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Retailer Profiles

A Southern Season of Gustatory Pleasure


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.”


Foothills IGA: A Georgia Peach of a Market

By Lorrie Baumann

IGAExterior1 (1)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.”

Meet Viris the Cow and Francine Bearbottom at Newport Avenue Market


By Lorrie Baumann

The Newport Avenue Market family accepts the 2015 Retail Visionary Award from Unified Grocers.

The Newport Avenue Market family accepts the 2015 Retail Visionary Award from Unified Grocers.

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.”

IMG_1742While 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.”

Lauren and Rudy in front of their produce wall

Lauren and Rudy in front of their produce wall

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.

Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage: Wading into the Mainstream

By Lorrie Baumann

NaturalGrocers1-NHNatural 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.

PhotographerIn 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.”


Virginia Vacationers and Loyal Locals Alike Flock to TASTE


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.”

TasteUnlimited1TASTE 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.

TasteUnlimited2However, 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.

TasteUnlimited3Operating 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.


This story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group. Read about other specialty foods retailers here



Customers Give a Standing “O” to EVOO at St. Louis’ An Olive Ovation

AnOliveOvation2-CSBy Lucas Witman

Located 2,000 miles from the olive groves of Northern California, St. Louis, Missouri seems an unlikely destination for those looking for high-quality, in-demand olive oils. However, this presumption would be incorrect, thanks in large part to St. Louis’ own olive oil doyenne Marianne Prey and her retail shop An Olive Ovation, a local destination-store for aficionados of the chartreuse elixir.

An Olive Ovation opened in 2007, after Prey decided to leave her 24-year career as a pathologist to pursue a second career as a retailer. Inspired by the small olive oil shops she liked to visit when traveling to major metropolitan areas elsewhere in the country, Prey wanted to bring this type of experience to a city that had not yet been bitten by the olive oil bug. “An Olive Ovation was the first olive oil market in St. Louis. The whole concept of olive oil tasting hadn’t even hit this area. It was really before the huge influx of olive oil stores across the country,” said Prey. “I got my inspiration from a little tiny olive oil ship in Chicago that specialized in Turkish oils … I was just kind of fascinated with the whole idea of olive oil tasting, so I tucked that idea away.”

It took her two years to plan out and build the store, but once An Olive Ovation finally opened, the store grew quickly. Last year, Prey actually moved the store from its original 1,200-square-foot home to a new, larger 1,600-square-foot retail space in Ladue, just outside St. Louis, to accommodate its expanding product selection.

The centerpiece of An Olive Ovation is the tasting bar. At the bar, customers can sample at least 100 different products, including extra-virgin olive oils, flavored olive oils, balsamics, wine vinegars, fruit vinegars and more. The tasting bar is a good place to begin one’s shopping experience at the store, before one sets out to browse through 50+ vinegars, 30-35 extra-virgin olive oils, as well as an extensive selection of specialty foods, including cheeses, olives, tapenades, crackers, breads and wines. The store also offers products for the home and kitchen, such as olive wood kitchen utensils and serving pieces, Mediterranean-themed cookbooks, French table linens and more.

When it comes to the store’s signature product, the selection of olive oils at An Olive Ovation is always in flux, partly out of Prey’s desire to always offer her customers something new, but also partly out of necessity. Because Prey stocks unique hard-to-find oils produced by small family farms and family cooperatives, she is often at the whim of the producer (and in fact, the weather) when it comes to what olive oils she can get and how many bottles of each. She cites one particular olive oil, the December’s New Oil from California-based Katz & Co. as an example of a seasonal product that is particularly in demand among her customers, but which lasts on her store shelves only a short while.

“Customers know that we get four cases in early December, and if they aren’t there to get it they miss out until the next year,” said Prey. “I would like to get more, but usually Albert [Katz] allots us four cases.”

Asked what are the best olive oils currently on the shelves at An Olive Ovation, Prey, ever the scientist, scoffs at the question. “We’ve had a couple of instances when a customer comes in and they say, ‘Pick for me,’ and it’s like, how?” Nevertheless, Prey utilizes her skills as a pathologist to ask pointed questions and guide her customers to the product that is going to be the best fit for their unique palate.

Of course, shoppers come to An Olive Ovation in search of much more than just olive oil. Prey’s shop serves as a destination for anyone who loves food, more generally. And the shop’s wide selection of hard-to-find specialty food products from around the world brings in customers searching for something truly unique to serve at their next dinner party, whether it be the Tunisian sun-dried garlic from Les Moulins Mahjoub or the Spanish spicy catch-all condiment Mojo Picón, from Ferrer.

The concept of pairing is a particularly important one for Prey, and she works to provide her customers with apt suggestions for bringing together olive oil, wine and food. With each of the wines offered at An Olive Ovation, Prey offers an olive oil pairing suggestion. And similarly, with each of the oils sampled at the tasting bar, Prey provides a comparable wine pairing.

“When you taste a dish, you taste the olive oil before it goes into the finished product. I want people to really focus on the taste and how it can vary when you pair one ingredient with another ingredient – how you can change the mouthfeel and the sensation,” said Prey. “An olive oil paired with one ingredient might just explode in your mouth and transform the salad or the steak and make it completely different.”

Prey’s commitment to educating her customers about how best to pair and enjoy her store’s products extends even further, as An Olive Ovation offers monthly classes on a number of related themes. Prey teaches the classes herself, providing lessons on how best to incorporate the store’s olive oils into various cuisines, from pastas to salads. A recent class taught attendees about using olive oils to prepare end-of-summer harvest delicacies from the garden. In addition, An Olive Ovation also offers more in-depth tasting classes, training customers about the intricacies of how to sample and enjoy high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

With the holiday season fast approaching, An Olive Ovation is an ideal stop for those looking to offer unique hostess gifts that are sure to stand out among the plates of cookies and bottles of wine. The store offers a wide selection of items from $5 to $500 that make great gifts on their own, or Prey is happy to put them into custom gift baskets. “A bottle of olive oil lasts much longer than a bottle of wine and a bottle of balsamic even longer,” said Prey. “A bottle of wine, they don’t even remember where it came from. It’s gone before the evening is over. [Olive oil and balsamic are] thoughtful nice gifts.”

The success of a store that specializes in a single commodity without a doubt hinges on the passion and expertise of its proprietor, and An Olive Ovation is an expression of the dedication its owner has for the world’s small-batch, estate-grown extra-virgin olive oils. “It’s the taste. Every sip is just a new experience. It’s wholesome, and it’s satisfying. It just makes everything that you put it on taste good,” said Prey.

This story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.

Celebrate the Craft of American Cheesemaking at New York’s Saxelby Cheesemongers

SaxelbyCheesemongers1-RNBy Lucas Witman

For those venturing into the burgeoning world of American farmstead cheeses there is probably no better point of entry than New York’s Saxelby Cheesemongers, and there is perhaps no better tour guide than the store’s founder and namesake Anne Saxelby. Saxelby has dedicated her career to promoting the craft of American cheesemaking, and at her flagship cheese shop in Manhattan’s Essex Market, hungry shoppers can indulge in some of the best dairy products the northeastern United States has to offer.

Saxelby began her career as an art student at New York University, but it was during an early employment opportunity at New York’s most celebrated cheesemonger Murray’s Cheese that she fell in love with the dairy staple. Her stint at Murray’s led her to an internship at Cato Corner Farm, a small dairy and artisan cheese producer in Colchester, Connecticut, where she began to open her eyes to the immense world of American farmstead cheeses. From there, Saxelby began traveling around the United States and eventually Europe, visiting small family dairy farms and educating herself about the artisan cheesemaking process.

From the beginning of her career, Saxelby knew that she wanted to open her own business, but it took her a while to find her niche within the specialty food landscape. While traveling in Paris, she became acquainted with Fromagerie Laurent Dubois, a gourmet store specializing only in artisan cheeses. It occurred to her that there was no equivalent to this shop in New York City. “In New York, you find all these specialty food stores, but there was nobody just focused on cheese and dairy,” she said. “Cheese is where my expertise is. I’m not an expert on olive oil. I’m not an expert on vinegar. I’m not an expert on the best olive or cured meat selection. So this is perfect for me.”

In 2006, Saxelby first opened her eponymous shop in the eclectic Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The modest shop occupies a mere 150 square feet and includes a long counter, finishing at a simple 3-foot cheese case. A walk-in refrigerator rounds out the location, where shoppers can pick up milk, cream, butter and other dairy staples. Saxelby in part credits the small size of the shop with its continued success. “It allows us to really move through products and rotate things and change product constantly,” she said.

The business philosophy behind Saxelby Cheesemongers is simple: the promotion of American farmstead cheeses produced at small, independent dairy farms in the American Northeast. “American farmstead is not only delicious, but it is made locally, and it is about supporting local farmers,” Saxelby said. “The goal was then as it is today to be a bridge between the farm and the person eating the cheese.”

Saxelby offers customers a carefully curated selection of artisan cheeses produced by farmers who she knows by name at farms she and her staff have visited themselves. Although always looking to learn about new farmers and bring her customers something fresh, Saxelby does admit to having a few favorite cheesemakers. She praised The Cellars at Jasper Hill for its consistent commitment to producing great cheeses. Of West Cornwall, Vermont-based Twig Farm, she says, “They are unparalleled in terms of flavor and quality and nuance.” She also expressed particular admiration for Cazenovia, New York’s Meadowood Farms.

When it comes to the particular cheeses that are most popular among Saxelby Cheesemongers’ customers, it can be difficult to pin down a specific favorite, as the selection is constantly in flux. However, there are a few standouts Saxelby points out as particularly in demand. The Ledyard from Meadowood Farms is a current top seller – a soft-ripened sheep’s milk cheese wrapped in grape leaves that have been soaked in local beer. Woodcock Farm’s Summer Snow, a sheep’s milk camembert-style cheese, is another favorite. And Cabot Clothbound Cheddar form the Cellars at Jasper Hill is a perpetual bestseller.

SaxelbyCheesemongers2-RNAt Saxelby Cheesemongers, Anne Saxelby attempts to create a unique shopping experience that lures cheese aficionados and beginners alike away from the supermarket cheese case and into this dedicated space where she can offer them something that they simply cannot get anywhere else. “We’re really fun. Everyone that works at Saxelby, we have a really distinct passion for these cheeses. The experience is going to be a lot different from going to a grocery store. We are not intimidating, but try to educate through taste,” she said.

“We also have a selection of things you’re probably not going to find at the grocery store. The quality of the cheese we have is amazing, because we are cut-to-order, and we move through our inventory really quickly,” Saxelby added.

In addition, Saxelby and her staff pride themselves on the personal service they are able to provide, guiding the customer to the particular cheese of their dreams. “We are a cut-and-wrap cheese counter. Nothing is pre-cut. Nothing is pre-packaged. When a customer comes up to the counter, we play‘cheese detective’ and try to snuff out what they are looking for,” she said. “We give as many samples as people may want … We really just try to ask questions and see what people are looking for.”

With the holiday season approaching, Saxelby invites holiday shoppers to come into her shop to pick out the perfect cheese selection for a cocktail party or holiday get-together. And for those traveling home to spend the season with family, Saxelby Cheesemongers offers shoppers a special selection that is sure to surprise and delight loved ones.

For Saxelby, American farmstead cheese is a personal passion that extends well beyond her professional commitments and into her basic philosophies about life. And this commitment to our country’s vast cheese landscape shows itself in the quality of products that Saxelby Cheesemongers offers, as well as in the shop’s quality of service.

“For me, the pleasure of eating artisan cheese is just incredible. Once you’ve had a really wonderful piece of cheese, it changes your outlook on things in general,” said Saxelby. “Cheese is a living thing and should be treated as such. We’re entrusted with these really wonderful things that the cheesemakers have made, and it almost feels sacred in a way.”

This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.

Natural Grocers Opens In Las Cruces

 Natural Grocers, Inc.  has opened its fifth New Mexico location in Las Cruces at 3970 E. Lohman Avenue and is inviting customers to visit, sample new foods and products, and join the Grand Opening Week festivities.

“We are excited to offer the people of Las Cruces and the surrounding communities healthy food options at an affordable price and free nutrition resources,” said Kemper Isely, Co-president of Natural Grocers.

Shoppers in the Las Cruces area may wonder how a grocery store can change people’s lives. “It’s because we provide the resources that people need to live a life of optimum health and vitality even when facing health challenges,” Isely explained.

  • Each Natural Grocers store offers many free science-based health and nutrition learning resources, including exceptionally high quality natural and organic groceries, natural body care and dietary supplements – all at affordable prices.
  • Natural Grocers will not sell any grocery product that contains artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, or harmful trans fats.
  • Natural Grocers sells only USDA Certified Organic produce.
  • Meats  come from animals that were raised without the use of antibiotics, growth promoters or feed containing animal by products.
  • Each Natural Grocers store has a credentialed Nutritional Health Coach (NHC). The service is offered free of charge. NHCs can answer questions on special diet needs, help design a personalized supplement and eating program, or point toward the products that support health and fitness goals. Customers can even sign up for individual coaching sessions or attend a nutrition class or cooking demonstration in the store’s teaching kitchen.
  • Throughout the store, the knowledgeable staff welcomes questions about special diets like gluten-free, Paleo, vegetarian/vegan, and low-glycemic, or about specific supplements or products.
  • Shoppers can look for more than 680 products from over 40 different New Mexico companies. Product approval guidelines are here.
  • Las Cruces shoppers can come in to get yummy cooking demos, hear speakers or attend seminars.
  • The store doesn’t offer plastic or paper shopping bags at its registers; groceries are packed in free recycled boxes for customers who don’t bring their own totes.

The Las Cruces store opened on April 1.

About Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage
Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage (NGVC): Founded in Colorado by Margaret & Philip Isely in 1955, Natural Grocers was built on the premise that consumers should have access to affordable, high-quality foods and dietary supplements, along with nutrition knowledge to help them support their own health. The family-run store has since grown into a successful national chain with locations across Colorado, Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Missouri, New Mexico, Montana, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska,Arizona and Oregon, and employs over 2000 people. The company went public in July 2012. Isely family members continue to manage the company, building on the foundation of their parents’ business.

Wine and Food Lovers Slow Down to Savor the Selections at WineStyles Tasting Station

By Lucas Witman

In 2002, WineStyles’ founder Brigitte Baker was enjoying a casual backyard barbecue with friends, when the conversation turned to wine. Baker was surprised to find her friends unaware of the wealth of high quality, low cost wines available today. It was in this moment that Baker first got the idea to open a shop that featured reasonably priced wines and educated consumers on how to get the most for their money when it comes to the sought after libation. A little over a decade later, WineStyles has evolved to include 26 stores in 12 states across the country.

WineStyles1-RN.jpgIn 2012, Iowa-based WineStyles franchisees Bryan and Andrea McGinness took over for Baker, when they purchased the company. The pair immediately set about reinventing the store concept and diversifying the product offerings. “We’ve grown and expanded over the past year and a half, going into gourmet foods and cheeses and chocolates, all of the things that pair nicely with wine,” said Bryan. “The whole rebranding of the company has been very important to us.”

Today, WineStyles customers will still find an expansive wine selection, but they can also shop for cheese, specialty food, chocolate, coffee, tea, beer, accessories and more. The company’s gourmet food offerings have been instrumental in bringing a whole new customer base into its stores. Shoppers are now loading up their carts with products from some of the most popular specialty food companies in the business, including Sweetshop USA, Bissinger’s, The French Farm, Robert Rothshild Farms, Gourmet du Village, Rishi Tea, American Vintage Biscuits and Jennifer’s Homemade.

WineStyles also treats shoppers to a variety of specialty prepared foods, as well, some made with gourmet ingredients that are available in store. Prepared food offerings include pizzettes, olives and cheese boards, and the menu is expanding. In many of the stores, customers can also enjoy wine served by the glass.

Wine may still be the star attraction at WineStyles, but it is not the only beverage getting customers’ attentions. The newly reinvented WineStyles stores are also focusing on offering extensive selections of craft beers as well. “The craft beer has brought in a totally new customer base,” said Bryan. “We keep about 200 different craft beers in the store at any given time, and they rotate seasonally.”

WineStyles Tasting Station sets itself apart from other wine shops in a number of ways, but the most striking may be way that the wine itself is merchandised in store. Whereas most wine shops divide up their selection based on varietal or regionality, WineStyles opts to organize its bottles by style. When it comes to whites, customers can choose from crisp, silky or rich offerings. The store’s reds are broken up into fruity, mellow and bold bottles.

WineStyles is also unique in its focus on offering its customers locally sourced regional selections. Each store brings in craft beers from local breweries, and stores located in wine growing regions also have selections of local wines. “Different stores around the country are offering different beers. Craft beer is still so regional that there is a different flare in different parts of the country.” The McGinnesses’ Des Moines store, for example, treats its customers to Toppling Goliath’s Tsunami Pale Ale, Madhouse Brewery’s Imperial Red and Confluence Brewing Company’s Des Moines IPA.

WineStyles2-RN.jpgReaching out to wine aficionados and newcomers alike, WineStyles’ popular wine club is a great way to broaden one’s knowledge and try some great new bottles on a regular basis. “We’re the only wine club with a clubhouse,” said Andrea. By signing up for the monthly wine club, customers will take home two new bottles of wine each month. WineStyles also offers a variety of similar clubs, where members have the opportunity to try new beers, chocolates, cheeses, teas and coffees.

Catering to a diverse clientele with varying degrees of wine knowledge, WineStyles strives to staff its stores with knowledgeable experts in the field, trained to guide customers through their purchase. However, for Bryan and Andrea, personality is just as important as expertise when it comes to bringing new staff into the business. “When we hire, obviously we want them to have some knowledge,” said Andrea. “Customer service is huge for us. The training is geared toward customer service…but personality is also key.”

When reinventing the WineStyles concept, the most important thing for Bryan and Andrea was to create stores where customers felt free to browse the shelves for an extended period of time, perusing bottles, learning about wine and picking up a few things along the way. To get the full experience of the store, the pair hopes that customers will hang around for at least 45 minutes or more.

This is what ultimately sets WineStyles apart from other wine and specialty food shops around the country: a welcoming atmosphere where customers feel free to shop, drink, snack and peruse the products at their leisure.

“What sets us apart is the look feel and fit of our stores. We are set up like an old world wine cellar where customers can come and try wines from all over the world,” said Bryan. “The fit and finish of the store is very cozy.”

To learn more about WineStyles Tasting Station or to view a complete list of stores, visit

Foodies Losing Themselves and Loving It at Cincinnati’s Jungle Jim’s International Market

By Lucas Witman

For a newcomer walking into Jungle Jim’s International Market for the first time, one should be prepared for a truly extraordinary experience. To put it mildly—this is not your average grocery store.

Jungle Jim’s began over 35 years ago as a small, roadside produce stand. It was the vision of company founder “Jungle” Jim Bonaminio that propelled the business into the supermarket stratosphere. Bonaminio erected the company’s first permanent building in 1975 in the Cincinnati suburb of Fairfield, Ohio. Eventually the store’s focus expanded from just produce, adding dairy products and then a deli. In fact, Jungle Jim’s has never stopped expanding since its incipience, always growing in both size and product selection.

JungleJims1-RNIt is the sheer enormity of Jungle Jim’s, first and foremost, that makes this retailer truly unique. The store offers over 180,000 different products. Jungle Jim’s produce department alone is over an acre in size, and the company offers 1,500 different varieties of hot sauce and 12,000 distinct wine labels. The store features a giant outdoor pond, populated by life-sized replicas of jungle animals. Outside, there is a monorail, and inside, guests can shop from giant tanks full of live fish. In addition, the store is full of animatronic characters, positioned at every turn, including a giant, swinging can of Campbell’s Soup and a “Hound Dog Elvis Lion” in the candy section.

There are sections at Jungle Jim’s devoted to every genre of cuisine and every type of comestible. One will of course find the essential grocery store sections (albeit in super-sized versions) devoted to things like cheese, baked goods and frozen foods. However, this singular store also contains entire store departments devoted only to Asian, Middle Eastern and African cuisines, as well as dedicated sections for honey, olives, coffee and more. If there is a food product, no matter how obscure, you are almost certain to find it somewhere on the campus of Jungle Jim’s.

JungleJims3-RN“The saying, ‘Variety is the spice of life,’ rings very true in the Jungle,” said Jimmy Bonaminio, Director of Creative Services at Jungle Jim’s. “Every department is a world in and of itself. Each department shines because Jungle gives a lot of freedom to managers and they feel like it’s their own department. That is one of the things that make the shopping experience really unique. You never know what you’ll find.”

Taking advantage of the tremendous amount of space at the store, Jungle Jim’s frequently offers guests cooking demonstrations and product sampling events. On any given day, shoppers may have the opportunity to watch fresh mozzarella being stretched or salsa being assembled. The guests can then buy the finished product to take home and use in their own kitchens.

Jungle Jim’s also boasts its own cooking school. Interested participants can sign up online for classes on everything from wine and food pairings to gluten-free cookery to hands-on sushi preparation. For group events, the cooking school space can be rented for group culinary classes and activities.

Reflecting its founder’s commitment to entrepreneurialism, Jungle Jim’s makes an effort to keep its shelves stocked with unique local products, many of which shoppers are unlikely to find elsewhere. “[The store] offers countless numbers of mom and pop vendors the opportunity to present their ‘kitchen-to-shelf’ products to the store,” said Bonaminio. “Those one-of-a kind items compliment our outstanding selection. There are successful local businesses today who credit Jungle Jim’s for giving them the needed start.”

JungleJims2-RNWith such an extensive product selection, it can be a challenge to make sure each department is keeping up-to-date with the latest trends, but the staff at Jungle Jim’s is committed to doing just that. “With over 180,000 products in each store, demand can change from week to week,” said Bonaminio. “Because we are an independent, we have the flexibility to react to trends very quickly. We try to find a balance between filling customer requests and offering items they’d never thought of requesting.”

At its heart, Jungle Jim’s strives to set itself apart from all other grocery stores, by transforming a simple trip to the market into a family event, delighting every person who enters the store’s doors with something that appeals especially to them. “The goal of Jungle Jim’s is to make grocery shopping a fun experience. This includes providing some of the more unusual items that you wouldn’t normally find in your average grocery store,” said Bonaminio.

This strategy seems to have been a successful one for the company, as Jungle Jim’s has become a destination shopping experience, drawing curious foodies from all over the Midwest and beyond. According to Adams, some of the store’s visitors have actually arranged vacations around their trip to Jungle Jim’s. The store has drawn destination foodies from as far away as New York and Los Angeles and even Australia.

Today, Jungle Jim’s operates both the original 200,000-square-foot Fairfield store, as well as a new, even larger store, opened in 2012 in Cincinnati’s Eastgate neighborhood. For more information on Jungle Jim’s International Market, visit


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