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Chef's Harvest -- Featured in January Progressive Grocer Magazine

The High-End Lowdown
When it comes to marketing gourmet foods in supermarkets, the options are endless.
By Richard Turcsik

JANUARY 01, 2004 -- The folks at Chef's Harvest Specialties have a brilliant idea: An innovative six-SKU line of vegetables that are processed and packed in glass jars within eight hours of harvesting. What separates Chef's Harvest's four varieties of artichokes, whole and sweet roasted red peppers, and Italian-style vegetable salad from the Del Montes and Green Giants of the canned goods aisle? These processed vegetables are so fresh that they're being marketed through the produce department. (For a look at how the perimeter is handling an increase in gourmet items, see the article on page 72.) And that marketing maneuver has given the company a rather large toehold in the burgeoning world of supermarket gourmet groceries.

"Going through produce has been a huge advantage," explains Glenn Llopis, managing director of Corona, Calif.-based Chef's Harvest. "In only 10 months we're already in 2,000 stores, including Albertsons, 10 Kroger divisions, Giant Landover, Super Kmart, and Dierberg's," he says, adding that the line targets the fresh produce consumer.

"Unlike in canned grocery, we used only Grade A fresh-produce-quality harvested produce in our line," Llopis says. The vegetables have been so successful that now Chef's Harvest is rolling out a line of complementary dressings in Smoky Tomato & Garden Herb, Creamy Cilantro Caesar, Fire Roasted Red Pepper, Zesty Ginger Soy Wasabi, Creamy Buttermilk Chive, and Orange Poppyseed varieties.

The trend of marketing to buyers in a nontraditional department is catching on. Among Xcell International Corp.'s products is a line of crème brulée kits, complete with miniature ceramic ramekins, carmelizing sugars, and a Bunsen burner. Typically one might expect to find such a high-end gift in a retailer such as Bloomingdale's, but this past holiday season consumers encountered them at ShopRite.

"It's hard to get our products placed next to Betty Crocker and McCormick," says Dean Jacob Henning, president of the Burr Ridge, Ill.-based manufacturer. "So our best way of getting the product in is to go through the general merchandise buyer, who may also buy seasonal. We can get our crème brulée and holiday cookie decorations on the floor in the winter, and our barbecue seasonings in the summer. And since they're on the floor, they sell a lot better, too."

There's another unseen advantage: no slotting fees. "We're getting our displays and selling it that way. It's the best way for us," Henning says. As a smaller manufacturer Xcell has also hired several "rep groups" of salespeople to call on general merchandise buyers across the country.

Le Gourmet Chef

Bill Porfido has three words for the supermarket industry: Le Gourmet Chef. That's where Mirrotek International, which markets the Iron Chef line of products, got its start. Red Bank, N.J.-based Le Gourmet Chef operates a line of outlet-mall-based gourmet stores across the country.

"Supermarkets want $5,000 a slot," Porfido complains. "You spend x amount of dollars for a license, you have to pay co-packing upfront, and you're limited in what you can do. But Le Gourmet Chef was the first guy willing to take in our stuff. We're their No. 1 dollar vendor right now."

Said to be akin to an outlet center version of Williams-Sonoma, Le Gourmet Chef stores are usually found in shopping centers with a "Commons" or "Mills" in their names. Among their shoppers are housewives, gourmands on a budget, and a little chain called Wegmans.

"Basically Wegmans bought one of our sauces in Le Gourmet Chef, then called us and said they wanted to discuss it with us because they thought our sauce was great," Porfido says. The sauces were placed in Wegmans a year ago in November.

Now Mirrotek is coming out with a line of Iron Chef frozen foods, including soups, canapés, and desserts. Naturally Porfido is giving Le Gourmet Chef first crack. "We're going to give them freezers," he says. "They don't have freezers in their stores, so we're putting uprights in. Plus we're going to have Iron Chef freezer bags."

Constant evolution

It's important for gourmet food manufacturers to continue to evolve; otherwise they run the risk of alienating their gourmet shop customers and becoming an expensive commodity item. "We do things like come up with packaging and flavor profiles that are different for our gourmet store customers," says Domonic Biggi, v.p. of Beaverton Foods, a gourmet mustard and condiment company based in Beaverton, Ore. "We'll do small microbatches and half batches for them, and if a big chain comes to us and wants something special, we can do that, too," he says.

As the former owner of Pete's Wicked Ale, Pete Slosberg is using his reputation as a brewmaster to help him get a foot in the door with his latest project-gourmet chocolates. "It helps to have a pedigree and another successful product," he says of his Campbell, Calif.-based Cocoa Pete's Chocolate Adventures. "But when you present to the retailer, you have to present the whole package and what kind of support you're willing to do with the retailer."

Cocoa Pete's is not your typical chocolate bar. The Belgian-style confections have a 31 percent cacao content for milk varieties and a whopping 61 percent for dark chocolate. The line is now expanding from its San Francisco home base through stores like Whole Foods throughout the Northwest with four flavors: Maltimus Maximus (malt ball); Nuts So Serious (milk chocolate, roasted hazelnut paste, creamy cocoa butter, and pistachio nuts); Hallowed Grounds (dark chocolate with caramel and real Italian roast coffee); and Berry, Berry Dangerous (dark chocolate melded with dried California strawberries).

"This is not a me-too flat rectangular bar with no real differentiation," Slosberg says. "We have a three-dimensional-shaped bar, and our con- text is that you can break off individual molded pieces."

In-store theater also helps enliven the supermarket trade. Slosberg is using in-store sampling and demonstrations of his "Moanometer" to build sales. "When we do store demos we find people actually stop in their tracks, they roll their eyes, their shoulders slump, and they emit a moan when they sample our candy," he says. "So we dressed up a sound-level meter with a casing and called it a Moanometer, to show people how many decibels their moan is."

Mad Will's Food Company, a rapidly growing Auburn, Calif.-based private label manufacturer of sauces, condiments, and other gourmet grocery items, got its start in the same neck of the woods as Cocoa Pete's. "We grew one store at a time," says Tim Sullivan, director of product division. "We're members of certain vendor groups that specialize in servicing grocery stores in northern California. We've focused on independents and have really grown our business through our capability, listening to their private label needs and earning their trust."

Mad Will's finds it important to do the trade show circuit; it regularly displays at the three Fancy Food Shows in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, as well as at the PLMA private label show. "More and more supermarket buyers are going to the Fancy Food Shows," Sullivan says. He also finds supermarkets and their mainstream manufacturers are doing a much faster job at turning a gourmet item mainstream, citing the rollout of wasabi-flavored mayonnaise by several manufacturers. "We used to see a seven- or eight-year lag. Now they're coming out more quickly," he says.

Chain reaction

"There are more chains attending the Fancy Food Shows than in the past," acknowledges John Roberts, president of the NASFT (National Association of Specialty Food Trades) in New York, which runs the shows. "Kings, Food Emporium, Wegmans, and Byerly's have always been there, but now Albertsons has made a big effort to have ethnic, kosher, and specialty buyers there, as well," he says.

"The supermarkets are very aggressive at the moment," Roberts notes. "They can't stock everything, but they've concluded that the specialty food consumer is a very profitable overall consumer."

Dan Piron, gourmet food manager at Green Hills Market, a well-known upscale independent in Syracuse, N.Y., regularly attends the trade shows, but that's not the only place he gets ideas. "We have two specialty distributors-Cavallero and Millbrook-and we get a lot of product through them," he says. "We also get requests from our customers and the manufacturers."

What's going to be the next big gourmet food trend? Don't laugh, but Slosberg of Pete's Wicked Ale fame is putting his money on beer and chocolate dinner tastings. On a recent Sunday he held an upscale dinner at a San Francisco brewpub, in which each of the six courses featured chocolate paired with a variety of beer. "People left yelling and screaming, 'Do it again! Do it again!'" he says, adding in a conspiratorial whisper that his Maltimus Maximus is especially heavenly when enjoyed with an India Pale Ale.

Chef's Harvest Specialties
1200 N. Jefferson Street, Suite F
Anaheim, CA 92807
Telephone: 949-854-7720 / Fax: 949-854-7490