business news in context, analysis with attitude

By Kevin Coupe
It would be a fair statement to say that most US food retailers don’t work very hard to project a sense of enthusiasm into their surroundings. Sure, in most cases stores are clean and bright, orderly and efficient. But they don’t generally capture any real level of enthusiasm for the genre in which they operate or the products that they sell.

(Litmus test: When was the last time you walked into a supermarket and immediately got hungry? Or even got a great idea for dinner? Hmmmmm?)

Maybe this is because we would disagree on the question of genre. We think they should be in the food business, while many senior executives at a lot of food companies see themselves as being in the numbers business -- selling enough product and bringing in enough promotional fees so that they add up to a figure higher than the company’s expenses.

That’s a shame, because it ignores one of the great advantages of being a food retailer. Think of the great food retailers that do focus on food -- HEB’s Central Market, Andronico’s, Bristol Farms, even Trader Joe’s (which sells hardly any perishables but manages to create a sense of magic and excitement anyway).

We got a first class lesson in how to use food – the smell of it, the taste of it, and just plain enthusiasm for it – to build sales when we spent a recent afternoon at a taping of the TV Food Network’s Emeril LIVE! in New York City.

This particular show was a “Manly Man Snack Show,” and the recipes involved were just what you’d expect -- hearty, inventive, yet easy-to-make fare that would appeal to Guys (the capital “G” is there on purpose). And Emeril was everything he appears to be on television, brimming with energy and contagious passion for his subject. (It helped that he seems very much like the kind of Guy you’d like to sit down and have a beer with.)

Great food. Mouth-watering food. Food you just can’t wait to get a second bite of. This is what gets people yearning to visit a food store, as opposed to hating that idea of one more trip to the supermarket. This is what creates a differential advantage for a store, building enthusiasm, appetites, and great word of mouth -- all of which, by the way, add up to sales.

And it is the kind of image that supermarkets ought to be projecting from the moment a shopper walks into the store.

Another revelation was the audience -- all Guys, many of them policemen and firemen from New York City and surrounding areas. They were every bit as enthusiastic as Emeril was…and yet, this was a consumer group that most supermarkets wouldn’t even think about catering to.

As competition among food retailers mounts, it becomes increasingly important to find new angles on the business, new customers to attract, new enthusiasms to create. In Emeril’s catch phrase, retailers have to “kick it up a notch” -- doing a better job focusing on food, and doing a better job of catering to expanded demographics that can become loyal and profitable customers.
KC's View:
A final culinary note. Purely by coincidence, we found ourselves in Orlando, Florida, last week, where Emeril has two restaurants -- one that bears his name, and a second, newer place called “Tchoup Chop” that has an Asian flavor.

Both were fabulous. The “Big Island Style Poke” and “Crunchy Shrimp with Butter Lettuce Leaves and Hot & Sour Chile Glaze” at Tchoup Chop were spicy and delicate at the same time. At Emeril’s, we had extraordinary “Fried Green Tomatoes” and an amazing, melt-in-your-mouth “Oven Roasted Magret Duck with a Black Bean-Jicama Relish, Saffron Rice Pilaf, Crispy Plantain Chips and a Smoked Tomato Butter Sauce.”

And, oh yeah -- the signature dessert, Banana Cream Pie, has supplanted the Bread Pudding at Commander’s Palace on our list of “foods we’d want to eat if we only have an hour to live.”

Is this a great job or what?