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.
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.
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.
At 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, 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.
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.
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.
In 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.
Reaching 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 www.winestyles.com.
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.
It 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.
“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.”
With 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 www.junglejims.com.
By Lorrie Baumann
The Fresh Market is a chain of 145 stores in the Southeastern, Northeastern, Midwestern and Great Plains regions of the United States. The chain has recently expanded into Houston, Texas and into the California market with four stores—one in Palo Alto and three in the Sacramento area. One more California store was under construction at press time. The Santa Barbara store is expected to be opening in December. The Fresh Market stores rely on quality, service and ambiance as the ingredients that create a relaxed, comfortable and friendly environment, bringing customers in to buy the fresh foods they will serve their families.
“Our focus is on providing customers with high-quality food and excellent service in a unique atmosphere, and our stores are designed to encourage interaction between customers and employees,” said Craig Carlock, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Fresh Market for the past five years. Carlock has been with the company for 14 years, originally coming over to the company from Procter & Gamble.
“I was attracted to the food concept, the growth, and the chance to be part of a special company,” Carlock says, explaining the unusual move from the manufacturing conglomerate to grocery retailing. “The chance to contribute to a growing enterprise draws a lot of people to The Fresh Market. I have found that we can attract very talented people because they want to be part of growing something from a regional brand into a national one.”
Customers will meet a lot of those talented people in The Fresh Market stores. In the produce department, there is a store employee on the floor at all times. The bakery, seafood and meat departments are always staffed with people behind the counter. “There’s service all around the store,” Carlock says.
The Fresh Market stores average 20,000 square feet and have about 10,000 items in stock, with a total of 20,000 items moving in and out over the course of the year. Each store has a full-service bakery, full-service prepared foods and deli department, a convenient selection of frozen foods, beer and wine, bulk snacks and nuts, candies and fresh-ground and whole bean coffee. The chain is also testing single-cup coffee service in a couple of locations.
Quality is ensured through demanding specifications in every category. Carlock says, “The quality is such that it’s hard to find that kind of food at other places.”
The stores strive to create a gentle, relaxed ambiance through soft lighting, tile floors, soothing music and the aroma of baked goods wafting from the bakery. These and other things are designed to help customers enjoy their time in the store. “We sample coffee throughout the day. We carry your groceries to the car,” Carlock says. “Quality, service and ambiance are really the three ways we think about bringing the customer to the market. We think all of that together creates a great experience…One of the things that happens in our stores naturally is that customers tend to slow down and enjoy the experience. There is an element of ease. Over time, many of our customers develop relationships with our employees. If you’re in there two or three times a week, you’ll learn the names and faces of the people who are helping you. Although we’re a chain, we strive to develop the name and style of a neighborhood market that’s part of the community. People and food that you can trust.”
The passion behind those watchwords helps to explain why the chain is growing at a robust 15 percent per year, by store count. The chain slowed from that pace, intentionally, during the recession but resumed its growth at that rate in 2010. The stores in Houston and California opened within the past 12 months. Other stores opened this year in Charlottesville, Va., Aiken, S.C., Lincolnshire, Ill., Mt. Lebanon, Penn., Orlando, Fla., Overland Park, Kan., Lynchburg, Va., Naples, Fla. and Birmingham, Ala. Seven more stores are set to open by year end.
“We want to put our stores where the customers are. Our real estate strategy is to find trade areas where customers will be receptive to our fresh food and our ambiance,” Carlock says. That decision about the likelihood of a welcoming reception is based more on education levels and active lifestyle than on affluence, since The Fresh Market does well in middle-income neighborhoods as well as in wealthier ZIP codes. “We have found that people enjoy food, enjoy service and enjoy ambiance all around the country,” Carlock says. “People of all income levels come in.”
“Some of our customers use us as a primary grocery store and are there a couple of times per week, and others shop us for special occasions,” he continues. “People who come in regularly are usually using a European style of shopping, where they’ll buy fresh items for tonight and tomorrow night, and then they’ll come back a couple of days later and get another set of fresh items.” With a 20,000 square footprint, the stores are easy to get into and out of. This facilitates a European style shopping experience. According to Carlock, although customers become familiar with the core 10,000 items in stock, learning exactly where to find them in the store, the flow of those other 10,000 seasonal products helps to generate a sense of adventure as well.
The stores add to that sense of adventure with frequent sampling programs and monthly chef demonstrations. Local chefs demonstrate recipes and offer tastings. “During a three-hour period, our chefs prepare the month’s featured recipe two or three times, so customers can see step-by-step how to prepare it, and can sample it as well,” says Drewry Sackett, The Fresh Market’s Community and Public Relations Manager. Decisions about featured products and recipes are made at the corporate level and then promulgated throughout the chain. Recipes are posted on the company’s website along with a video of the demonstration, so that customers who are excited enough to try it at home can refer to the website when their memories fail.
“We try to focus on recipes and products that lend themselves to easy weeknight dinners. Chefs cook on a gas cooktop, so they only prepare recipes that can be done easily and quickly in a single pan, which our customers appreciate,” Sackett says. “The recipes are paired with wines (in the stores that carry wine), so they’ll sample the recipe along with a specific wine. In addition to the demonstrations, we invite customers to join us for the regular sampling events, where they can come in and try products that might be new to them. Our events are always centered around the food experience.”
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.”