Shoppers begin their experience of The Fresh Market before they reach the door, as the entrance is decorated with flowers and plants to match the season or an upcoming holiday.
“We really want to set the tone when the guest comes out of their car – a kind of anticipation of what they’re going to see,” said Dan Portnoy, SVP and chief merchandising officer.
Having been named The Shelby Report of the Southeast’s Innovator of the Year, Portnoy led a tour of The Fresh Market’s new concept store in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s the same location where the company got its start in 1982.
Features of the concept – including The Square, where fresh, restaurant quality foods and Roasting Plant Coffee are available – will be replicated in new stores and those to be remodeled in the future. In addition to some new exterior signage, Portnoy pointed to the shopping carts.
“One of the things that we looked at, on the guest perspective, is they seem to always want smaller carts. We usually only had a few of these; it was all big carts,” he said. “So we’ve kind of completely changed, adding a lot more smaller carts.”
Guests, with their smaller carts, find themselves first in the floral department, which is filled with a large selection of orchids, tulips and many roses.
“We carry 50-centimeter roses, bigger than most grocery stores, but we focus on and sell what we call the passion roses,” Portnoy said. “They’re much longer, 70 centimeters. And the company actually does all the roses for the Rose Bowl parade and Miss America pageant. For Valentine’s Day, instead of selling the commodity-type roses, we really focused on a higher end, 70-centimeter, double dozen with baby’s breath.”
Portnoy said the flowers set the tone when guests enter. From the floral department, shoppers can take in more of the remodeled store, including The Square and Roasting Plant Coffee in the center, which are the concept’s focal points.
Before reaching the center, there is the produce selection to explore. “About a year ago, we reset all our produce departments,” Portnoy said. “We varied the heights and the color breaks so you can really see everything. We’re not a traditional supermarket, we’re very much a specialty retailer. We try to get the special occasion, the fresh trip, the ‘what’s for dinner tonight shoppers.’”
Brian Johnson, SVP of store operations and support, agreed. He added that many of The Fresh Market’s guests come for special things or as a kind of fill-in shop, while others may do all or most of their shopping there.
“While we’re not a supermarket, if you wanted to come in and get all the groceries, you can get all your needs here,” he said.
The Fresh Market’s value-added section also sets it apart. Portnoy said team members prep the items in the back. A new offering is steamer bags. Asparagus or other vegetables will be packaged with different types of seasoned butter or other items. They can be microwaved in minutes, saving time.
“This has been out probably about six weeks or so and is selling extremely well,” he said. The steamer bags, along with the value-added cut fruit, are made in-store, another difference from many retailers.
Johnson next turned to the in-store guacamole.
“We prepare guacamole fresh every day in the store to a specific recipe. This is consistent throughout the chain,” he said. “And it’s fantastic. I’m from Texas, and I know guacamole – this is really good guacamole.”
Portnoy added that The Fresh Market has a test kitchen and in-house chefs who develop proprietary recipes. The company also works with produce distributors to pre-ripen bananas and avocados. He also mentioned the mushrooms carried by The Fresh Market. It offers white or portabella mushrooms, as well as shiitaki, oyster, trumpet and other types.
“One of the things we’re known for is a place where chefs can shop,” Portnoy said. “If you are a chef, a home chef or in a restaurant, you can come in and get the things that you want.”
In keeping up with the growing trend, The Fresh Market moved some of its plant-based items next to the mushrooms and to the frozen food section as well, which has helped with sales, Portnoy said. Along with produce and displays of seasonal items, there is a large candy selection at the front of the store. For upcoming holidays, a concierge station features The Fresh Market magazine and guests can order the special occasion meals the company is known for.
Portnoy said the meat department is the No. 1 reason guests shop at The Fresh Market.
“The two hallmark departments of meat and produce have been here since the Berrys founded [the store] 40 years ago, but meat is really why customers shop here – a lot of good value, a lot of good products,” he said.
The meats are prepared in-store using proprietary recipes – sauces, marinades. Portnoy noted the kebabs in the meat case, made fresh that morning, are geared more toward grilling season. He said they carry a variety of gourmet burgers made from different recipes.
The stars of the meat department are the steaks.
“We carry Grass-Fed, Choice and Prime,” Portnoy said. “It’s the best. It’s really the stuff that goes to restaurants. And we’re trying to appeal to people – instead of going to the restaurant, why don’t you come here?”
In the seafood department, he said The Fresh Market has started selling whole fish. This selection joins the standards of salmon, grouper, shellfish, lobster tails, king crab and crab cakes. The store also is testing whole fish sales in North Carolina after seeing good sales in Florida.
“That’s one of the things we do, always innovate, always try to try,” he said.
Cooking at home made easy
The Fresh Market also is known for its Little Big Meal program.
“This is our value play,” Portnoy said. “This is a big piece of our business and there is a new meal every week. Our chefs in-house develop recipes and many of them are comfort food meals.”
Simple to prepare, Little Big Meals are designed to feed a family of four for a value price. The Market Meal Kit program is another cost- and time-saving meal option. The program started with the popularity of home delivery kits and, “the secret is fresh made meat, cut in store and fresh produce,” Portnoy said.
Those are combined with a starch, such as potatoes or polenta or rice, which is made for The Fresh Market, and the stores package the meals. A team member signs off on each one, ensuring everything listed is inside.
“This is a big part of our program – restaurant quality,” Portnoy said. “The other thing we learned when we started this is that people want to prepare it in like 15 to 20 minutes in one pan. It’s incredible.”
He alluded again to the steamer bags prepared in the produce section, showing that they also similarly prepare seafood.
“The No. 1 reason why customers don’t want to cook seafood is they’re afraid they don’t know how,” Portnoy said. “And it smells up the house. This [steamer bag] is microwaveable in about three minutes. It’s delicious.”
Included in the new concept remodel was the installation of a kitchen where the restaurant-quality foods are prepared. Previously, all of the food preparation took place in an open area. Now, everything is taken to the kitchen. Similar to a restaurant, the setup also includes a smoker for barbecue.
“This is a big innovation,” Portnoy said. “This is the biggest thing that we probably have done in many, many years.”
Moving from the back to The Square, where The Fresh Market’s hot foods and Made to Order foods are located, a case containing its “world-class chicken salad” and other deli items is set alongside a salad station. It includes some signature salads but also allows guests to make their own from a variety of greens, vegetables and proteins. Sandwiches also are ready to grab and go or guests may have their own created.
But the hallmark of The Square and part of the new concept design is the restaurant-quality meals available for takeout. Signature barbecue choices such as brisket, ribs and pulled pork are the most popular, with a barbecue plate – including two hot sides – for $10.99, Portnoy said.
Sides include Vermont cheddar mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, corn souffle, Brussels sprouts, smoked beans and collards, which sell out almost daily.
Portnoy added that all of the ingredients for the hot foods come from The Fresh Market.
“That was one of the key drivers,” he said. “We want to take our delicious food and produce and meat and bakery and put that all in recipes. And we wanted to have more customability, because that’s kind of the big trend.”
This required different training for team members. “It’s the mindset of more food preparation as opposed to retail and supermarkets,” Portnoy explained. “We’re learning as we go along.” He added The Square has not taken anything away from prepacked salads or sandwiches.
Another favorite is oven-baked pizzas. Prepared in the back kitchen, the pizzas are finished in a special oven in The Square. They are sold whole or by the slice, made with proprietary dough, Portnoy said.
Also featured is a beer and wine bar, where guests can pick out a beverage to sip as they stroll the store.
Portnoy commented the bakery has many guest favorites, including The Fresh Market’s signature fruit tarts. They are made with 1 pound of fruit. A new loyalty program allows members to receive a free slice of cake on their birthday.
Other signature items in the bakery are croissants and rolls, as well as a selection of breads, including a popular sourdough made from a decades-old proprietary recipe. The cheese department features about 150 varieties, but but the star item is a Parmigiano Reggiano from a single source dairy, Portnoy said.
“It’s aged a minimum of 24 months,” he said. “Parmesan Reggiano, it’s the king of cheeses.”
Roasting Plant Coffee
Adjacent to The Square is the Roasting Plant Coffee area, where Michael Johnson, director of merchandising and special projects, has samples of a freshly roasted, blended and brewed coffee: Ethiopian bean mocha with rose.
“The floral of the rose plays off the chocolate and the Ethiopian bean like crazy,” he said.
Michael Johnson said The Fresh Market is in a partnership with Roasting Plant Coffee that has been around for 16 years, getting its start in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The company also has stores in Minneapolis, Denver, Detroit and San Francisco, airports and five stores in London.
The Fresh Market is the first and only grocery store partnership in the U.S., he said, and it is the largest model that Roasting Plant Coffee has built.
“It starts with the beans. These are true specialty coffee beans,” he said. “So, the top 1 to 3 percent quality beans in the world, direct relationships with the farms via our roastmaster, Genevieve Kappler, and she gets the beans in for us and then works with our team to create a roast profile specific to each bean that we do every day fresh in-store.
“Guests come to The Fresh Market already for the freshest produce quality. Now we’re teaching them what fresh coffee is. Science shows us that coffee starts to lose its flavor seven to 10 days after roasting. We commit to no longer than three or four days old. And the flavor difference is outstanding.”
Also at The Square, guests can place their order for a cup of coffee and watch as the roasted beans fly overhead through the tubes to be ground and brewed.
“We grind and brew every single cup fresh,” Michael Johnson said. “And we’re the only place you can get a blended coffee on the fly of any three of 14 selections that you would like to create your own special blend.”
Portnoy agreed that The Fresh Market has taken its coffee program to a new level with this program.
“This is our strategy going forward with our new stores and remodeled stores,” he said. “This is like our lab testing it. The whole premise is to drive foot traffic, attract a younger demographic for a kind of local coffee shop feel.”
Portnoy said customer response to the Roasting Plant Coffee program has been “phenomenal.”
Variety of speciality foods
Turning to aisles containing more traditional grocery items, Portnoy noted that The Fresh Market still stands out.
These items include: bulk spices made for The Fresh Market, marinades, sauces and rubs that complement the fresh area; a selection of about 65 oils, including award-winning olive oils and high-end vinegars; pastas and pasta sauces; and many more items curated for the grocer, including its private label items.
A new wine section was included in the concept, featuring more than 650 varieties of wines, including a reserve section and high-end selections along with everyday drinking wine, Portnoy said. Mixers, cocktail syrups, stuffed olives and “the best maraschino cherries in the world” are also found in the area, he said.
As far as beer goes, The Fresh Market is focused on “local, unique, unusual,” Portnoy said. While Miller Lite and Bud Light are available, guests also may create their own six-pack for $10.99.
Refrigerated and frozen cases featured more plant-based items along with eggs, cheese, butter, milk and yogurt.
“It’s not the largest selection of yogurt but there’s some really cool stuff that a lot of people don’t have,” Portnoy said. “We have a lot of guests that are more affluent and travel the world. They know these brands when they see them.”
For more information, visit thefreshmarket.com.
To view the full section on The Fresh Market from The Shelby Report, click here.