By Lorrie Baumann
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.”