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.