STORE OF THE MONTH

Har­vest Mar­ket Con­nects the Dots New con­cept links con­sumers back to food mak­ers.

Progressive Grocer (India) - - Contents - By Katie Martin Pho­tog­ra­phy by Vito Palmisano

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.”

Scratch Made

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.

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