By Lorrie Baumann
Stonewall Kitchen is known across the U.S. as the maker of a range of specialty foods products that runs from mixes for breakfast classics like blueberry muffins and chocolate chip scones to dessert sauces and confections, but in the Northeastern United States, the brand also belongs to 10 retail stores that have become recreation destinations for New England tourists as well as local shoppers. “It’s just a neat part of our business. As we think about food businesses in general, there are not a lot who can go to customers with the empathy that comes from operating stores themselves. We can say things to other retailers like, ‘We know that this pricing can work for you because it works in our retail stores,’” said John Stiker, Stonewall Kitchen’s Chief Executive Officer for the past 18 months. With his background in consumer packaged goods rather than in retailing, he came to Stonewall Kitchen unsure about how the retail operation fit into Stonewall Kitchen’s overall business, but he’s come to appreciate the role it plays in keeping the company in sympathy both with its customers and with consumers. Consumers, in turn, have given the Stonewall Kitchen stores a role in their weekend and vacation plans, their social media posts and the recipes in their lifestyle blogs. “It’s a big part of how guests get to know the brand,” Stiker said.
Mornings start at the Stonewall Kitchen stores with the opening of up to 100 jars to be sampled that day. “If you want to try something that’s not open, we’ll open it for you,” Stiker said.
That sampling yields not only enthusiastic customers but also a wealth of market research that the company uses in its product development. “In 10 stores, we generate 4 million samples a year. That’s not something that other food companies have the ability to do,” Stiker said. Test kitchens in three of the stores have regular sampling programs in which they seek customer reactions to products in development. “It’s a neat part of the business that we think is crucial to the brand in establishing our heritage and authenticity,” Stiker said.
Merchandising is also a huge part of Stonewall Kitchen’s efforts to create a guest experience that will bring customers back time and again to see what’s new and interesting in the store. “When you come in, you see something different than what you saw two months ago,” Stiker said. “Five times a year, the company’s merchandising team sets up four or five seasonal display tables in the smaller stores and up to 10 in the York location. Each merchandise story is designed to be a visually interesting evocation of a theme that’s decided a season or two ahead of time. Each combines food products made by Stonewall Kitchen, food products made by other companies, soft goods such as tea towels and table linens, hard goods such as gift items and cooking tools and items that are just there as props to support the theme. That might be a model sailboat for a sailing theme or a tiki torch for a grilling-themed display.
The displays give consumers ideas about items they could add to their baskets to complement the corn bread mix or dessert sauce they came in for and they encourage guests to explore the whole store rather than picking up a quick jar of jam and leaving with just that. The product selection varies greatly depending on the theme, the season and Stonewall Kitchen’s new product introductions. For fall, it’ll generally include products made with apple cider flavors, for instance, while holiday displays will almost certainly include confections, and in the summer, Stonewall Kitchen barbecue sauces will probably be featured. “For most of those seasons we have products we launch that are specific to those seasons,” Stiker said.
Our retail stores are really the epitome of our brand. It [Our merchandising] brings to life the fact that we are a lifestyle brand aimed at inspiring, encouraging and exciting the at home chef. Everything we do is aimed at showing even the novice cook how easily they can impress guests with outstanding food and can entertain in style. Much of our non-Stonewall Kitchen product is selected and placed with our seasonal stories to inspire our guests on how to bring together a look or a feeling to their get together or party, added Janine Somers, Stonewall Kitchen’s Director of Marketing.
Stonewall Kitchen its new products this year at the Summer Fancy Food Show. “We think we’ve got a great lineup planned for July of 2016. Some of it plays off what we started in January 2016, when we launched our first organic products. They have been just fabulously received, great blockbusters,” Stiker said. They include a pair of barbecue sauces, Honey Miso Barbecue and Sesame Teriyaki Sauce, and an organic Honey Orange Balsamic Salad Dressing. “It’s yummy,” Stiker commented.
For breakfast, a strength of Stonewall Kitchen’s product line, there’s also an Organic Pancake and Waffle Mix and an Organic Stonewall Scone Mix. “Both of which are delicious,” Stiker said.
Stonewall Kitchen will also be offering more very spicy condiments to appeal to more adventurous eaters, including Spicy Chili Bacon Jam that will appeal to the many current fans of the company’s savory jams, which do extremely well in the market, with Hot Pepper Jelly and Red Pepper Jelly among Stonewall Kitchen’s best sellers and its Maple Bacon Onion Jam, which is popular on pizza and also as an addition to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, according to Stiker. “Spicy Chili Bacon Jam should be able to do a lot of that,” he said.
For the dedicated chili-heads, Stonewall Kitchen will be offering Ghost Pepper Salsa. “It’s going to have a lot of heat to it,” Stiker said. It’s so hot that the company’s usual 28-employee tasting panel couldn’t really wrap their mouths around it enthusiastically enough to approve it for production, so Stonewall Kitchen called together a volunteer group of people who already knew that they liked a really hot salsa and let them try it. “That’s when we realized we had a winner,” Stiker said. “It’s an absolutely terrific but very hot salsa.” To quench thirst without putting out the fire after a taste of the Ghost Pepper Salsa, Stonewall Kitchen is introducing Spicy Margarita Mixer.
For home cooks who want traditional taste without the traditional time commitment, Stonewall Kitchen is expanding its Meal Starter line with Yankee Pot Roast Meal Starter.“It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect a meal starter for a Yankee pot roast to have,” Stiker says. “The home cook just adds the beef.”
The new product introductions include a number of other items from Farmhouse Cheesy Grits for breakfast to Creme de Menthe Chocolate Sauce that are also extensions of the kinds of products we expect from Stonewall Kitchen, and you’ll be able to taste them all by visiting the Stonewall Kitchen booth at the show, but while you’re there, be sure also to note new 2-ounce grab-and-go packaging for the company’s Ultimate Snack Mix and Spicy Ultimate Snack Mix. The Stonewall Kitchen snack mixes represent the gourmet indulgence end of the snack food spectrum, and these new products are designed as a convenient snack solution for the American consumer who wants a quick pick-me-up on the go. They’ll display well on a countertop or next to the cash register, Stiker said.