STORE OF THE MONTH
Harvest Market Connects the Dots New concept links consumers back to food makers.
When Niemann Foods broke ground on a new location in Champaign, in downstate Illinois, the plan had been to launch the store under its wellknown County Market banner. But Rich Niemann Jr., president and CEO of the Quincy, Ill.-based operator, and his team realized that they’d need something different to compete in the university town, so they began playing around with an idea they had for a new concept, one that focused on the growing farm-to-table trend.
The resulting 58,000-square-foot Harvest Market, which by its very name harkens back to the land, offers a blend of conventional items and natural/organic products supporting the farm-totable ideal, with conventional products making up about 40 percent of the selection and natural/organic accounting for the bulk, at 60 percent.
“We began with the idea and understanding that we wanted to have a connection for our customers that is unique in the industry and allows them to understand who the producers and makers are,” Niemann says. “Everything flows from this
relationship with these producers and makers. That also allows them to understand where their food comes from, what’s in it, what’s not in it. People are very, very interested in that.”
The switch to a focus on local or smaller producers had the team rethinking the entire supply process. County Market stores are supplied by traditional wholesaler and DSD vendors, but for the new Harvest Market concept, Niemann says: “We just realized that the food business is changing. Obviously, it’s changing very fast. How can we have something that has a real, true connection?”
Personalized Supply Chain
The answer was developing relationships directly with the producers. The team makes an effort to visit the farms or facilities to create that personal connection and document the visits in the store or on social media so customers can also develop a relationship with the makers of the food they’re buying. For example, the produce department features signage with Niemann’s photo when he visited Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Co.’s facility in Fort Pierce, Fla.
All departments feature marketing that highlights the farmers or producers, often accompanied by a photo of a Harvest Market team’s visit. If it’s not on display in the department, Harvest Market has the visit featured on its website. Additionally, the store brings those farmers and producers on site to meet customers directly.
“In the bakery, in produce, we’re setting up folks, farmers, throughout the season, to be in here at least once a week to tell their stories and interact with the guests, because that’s what people want,” says Marty Travis, who runs Spence Farms, a Fairbury, Ill.based aggregator that sources product from about 50 farms to supply Harvest Market.
On two occasions before Thanksgiving, Harvest Market had the farmer who raised the turkeys sold in the store take part in a meet-and-greet with shoppers. Producers are often in the store demoing and sampling their products and speaking directly to customers.
“Exploring new tastes and the story behind that is so much of what we do here,” Niemann says. “People spend a lot more time in this store than they would a typical store. They’re probably here a good 10 minutes longer than what we would normally expect, and that’s because they’re interested in what’s going on.
“Product is all around us, but for years and years, we’ve participated in the normal grocery system like everybody else,” he continues. “The old model doesn’t work anymore, and we really believe that entertainment is part of the business going forward. Entertainment is food knowledge, and it connects you back to the land and to the producers. This store and our team are a lot more about entertainment and knowledge than they are about pantry fill.”
Food as Entertainment
That entertainment component, which supports the farm-to-table concept, is on full display at Harvest Market, with the scratch bakery associates making products in view of customers, meats that are smoked in the store, and butter churned on site. The Usda-certified butter-churning room is, to Progressive Grocer’s knowledge, the first of its kind in a supermarket. The room features several low windows so that everyone, including children, can watch the process.
The idea to churn butter on site began as a way to tell the story of the new concept. “We wanted to do some unique things to show our connections to the farmer, our connection to the grower, and then straight to the manufacturer,” explains Kevin Walker, foodservice director.
The butter is used as an ingredient in several departments within the store in addition to being sold directly to customers. Byproducts also are used in house; for example, the bakery uses the buttermilk to make its biscuits, and the prepared food department uses it in its finished products.
Recently, the store added a variety of compound butters. Demand often outstrips supply, but production is dictated by the availability of the fresh, local cream, and labor. The process is laborious, and it takes a while to train new butter churners.
The butter is made from both whey cream and sweet cream, which are pasteurized instore before being churned and worked by hand to remove the excess buttermilk. The finished butter is sold in 1-pound packages in the dairy department and in a 12-ounce size in the Farmstead Cheese Shop. “We’ve been selling out almost every day,” Walker notes. “It’s been really a good thing.”
To help make the farm-to-table connection even clearer for customers, Harvest Market decided to create prepared food departments that make almost all of its products from scratch, from the deli to the bakery to the restaurant.
The prepared food departments use the same suppliers that supply other parts of the store, so customers are buying the same product no matter whether they purchase it to prepare at home or buy it already prepared in store. For example, local eggs that customers buy from the case are
We wanted to have a connection for our customers that is unique in the industry and allows them to understand who the producers and makers are. — Rich Niemann Jr. President/ceo, Niemann Foods
the same eggs that the deli, restaurant and bakery use to create their products.
The Farmhouse Restaurant is a first for Niemann Foods. “Here at Farmhouse, what’s unique to us is, we’re from scratch,” says Robert Rodrigues, Farmhouse manager. “We’re able to formulate authentic dishes and collaborate with a lot of our local farms. We’re able to source everything within this region and showcase quality at its best: Food that is approachable and recognizable.”
The store serves as the supplier for many of the restaurant’s products. “I have the largest pantry in town,” Rodrigues notes. “With all the products at my disposal, really the sky’s the limit.”
One of the restaurant’s best-selling products is chicken pot pie featuring house-made biscuits made from locally sourced grain and butter churned on site. “We’re able to collaborate with different departments to showcase something stellar,” Rodrigues observes. “It’s Grandma’s good old chicken pot pie, but just stepped up with quality ingredients.”
J.P. Speckman, Farmhouse Restaurant’s chef, notes that the store’s commitment to local sourcing also ensures that product is as fresh as possible. “If I put an order for my basil in today and it comes on Wednesday, that means he picked it Tuesday and brings it straight to me Wednesday,” he says. “I have the freshest basil right off the plant that I can get.”
Foodies Should Apply
The commitment to fresh prepared products also required Harvest Market to change how it hires staff. An interest in food and a willingness to share knowledge became more important than it might be in a typical supermarket.
“The culinary conversation here is so much greater than the other stores I’ve been a part of,” enthuses Tim Fink, VP fresh product. “As customers get in here, they experience it; they recognize that we have people that are into food, know how to prepare food and want to talk about food.”
“All of our associates have to believe that they’re on a mission here — this is not a grocery store,” Niemann says. “This is a mission that we’re on to help our customers and provide that information, that interest and that passion for food.”
CHEF INSPIRED The deli and salad bar items were in R&D for a year before the store opened, to work out the best sources for local ingredients in the correct flavor combinations.
DEMONSTRATION THEATER Harvest Market regularly invites its producers and makers, like Chef Martin, based in Chicago, who crafts sausages using old recipes from the family’s Austrian butcher shop.
BEEFING UP Several beef products are supplied by President and CEO Rich Niemann Jr.’s own ranches, allowing the store to control the product “from hoof to case,” he says.
DAIRY RELOCATION (L-R) Jim Cox, SVP/ director of operations; Tim Fink, VP fresh product; and Ron Cook, Vp/director of marketing stand in the dairy that was moved into the center of the store.
TAKE A LOAD OFF The Farmhouse Restaurant, which features seating for about 200 both downstairs and in the mezzanine, creates an atmosphere that invites customers to sit, relax and stay awhile.