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.”