“The gourmet neighborhood grocery is a niche market that is underdeveloped in the city, and we are poised to become the premier shopping location for discerning shoppers once the economy turns around,” he said, a condition signifying only a general slow-down of the company’s efforts.
When Food Emporium was founded in the late 1980s, it was a typical grocery store that attracted a hip, urban crowd for the small size and neighborhood-specific design of its stores. Over the years, the company focused more on basic food and grocery items, which left the chain vulnerable when large supermarkets started moving onto its turf and specialty stores gained momentum.
Heer came to Food Emporium as SVP & general manager three years ago and has led the company on a steady upward trend toward high-end specialty items like chocolate, tea, coffee, and organic foods. He estimated that Food Emporium stores sell as much as 25% more organic foods than they did three years ago and carry roughly 30% specialty to 70% basic grocery items. In addition, Food Emporium is steadily expanding its private label offerings and international food selection, as well as diversifying its store designs.
“The market has changed dramatically. Today, non-food retailers like bookstores are branching into coffees, drinks, and snacks, and there are far more supermarket chains that also carry international, organic, or all-natural foods,” Heer explained. “To differentiate Food Emporium, we’ve instituted a few new store concepts and are continuing to trade up to more luxury items.”
This year, Food Emporium will launch a private label line of spices, adding to its impressive line of nuts, fresh vegetables, deli meats, olive oil, and chocolates. In the last three years, the company has opened up four C-store locations under its Food 2 Go concept, all of which are integrated with its new partner, Illy Coffee.
Heer said in 2007, the company traded its low-end coffee vendor for this upscale, international brand, which trains all the baristas and supplies all the authentic, Italian coffee-making equipment in the stores that Food Emporium operates.
Each coffee shop is part of the Food 2 Go C-store concept that features lunch and dinner to go for the business crowd with options like fresh sushi, deli sandwiches, and baked goods. Heer reported that the shops are doing fantastic despite a recession, providing excellent coffee at a competitive price.
In fact, in May, the president of Illy and CEO of Coca Cola joined his staff at the newest coffee shop to launch a new refrigerated Illy coffee line to be distributed by Coca Cola.
“They chose our stores to launch this new product because of the hard work everyone here has done to upgrade Food Emporium’s image,” said Heer proudly.
The company’s newest store is a clear departure from the old, typical grocery model to a more upscale design. Last year, Food Emporium reopened a location at 68th and 3rd Avenues. Heer described it as a boutique design where each department features unique design elements to mimic the feeling of shopping at a plaza of specialty shops rather than one large store.
It features a fine chocolate shop offering the largest selection in the city with more than 300 varieties of chocolates and features wide shelves made of dark wood. Its fine tea shop sells international blends, some unavailable anywhere else, and is designed in a light, Asian style with bamboo fixtures. The store also includes a floral shop that boasts brightly colored Italian glass mosaics. The top floor of the store carries other specialty items but does not carry any generic grocery items.
“We had a lot of space at that location and decided it was time to branch out and try something completely new,” said Heer. “We’ve only received positive feedback and plan to expand the concept soon.”
When that will happen is anyone’s guess, but Heer and his team are keeping a close eye on real estate in the Manhattan area, watching as prices continue to drop in one of the cities hit the hardest by the recession. He predicted that the company will be able to expand its merchandise again by early 2010 and renovate other locations in the boutique style the same year.
New knowledge and skills
In the meantime, Food Emporium employees are enjoying an unprecedented investment in their professional development. Heer said the company is investing in training for front line and back office staff.
Heer said whenever a new product comes to the stores, employees are able to try it out so they can better advise the customer. And Food Emporium has sent several of its buyers overseas to see where the products they are procuring originate. They in turn educate front line employees about the products they are selling, often in conjunction with in-store programs and vendor support. Customer service is perhaps the biggest focus for Food Emporium employees, nearly all of who have attended educational programs through the company and its vendors in the last 18 months.
“We started at a low level of product and customer service knowledge, so it will take years to reach the level we are aiming for,” said Heer. “But our direction is clear; success is a matter of bringing everyone together and following through.”