At home in the most beautiful desert environment on Earth and headquartered in one of the nation’s half-dozen largest cities, Arizona-based AJ’s Fine Foods is a gourmet and specialty retailer with a focus on fresh and freshly prepared foods. “Quality is paramount, and customer service is as well,” says Ike Basha, Director of Operations for AJ’s Fine Foods, the gourmet brand for Bashas’ Family of Supermarkets.
AJ’s Fine Foods operates 12 locations, all in Arizona—one in Tucson and 11 in the Phoenix metropolitan area. There are no immediate plans for further expansion, as the company readies itself to exit the reorganization process attendant on a 2008 bankruptcy. “The recovery is going incredibly well. We’re very blessed,” Basha says. “The support we’ve received from our vendor community is unparalleled.”
In general, AJ’s Fine Foods stores do not attempt to meet every market basket need for their guests, although there are a few locations that do provide the product range to serve primary shoppers. Instead, the company’s focus is specifically on gourmet and specialty fresh-prepared foods and high-quality indulgences, including produce and other perishables. There are full-service bakeries staffed with bakers, decorators and pastry chefs, wine cellars staffed with expert cellar masters, and complete floral departments staffed with floral teams that regularly supply weddings and local resorts. The company’s aim is to make each guest’s visit to AJ’s a total experience rather than just a shopping trip, says corporate Assistant Director Jayson Mead.
Mead was particularly excited at the time of this writing by plans for a September chain-wide celebration of southern Italian foods and culture. “We sent a team back to Italy to experience southern Italy and Sicily,” Mead says. “We went back to source products that won’t be found in the States. Our team visited 14 different cities.” The products they sourced during that trip included fresh-harvest vegetables, peppers, olive oils and balsamics, anchovies and seafood, chocolates and marinated onions. Some of those products will be familiar to AJ’s guests, but many of them will be new. “If you haven’t traveled to southern Italy, they’ll be unique flavors,” Mead says.
Introducing new products to AJ’s guests is the duty of team members across all of AJ’s departments. The stores’ staff members are trained in AJ’s Inspired Epicurean Hours, voluntary meetings that are scheduled about 10 times a year. The meetings feature a meal service that incorporates ingredients and seasonal pairings from the AJ’s sumptuous grocery pantry. Each of the team members tastes every dish and has the opportunity to taste the dish in a pairing. Staff members are then trained in suggestive selling techniques that invite AJ’s guests to consider some of those pairing options for themselves. “At our last event, about 140 of our members volunteered to spend their time to learn about our products,” Mead says.
Training at the Inspired Epicurean Hours frequently includes a presentation by an individual vendor invited to demonstrate the company’s product line and its uses. The vendor might teach how to use a chutney in different ways or how to use a product in a party dish. “Typically, we’ll focus on flavors that are seasonal,” Mead says. “We’re conscious that we don’t just show our members a line and never get back to it. We try to show specific seasonal uses for those products.”
The frequency of these training events reflects AJ’s intense focus on seasonality. The company works hard to keep guests coming back to its stores to see what’s new, even when they are not naturally reminded of the calendar’s progression in a Southwestern desert climate.
For example, during peach season, AJ’s procures peaches from different growing areas and brings them together inside the stores with displays of peach sauces, desserts and chutneys. In celebration of peaches, the company’s produce buyers have gone so far as to adopt peach trees from one of their growers. “We sent our produce managers to hand-harvest those peaches,” Mead says, adding that the trip combined food fun with the hands-on educational experience of being among the trees and learning from the grower. “I’m sure there was some food and wine pairing along the way,” Mead says, chuckling.
Year-round, AJ’s guests can expect to be surrounded by an atmosphere that invites anticipation for the pleasures of the table. Stores feature bistros with kitchens open to the sales floor, offering dishes that showcase items from the AJ’s grocery pantry. Tuesday is Taco Tuesday, and certified chefs set up a station where they prepare tacos to order along with other dishes like pollo asado and carne asada. On Pasta Night, guests can order a dish with alfredo sauce or a beef bolognese dish. “The chef will actually prepare that entree right there on the sales floor,” Mead says. If the chef makes a dish with a featured ingredient, such as a grapeseed oil, guests will probably find a display of the ingredient along with signage describing other uses for the product and takeaway recipe cards for the chef’s dish.
Most AJ’s locations also have a brick pizza oven, Basha says. “It’s an outstanding pizza, with premium meats and cheeses and sauce.” However, AJ’s prepared food offerings do not end with pizza and pasta. “We do sushi too, with the fish we receive daily,” says Basha. “We have a sushi bar in most of our locations.”
The excellence of the Seafood Grottos in each store is another point of particular pride for Basha. Seafood is delivered to each AJ’s Fine Foods location, daily. “Our seafood deliveries are more frequent than the best restaurant in the state in order to provide quality ingredients and incomparable freshness,” he says. “Obviously, seafood is highly perishable, and we like to bring it in fresh and sell it fresh.”
Seafood has its seasons too, and AJ’s honors that with the same devotion to seasonality that applies to the rest of the store. During salmon season, the store’s focus is on king salmon. “To our knowledge, we’re the only ones in the state who bring in the Copper River King Salmon,” Basha says. “You don’t generally find king salmon in restaurants. It’s a premium product, and we treat it in a premium manner.”
Guests who want to make sure that they’re pairing that special salmon with the perfect wine can step down the aisle to the stores’ wine cellars. There they will find an expert to advise them. “Our focus in our wine cellars is in finding you what you’re looking for and, as our relationships with our customers develop, introducing them to wines and varietals and styles that will complement their enjoyment of fine wines,” Basha says.
The primary focus of AJ’s Fine Foods comes down to offering fine ingredients from folks who know and appreciate their products and are eager to share their experience with guests who are hungry for learning as well as for food. “In all of our locations, we’re very fortunate to have the members that we do,” Basha says. “Really, at the end of the day, it’s our people that make all the difference in the world.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Just in case Texans didn’t have enough reasons to be proud of their state already, Market Street takes July of every year as an opportunity to add to those with a Best of Texas expo that helps Texans get better acquainted with the food and beverage bounty produced in the Lone Star State.
This year’s Best of Texas expo featured products ranging from Beanitos chips, Rhythm Kale Chips and Mrs. Renfro’s Salsa for the appetizer course to Scoops Ice Cream and Sticky Toffee Pudding along with about three dozen other brands and product categories that all originated in Texas.
“We do three or four of those kinds of events through the year. Best of Texas may be everyone’s favorite because our guests expect us to feature local products and provide them with local products,” said Eddie Owens, Director of Communications and Public Relations for United Supermarkets, LLC., the parent company of Market Street, which is coming up on its tenth anniversary in the Dallas-Fort Worth market.
United now has 57 stores in Texas under four brands: United Supermarkets (36 stores), Market Street (11 stores), Amigos (three stores) and United Express (seven free-standing convenience stores and 18 other fuel stations with walk-in kiosks). A new United Supermarkets location and another Market Street store are under construction, and a new Amigos store, a brand designed for Hispanic communities, is scheduled to be built next year.
Market Street, the company’s specialty foods retail chain, is known in north and west Texas for three annual month-long expos: Best of Texas, Healthy New You, which focuses on health and wellness and is held in January, and Entertaining Made Easy, which takes place each November.
Healthy New You includes some regular vendors, especially those who make health and body care products, and health screenings are also offered through nonprofit partners like American Diabetes Association. The Best of Texas expo is a sampling event with stations located throughout the stores. “We featured at least one product from every department of the store each weekend. If you came in the first weekend in July, you would not see the same products that you would see the second weekend,” Owens said.
The showcase for Texas products meets a need for Market Street guests, who, along with many other Americans, are increasingly more concerned about food safety and ethics. “There is a growing urgency for folks who want to know where their products are coming from. They want to buy close to home,” Owens said. “We’re trying to meet that need. We’re hoping that once they’re exposed to those products, guests will keep coming back to purchase them.”
Customers are also encouraged to keep coming back by a vigorous social media effort along with Market Street’s weekly newspaper advertising. The expo events are marketed in the weekly ads as well as in ROP (run-of-press) ads in the same editions of the newspapers during the weeks in which the expo is happening. Notices are also pushed out on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram. The expos are celebrated with occasional radio remotes as well. “The whole point is to generate some excitement,” Owens said.
In addition to the events that take place in all 11 Market Street stores, there are two Market Streets in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex that include cooking schools. Both of those stores are larger than the other nine Market Street stores, which range from 65,000 to 71,000 square feet, and include a larger kitchenware department as well as a classroom and demonstration area that are large enough for hands-on classes taught by the company’s corporate chef and other chefs from the community and staffed by Market Street team members who handle registrations, clean-up and all the other tasks associated with running a successful culinary education program.
“On the other end of the scale, there’s a new store under construction in Flower Mound that’s downsized to only 55,000 square feet,” Owens said. He noted that United has been seeking to enter the Flower Mound market for several years, and the store will face heavy competition from other grocery chains that operate 16 competitive stores within five miles of the new Market Street location. “We think that this store is going to be our prototype for new stores for the foreseeable future. We think we can compete better with this size store,” he said.
Susan Dolinar’s Nibblins store is located in rural Winchester, Va., about 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley near the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is where Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania come together. The town of about 25,000 people is home to commuters who work in Washington as well as people who both live and work locally. The town sees frequent visits from tourists who stop by during their tours of nearby Civil War battlefields as well as college students from Shenandoah University and people from surrounding rural areas who prefer to shop in the smaller city as opposed to the Washington metroplex.
“We’re in sort of a rural area, so we draw people from an hour away,” says Owner Susan Dolinar.
Nibblins, located in the Rutherford Crossing shopping center, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year. Started as a holiday-season cart that operated in a local shopping mall, Nibblins now has about 4,500 square feet of display space for kitchenware and specialty food products, including a candy counter that does a brisk trade in house-made fudge. (Dolinar actually makes the fudge herself in a nearby commercial kitchen.) “It’s amazing how many people like fudge,” she says.
The shop also has a 600-sq.-ft. kitchen where classes are offered for both children and adults. This summer, Nibblins is offering very successful children’s day camps, each with its own culinary theme. For June’s Italian-themed day camp, youngsters aged 8 to 12 made pizza and stromboli from scratch. “They were there with their hands in the dough, mixing the oil into the flour with their fingers,” Dolinar says. “With kids, I have them do as much as possible with their hands, while with adults I might teach them how to use the food processor.”
“Even the picky eaters ate everything they made,” adds Nibblins Marketing Director Elise Stine. “The parents sneaked in early and tried to sneak bites off the kids’ plates, and then they wanted the recipes.”
In July, the kids’ camp concentrated on American foods, while August’s kids’ camp has an international theme. Adult classes cover a wide range of topics, with titles like “Oodles of Noodles,” “The Thrill of the Grill” and “Tribute to Julia Child.”
The classes are taught by local chefs and caterers. The Thai cuisine instructor is a woman whose husband was a missionary in Thailand for 17 years. An Indian woman with a pastry degree teaches both Indian cooking and pastry. Other classes are taught by a local food blogger as well as other members of Nibblins staff. “Almost everyone who works here has some sort of culinary training,” Stine says.
Outside the class kitchen, the store sells both gourmet foods and professional cookware, including Bakers Edge, All-Clad, Le Creuset and Revol. Shun knives are particularly popular. “We actually outfit most of the chefs in the area with their knives,” Stine says.
The gourmet food items offered include products from Robert Rothschild Farm, Jelly Belly and Stonewall Kitchen. However, Nibblins also offers a number of products that are made locally, many for which Nibblins is the exclusive retailer. These products feed Virginians’ hunger for buying local, Dolinar says.
Local products include creamed honey made by the monks at Holy Cross Abbey and sold under the Monastery Honey brand, hot sauces and buffalo sauces for chicken wings concocted by local chefs, Virginia peanuts sourced from Feridies, Route 11 potato chips that are made just a few minutes down the road and jams with interesting flavors from The Essential Table. “It’s really kind of fun; we’re the first retailer to carry it,” Dolinar says of The Essential Table jams. “Virginia’s big on buying local.”