by Treva Bennett/staff writer
Compare Foods is a subsidiary of Aurora, which is an umbrella holding company. Each supermarket in the group is individually owned by an Aurora member.
Operating about 45 stores across the country, Compare Foods has 24 stores in North Carolina, with six in Charlotte. Compare Foods opened its first store in 1989 and arrived in North Carolina in 2004, Jorge said.
“We specialize in Latino products and import a lot of products from Central and South America and the Caribbean,” he said.
Compare Foods’ strengths include its large produce and meat departments.
“We’ve worked really hard to establish a good reputation throughout the entire city with our fresh produce and our fresh meat departments,” Jorge said. “We’re getting a lot more than the Hispanic customer in those areas. I think a lot of our growth is expanding to more traditional customers, to the American customers, who realize that there’s value and freshness and quality in our produce and our meat departments. That’s where a lot of our growth has been.”
Compare Foods’ prepared foods also is an area of growth. Jorge said as people watch cooking shows featuring different spices and different recipes from various cultures, Compare Foods is where Charlotte customers can go to find those ingredients.
“I think that the desire to experience more international flavors or cuisines or dishes is also fueling a lot of our growth,” he said.
Compare Foods offers both full meals and grab-and-go items. The stores have full buffet-style restaurants where customers can get breakfast, lunch or dinner. They also have packaged meals that customers can grab to take home.
Meal kits are not available at this time, but they are something the company is exploring, Jorge said.
“I don’t think that the scale or the volume is there yet to make that investment,” he said. “Our customer base already cooks at home every day. Culturally, that’s what the tradition is. We’re trying to see if we can do something with meal kits that will work for our customers, and we’re having trouble finding what that solution is going to be.”
Technology has its place
Compare Foods offers online shopping with either in-store pickup or delivery. Jorge said while the number of online shoppers is small, those shoppers are dedicated.
“The ones that use it, use it very consistently,” he said. “It’s a small but very dedicated and loyal following for online.”
He said the company is investing more into online shopping to try and grow that channel and is looking at what it can do to provide a better online service.
“That’s where we’re making that investment in technology and the website to see if that’s where the issue is, and that way we can get some acceleration with our web ordering,” Jorge said.
While technology is needed to facilitate online shoppers, Jorge said Compare Foods still focuses on personal contact and has stayed away from self-checkouts and frictionless point of sale.
“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is our employees having a relationship with our customers,” he said. “We feel that it’s important for our customers to feel like they have a relationship or that they have trust with our employees. The community aspect of shopping in our supermarket is very important.”
Economy, population growing
With an influx of population and construction, Jorge said the growth in Charlotte “is really spectacular.” He said that growth is reflected in the stores’ sales, with more customers coming in to shop.
Another part of Compare Foods’ growth is the outreach it is doing through social media to attract non-Hispanic shoppers. The company is explaining its value in terms of the variety of products its stores carry that shoppers won’t find in traditional supermarkets and its large selection of produce and meats.
A successful tool to reach potential shoppers is videos posted on Facebook and Instagram. Jorge said they have come up with a product of the month program where they take a rare product they sell that most people may not have heard of and feature that product in a video series.
“We teach where the product comes from, what it’s used for, what are the nutritional components of it, and we have our in-house chef do a couple of different recipes with it so you know how to cook it and use it at home,” Jorge said. “When we do these videos, we see the sales on the product spike for the month, which means that people are responding to it. They’re seeing it online, it’s catching their attention and it’s actually being converted in the store with people buying that product that maybe they hadn’t heard of before.”
The feedback on the videos has been “overwhelmingly” positive, Jorge said, adding that a recent video featured chipotle peppers. Compare Foods’ chef shared some back-to-school recipes featuring chipotle peppers.
“People who were trying it at home were sending us comments about how easy it was and how much their kids loved it,” he said. “It was exactly what we were going for with the concept. It’s working really well.”
A less positive side effect of the growth in the Charlotte area is a shortage of labor. Jorge said signs proclaiming, “We’re Hiring” and “Open Interviews” may be seen throughout the city, making it difficult to recruit employees for the grocery stores. However, he said Compare Foods is looking for a certain employee, who will “really believe in what our store is about, being open to different cultures, ethnicities, languages and flavors and foods.”
To create the connection between employee and customer, the employees must do their homework in learning about the store and their jobs.
“They are not just there stocking shelves, they’re actually learning about these products and understanding how they’re used and being able to help customers when they have questions about it. It’s extremely difficult right now to hire people who are willing to put that type of effort into what we request from them to do the job well. But we’re doing our best; the stores are still up and running,” Jorge said.
While the company has high expectations for its employees, it also rewards those who put in the work and thrive in the culture. Compare Foods has many employees who have been with the company for several years.
“Retention is a big thing for us,” Jorge said. “If we realize you have potential and are doing well, we pick up on that. We don’t let that go to waste. We make sure we let that person know we’re going to start training them for a new position so they can grow within the company and help their family more than what they are now, by having a higher income.”
Future expansion planned
Compare Foods is remodeling some of its stores and is looking to open stores in new locations. One of the partners just opened a new store in Spring Lake, near Fayetteville. Jorge said the company is looking at other opportunities, but “none that are ready to be talked about in public.”
The future looks bright for Compare Foods and Jorge is using his knowledge of the industry to add to its success. From his childhood of helping around the store where his parents worked to being an owner today, he has come a long way. Moving to Charlotte in 2009 to take over his family’s store, he has grown his share of the company. As some of his older relatives have retired, he has bought out their stores and continues to operate them.
“That’s been my trajectory,” he said.