little more seeking out of products…. In a lot of ways, we’re like a big-city market.” Downing moved permanently to Big Canoe in 2000 and sold the North Carolina store in 2006.
His store is about 10 miles from the closest big-box grocer, and to keep his clientele shopping with him instead of taking their business to Kroger, Publix or Walmart, Downing stocks his 25,000 square foot market with a great produce department, a full service floral department, the first lobster tank in the county, certified Angus beef and 1,800+ SKUs of wines. On top of that, breads are baked fresh daily, USDA choice and prime meats are cut to order, and the seafood selection includes fresh fish and seafood from the Georgia coast and elsewhere. Whole chickens are cut in the store to supply shoppers with what Downing calls “an enormous amount of fried chicken.” He added a pharmacy in 2008, and today, that department represents what Downing calls “quite a nice business.”
“We do a large wine business in our store,” he says. “We get as much variety as we can in our store while staying very, very close to what our customers want.”
Downing’s research into products that bring something special to his store while staying very close to what customers want recently took the form of an appointment as a judge in an annual Flavor of Georgia Food Product contest sponsored by the Georgia Department of Agriculture that included 30 finalists among the entrants, who were all local food producers. “From that I made contact with several of those who had very interesting products,” he says. “We need to be competitive with big box stores, so if I can do something different, I like to do that.”
That includes the 14 to 16 different salads that are offered in the store’s deli case on any given day. A couple of them are made by Nadine’s Classic Cuisine, which sends staff into the store a couple of days a week to make salads that have made Nadine Wardenga a two-time finalist in Flavor of Georgia contests as well as the White County (Georgia) Chamber of Commerce’s 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year. “She couldn’t handle the demand of a big box store,” Downing says. “It’s a point of differentiation.”
Today, Downing and his staff have renewed their efforts to source organic produce, which he says has always been a challenge. “You have to have enough variety so the consumer can plan a meal,” Downing observes. Local organic farmers are small-scale operators who sell their produce in farmers markets and to local restaurants, where they get a premium price, partly due to their ability to make direct contact between farmers and buyers. Dogged effort has improved Foothills IGA’s produce supply lines for a whole range of products from potatoes and squash to apples, organic lettuces and organic wines to the point at which the store has been able to negotiate prices that keep organic produce prices at the independent store competitive with the big box grocers.
Foothills IGA is also doing good business in gluten-free products, with about 500 SKUs in store and integrated into the center store shelves. “It’s a growing category for us,” Downing says. “We have all manner of gluten-free items in our store and are constantly looking for more.”
Of course, big-city access to premium products can’t take the place of home-town feeling, and Foothills IGA strives to create that through special events throughout the year that are built around community involvement when the opportunity arises. During football season, the high school band comes out to play in the Foothills IGA parking lot, and hot dog wagon sales help fund the school’s booster club. The winter holiday season is celebrated with a variety of events, and there are other special events throughout the year. “It’s fun to walk out on Saturday morning and hear the band playing,” Downing says. “It helps us to become the community center that we have always strived to be as an IGA operator…. We’re proud to be the Foothills IGA and proud to serve our community, and the community in turn supports us very well.”
By Lorrie Baumann
This year’s Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary Award from Unified Grocers went to the Newport Avenue Market in Bend, Oregon, just the latest in a long string of awards recognizing the achievements of Rudy and Debbie Dory and Lauren Johnson, who have transformed a traditional grocery store into a specialty market that appeals to the hippest of the foodies as well as a loyal following of hometown regulars.
The store that’s now the Newport Avenue Market was founded by Rudy and Debbie Dory, who have made their whole career in the grocery business, in 1991. The building had been a 22,000 square-foot Piggly Wiggly store built in the 1960s when the Dorys and a partner who is no longer part of the business bought it in 1983. Over the years, they’ve added a deli and bakery and seafood counters, changed the refrigeration twice, installed new shelving, improved the lighting and installed a spectacular wall of produce. The partner left the business in 1991, and Rudy and Debbie renamed the Bend store to make it the Newport Avenue Market and continued on their own. “The store has evolved. Every year we make major changes,” Debbie says. “It’s a never-ending story, but we try and focus very specifically on a shopping experience – that every time our customers come in, it’s very visual with wonderful produce and wonderful meat. We focus on gourmet, such as beautiful seafood, gourmet cheese. Our produce is not only very visual but excellent quality. We have everyday groceries, of course, but we also have organic, natural and specialty throughout the store. Customers today are well-traveled, so we really try to bring in foods from around the world, so that we are the go-to source for people who love to cook.”
“We originally thought we would be more like Whole Foods, but over the years, we morphed into specialty foods because that’s what our customers wanted. An awful lot of our products are by customer request,” Rudy adds. “Customers traveled and then came back and requested foods that they had tasted during their travels.”
While both Rudy and Debbie are still very active in the store – his official title is Ringmaster of the Flying Circus/President, while hers is Pundit of Perfection/Director of Detail, Newport Avenue Market is also presided over by Viris, a full size purple Jersey cow statue that dresses up for the holidays and moves around the store on occasion and Francine Bearbottom, a grizzly bear who wears holiday hats, with day-to-day management in the hands of El Hefe/General Store Manager Spike Bement and Leader of the Pack & COO Lauren G.R. Johnson, who is the Dorys’ daughter. Johnson joined the business recently after a 20-year career as a flight attendant and a few other jobs after that, including motherhood, in Portland, Oregon. “The stars all aligned. They asked, and the opportunity was perfect timing,” she says. She moved right back into her childhood neighborhood, buying a house near her parents’ home and only a couple of blocks from the store. “It’s my little ball of perfect,” she said. “Sunshine is terrific. I am so happy. My friends from Portland are more than happy to come here.”
Their customer-centered approach, along with deep involvement in the community and a strong touch of whimsy have earned them accolades from both the grocery industry and their community. In 1994, Newport Avenue Market was named International Retailer of the Year by IGA, and hardly a year has gone by since then that the store or its owners haven’t received some kind of special recognition on either the local, state or national level. In 1999, the Market was named the Bend Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year and received an Oregon Quality and Excellence Award. Rudy Dory won a United Way Volunteer Citizen’s Award in 2000; in 2008, the mural on the storefront, painted by local artist Kimberly Smallenberg, won the store Bend Art’s Beautification Award. In 2013, Newport Avenue Market became the first Boar’s Head Deli of Distinction west of the Mississippi River and Rudy and Debbie were honored as the Bend Chamber of Commerce’s Citizens of the Year. The list goes on, culminating in this year’s Visionary Award from Unified Grocers.
In Bend, the store competes with the country’s largest Safeway store as well as the largest-volume Safeway store in the country – those are two different stores – as well as two Walmart Supercenters, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, a Fred Meyer with more than 200,000 square feet of space and two Albertsons stores that are converting to Haggen stores as a consequence of Albertsons’ divestiture following the merger with Safeway. Altogether, Newport Avenue Market has 15 direct competitors in a city that had about 81,000 residents for the 2010 U.S. Census. In spite of that, the store is into its fourth consecutive year of double-digit sales growth. “We need to be on our toes. There are two or three more stores coming this summer that are breaking ground now – new stores with new banners,” Debbie says. “We don’t lack competition in Bend, Oregon. We very much stay focused on who we are and what we need to do to stay in business.”
Staying on their toes means keeping up with the latest food trends, connecting with their community, and working hard to make a visit to their store a visually appealing and entertaining experience. Besides the fun with Viris and Francine Bear-Bottom, the store also houses a 1953 Farm-All tractor in the produce department as well as carousel pieces around the store and a produce wall that’s regarded as a piece of art in its own right. “Visually, we have a lot of fun,” Debbie says.
“We keep using the term ‘experience,’ but it runs a little deeper than that,” Johnson adds. “We have European-style shoppers, so the relationships between staff and customers are very important. Connecting, not only with our staff, but with their neighbors and keeping up on what’s happening in their neighborhoods.” Fostering the connections between staff and customers requires the right employees, and Newport Avenue Market has several who’ve been with the store more than 30 years, including General Store Manager Bement, who’s been working with Rudy since 1983 and has been store manager of Newport Avenue Market since 1991. “We understand that our job as managers is to make good decisions so our people can count on their jobs,” Rudy says. “It is our job to make sure that we’re trying to do the right thing, and, knock on wood, that has filtered down.”
People often ask Rudy and Debbie how they get so many great employees, and Rudy says he asks himself that question sometimes too. “We try to pay them decently,” he says. “We understand with staff that they have to make a living.” The store still pays 100 percent of health insurance costs for its employees and has a 401(k) program with employer matching. The store also has a bonus program and offers grocery rebates that can return $2,000 to $3,000 to an employee at the end of the year. “We’ve always believed in happy employees who can be customers too,” Rudy says.
“It’s really important to know,” Johnson adds, “that while we’re the face of it, it’s really our staff who are pretty amazing and who work hard to make us who we are – and our customers who choose to shop with us.”
This story was originally published in the April, 2015 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.
By Lorrie Baumann
Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage opened its 92nd store in Tucson, Arizona, in January. Another new store opened in Wichita, Kansas, on February 24. Altogether, 18 Natural Grocers stores are planned to open in fiscal year 2015.
The current crop of openings reflects a combination of a growing food and nutrition movement in the United States and an ambitious goal of growing the store base at a 20 percent compound rate over each of the five years, after taking the company public in July 2012, said Kemper Isely, Natural Grocers’ Co-President.
Twenty-one stores are scheduled to open in the 2016 fiscal year, with 24 slated for the following year. “We planned on expanding our geographic footprint west of the Mississippi. Any state west of the Mississippi would be a possible target,” Isely said.
The founding principles established by Margaret and Philip Isely when they established Vitamin Cottage, the precursor of Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, in Colorado in 1955, are that the stores are committed to providing nutrition education, to quality, to everyday affordable pricing, to their communities and to their employees. This is according to Patty Moore, one of the chain’s Regional Nutrition Coaches. Vitamin Cottage eventually evolved into Natural Grocers, the name by which consumers generally know the brand. Though the company is now publicly owned, the Isely family is still involved in its day-to-day management and maintains a controlling interest in its ownership.
Natural Grocers’ basic mission to change lives by offering free nutrition education and healthful products that support good nutrition has not changed. What has changed over that time is a growing mainstream acceptance of what used to be called “health food” and recent growing concern about American childhood obesity rates as well as an epidemic of diabetes and other nutrition-related illnesses.
In keeping with its principles, all produce sold in the chain is 100 percent USDA Certified Organic, and the company prefers to buy local products when possible. “We have a commitment to that, which is pretty unique for a chain of our size,” Isely said. “We also support organic producers over local producers. If there aren’t organic sources in an area, we won’t sell conventionally-produced produce in our stores.”
Meats in the stores come from humanely treated animals that were raised without antibiotics, except when needed to treat an actual illness, and without growth promoters or feed containing animal byproducts. Dairy products come from animals raised on pasture rather than in barns. “The cows or goats or sheep that produce the milk have to be on pasture for a minimum of 120 days,” Isely said. “They have to get the majority of their nutrition from forage, so that we’re not stocking products that come from barn-raised animals.”
Providing those products across a rapidly growing geographic area has presented no particular distribution-chain challenges, because the chain is partnered with UNFI, which, so far, has been able to supply every new store, Isely said. “Most of the product is either manufacturer- or distributor-direct to stores, so there haven’t been challenges,” he said. “That isn’t a big issue.”
Before a new product can go onto the shelves at Natural Grocers, it is reviewed by the corporate purchasing staff, which requires third-party documentation that the product meets the company’s quality standards. Approval can take up to three months, and Natural Grocers will not sell any product that contains artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives or harmful trans fats.
The company supported GMO-labeling ballot issues in Oregon and Colorado. “We support GMO labeling for products. We don’t support lawsuits if people inadvertently don’t mention GMOs that they don’t know are in their products. We think that consumers have a right to know if there are GMO-containing foods in the products they purchase,” Isely said. The company adopted a no-disposable-bag policy in 2009 and estimates that since that time, the policy has kept 100 million bags out of landfills.
Every store in the chain has a position available for a credentialed nutrition coach, whose services are free to the community, and newer stores offer regular free cooking and nutrition education classes in demonstration kitchens. The free classes offered in the store cover topics such as maintaining blood sugar stability, heart health, bone health, food quality and gluten-free living, Moore said.
A few of the older stores, such as the Vitamin Cottage founded in 1955, do not have demonstration kitchens, so they do not offer cooking classes, but all offer advice and coaching to guide consumers about nutrition choices, whether they are following special diets such as gluten-free, Paleo, vegetarian/vegan, low-glycemic or if they heard something on television on which they want to follow up. “What we like to do is educate people about the various ways there are to eat. Eating whole foods and eating foods that are natural to your diet is a good way to eat. We don’t try to say that everyone should eat Paleo or vegetarian or high-carb. Everyone doesn’t want to eat the same way,” Isely said. “Our people will talk to them about whatever sort of diet they want to have, and it isn’t necessarily one type of diet they should have. Lean meat and vegetables seems to be preferable for good health, but if someone wants to eat differently from that, that’s fine, and we’ll talk to them about that also.”
Natural Grocers currently employs more than 2,000 people, with 85 percent of them full-time. Full-time employees get health insurance and paid personal time off, while a 401(k) plan and employee discount is available to all employees. For every hour an employee works in the store, he or she also gets 75 cents in “Vitamin Bucks,” which are a store credit in addition to the employee discount.
“We’re foodies. We do carry supplements, but food is first,” Moore said. “People are taking back control of their food. They want to be food citizens.”
By Lucas Witman
When a retail store that has become a local institution goes up for sale, the thought of it changing hands can be a frightening one for a clientele that has grown to rely on it as a staple of their daily lives. And the pressure of maintaining continuity is likely to scare off many potential buyers, unsure if they are up to the task of becoming the caretakers of such an important symbol of the community. Luckily for the residents of and visitors to Coastal Virginia, however, the Pruden Family embraced this challenge when the local specialty food hub TASTE went up for sale in 2006. The family has not only been successful in protecting the retailer’s unique heritage, but also in growing the company into something bigger and better.
“Like most people that grew up around here, I had been a loyal TASTE fan my entire life,” said Jon Pruden, President and Co-owner. “I would grab TASTE sandwiches every weekend and enjoy them at the oceanfront with friends. That’s a ritual for people around here. When I heard through the grapevine that TASTE may be for sale, I jumped at the opportunity.”
TASTE was originally founded by Peter Coe as a wine and cheese shop in Virginia Beach. Throughout the three decades Coe spent as the company’s owner, he was able to build the TASTE brand into a true specialty food experience. In 2006, Coe sold the business to the Pruden family. Jon Pruden’s father, also named Peter, had previously retired in 2000, after selling the family’s third generation ham curing business, and he welcomed the opportunity to come out of retirement and join the new company. Today, the company is truly a family affair, combining the talents of Peter, Jon, Jon’s brother Taylor and Jon’s wife Tracie.
Today, TASTE operates six locations in Coastal Virginia, including shops in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Newport News and Norfolk. There are also plans in the works for a seventh location in Suffolk, which will open in 2015. The stores have become go-to shopping destinations in their communities for those looking for specialty foods, prepared foods, beer and wine, desserts and more.
Among TASTE’s specialty food selections, by far the most popular among the stores’ customers are the company’s housemade and private label items. Shoppers have been flocking to TASTE for years to pick up the company’s locally famous house dressing. More recently, TASTE has garnered positive attention for its pimento cheese. In addition there is also a full TASTE lineup of packaged nuts, including 10 different nut varieties – perhaps the company’s top-selling specialty food offering.
However, not every product sold at TASTE is made in-house or available as part of the company’s private label offerings. The company pays special attention to filling its shelves with unique local and regional products. “Beyond the products that carry our name, we’ve embraced everything local and just happen to be fortunate that we’re in such a vibrant food part of the country in eastern Virginia,” said Pruden. Particularly popular among TASTE shoppers are the hams from Edwards of Surry, Virginia Ham Company, granola from Good News Granola Company (Pruden calls it the best granola he has ever tasted), Fresh Batch Jams and the spreads from Durham, North Carolina-based Big Spoon Peanut Roasters.
Although the six TASTE locations offer a similar shopping experience, the Pruden family strives to give each store its own unique identity. “In terms of their product offerings, they are very similar, but each has its own unique footprint and store layout,” said Pruden. “That’s something we like. We like to have unique atmospheres at each location.” One store that is particularly special is the recently remodeled Bayville Farms location on Shore Drive in Virginia Beach. Located on the grounds of the now-defunct Bayville Dairy Farm, TASTE has truly embraced the surrounding landscape, constructing a singular barn-like structure for the store, adorned with natural reclaimed wood, barn doors and other place-specific reminders of bucolic living. In summer, customers can grab a sandwich or a scoop of gelato and wander out onto the picturesque grounds to sit at a picnic table and enjoy the scene.
Operating in an area that sees a tremendous influx of tourists each summer presents TASTE with some unique opportunities. “From a tourist perspective, it’s great to be able turn them on to foods that they may have had no exposure to before, even specific food types like Surry country hams. A lot of people from the North may have never tried that before,” said Pruden. “People like to have something to take back home and give them something distinctive with a regional flavor to it. We do have a lot of housemade items and private label TASTE items and a rich array of locally produced gourmet food items.” In recent years, TASTE has taken advantage of its summer tourist business to help grow the company’s online retail presence. Visiting shoppers return to their homes around the country and visit the TASTE website to purchase items they miss from Virginia.
Still, TASTE does not rely on summer visitors as its only customer base, and the company has its share of loyal local shoppers as well. The Pruden family likes to reach out to locals with special events and classes that appeal to Virginia foodies. For example, the company operates a monthly Chef’s Table Cooking Series at its Norfolk location, where attendees have the opportunity to get up close and personal with well-known area chefs. And in the summer months, the music series at the Bayville Farms stores brings acoustic musicians to the grounds every Friday afternoon.
As the Pruden family finishes out its first decade as owners of TASTE, it is their goal to continue serving as an important part of their local community and to keep creating a unique shopping experience for their customers. “I think that TASTE is genuine and unique and multifaceted. It really is a true specialty food experience – not just a shopping trip or a trip to a restaurant,” said Pruden.