Keeping it Real in Retail

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Keeping it Real in Retail

Fairway Stores are recognised as retail food heros from New York. A recent article in Global Food and Wine by Paul Mitchell interviewing the owner Steve Jenkins caught my eye �.. here it is. With only four stores in New York State, including Brooklyn and Manhattan locations, Fairway Market is a store that punches well above its weight, whether that weight is in cheese, meat, vegetables or deli items. For more than 50 years, this fresh food market � boasting the best gourmet items from around the world � has been setting culinary trends at prices that, it says, undercut the competition. Almost as important as its quality produce is the maverick style with which Fairway sells it. The company�s Harlem store has an electronic billboard out front on which Fairway sends electric messages to the public. One drew the ire of the Clinton administration � and attracted the attention of The Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News and The New York Times. After Fairway discovered that the then president was charging US$100,000 for coffee at the White House, it stuck up a message that included, �Hey, Mr Clinton��.Coffee at Fairway is 65 cents! And ours is SO much better!� Yes, the Fairway style� it names its head butcher an �idiot-savant�, and the 10,000 square-foot cool room at its Harlem store is a favourite public hang out in summer and was featured in the sitcom. �Welcome to New York�. And the man who perhaps better than anyone exemplifies the Fairway style is Steve Jenkins, store buyer, cheese expert and resident foodie. �I visit food stores other than Fairway all the time�, Jenkins wrote this year on his blog, housed on the Fairway website. �I know what�s out there, intimately. After 31 years of keeping shop I know that to compare Fairway to any other store is odious. Lots of those stores are completely adequate and doubtless a lot easier to shop, but the odiousness is that when you look at the stuff we offer that those other shops haven�t a clue about, well then, let�s get serious.� GFW: You�re in a lot of ways the public voice of Fairway. How do they feel about your outspoken blogs? Do they ever get nervous? Who is this �they�? We ain�t got no �they�. Or if we do, �they� is us. Or me. We/they/us is me and my four partners. We be omnipotent. But truthfully, I�m sure my partners do get a little nervous, because they know I�ll say anything, but they also know that I have proved to be discreet in my old age (55); I have handled the media day in and day out rather deftly over the last decade or so. There were times in the past when the original partners who were very tough and unrelenting bosses would say to me, �What the f*#* are you doing?! You can�t say that! Are you f*%*# crazy?!� And I would just swallow it, knowing that whatever I had said that had gotten into print was so outrageous that it made for great PR. And I have come to realize that as a writer, one is opening one�s self up to all sorts of criticism and misinterpretation as well as the possibility or probability of coming off like a real jerk. And for me, that is JOB ONE: Don�t make our business look like a jerk. Our (industry) is filled with them, and the last thing you want to do is contribute to that. Cheese is your strong point, but there doesn�t seem to be a deli item about which you haven�t got specialist knowledge. Food is obviously your passion so there must be something about Fairway that keeps you wanting to be part of day after day. And, a related question, what drives you? What drives me is a passion for the countryside. For being out in the country. Not just the country here, but the country everywhere. Out where what the countryman eats is stuff that hasn�t changed for eons. And it�s that stuff that makes the countryside my paradise, and in turn makes my job my passion. Because out there it is visually beautiful, obviously, as well as �olfactorily� beautiful (the fragrances of plants and trees and soil and animals), the sounds are sublime (birds, tools, animals, the wind, the rain, the spoken word in all of its indigenous accents) and then to top it off there is all this very particular food � foodstuffs that are un-refined, that are unchanged, that taste the way they tasted when you were a kid, that have a look and a smell and a mouth feel and a flavour that make all the rest of the countryside revolve around that particular foodstuff. The food of the countryside is the sun. Fairway then, acting as its repository, is also the sun. Everything else in the world is just whirling around it. Without Fairway, everything in the universe would go hurtling out into space, out of control. Apart from being a solar object, can you explain where Fairway sits in the food retail strata in the US? I hesitate at the concept of a retail food strata. Americans and New Yorkers are as oblivious to the cardinality of their primary source for nutrition and entertainment as everybody else in the world. What I mean by that is that I would guess 90 percent of our customers take us incredibly for granted, while in reality they should fall to their knees each and every time they enter on of the four Fairways, and thank their lucky stars that we put a store close enough to where they live that they have the extreme privilege to shop with us. We should charge an admission fee just to those who take us so for granted. Perhaps our biggest fans and foodie professionals would be able to construct a retail food hierarchy in which Fairway would figure. So I suppose you want me to tell you that there is a school of thought that places the successful chain stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe�s and more regionally Wegman�s and supermarkets of a similar ilk at the top of this retail food strata. If Fairway occupies a ray of stratum, I would say it is a dim one in that we are so local, so small a blip on the national chart that we don�t really figure. We are purely a local phenomenon. And it is true that locally the competition has always been fierce, since the mid 70�s, between Fairway and a few other stores, but over the last decade we have evolved, we have waxed beautifully, while in my opinion our so-called competitors have waned rather dismally, once again, in my own opinion. To me these days it is as if they all have faded into the ordinary while Fairway has gotten more and more vital, more and more exciting, more and more the memorable shopping experience, the irreplaceable part of upwards of 200,000 lives per week, week-in and week-out, and that�s a mouthful and a huge responsibility. Your experience of food retail is extensive. What is different about consumers� approach today as opposed to ten, even five years ago? I see the consumer as having evolved, just like Fairway has evolved. As having taken a more mature approach to their buying habits than they did a decade back. The choices they make today are more mature, sounder, more sensible and more tasteful. There was a lot of frivolous rubbish in food stores back then. The consumer was driven by fads and trends and health and diet hysteria, which galls me to this day. The consumer was a nervous wreck. Nowadays, the consumer is much more comfortable with and with-in the realm of gastronomy, has tasted more and travelled more, and thought about it, and she and he exude a palpable comfort with day-to-day shopping and even more so with the cruciality of entertainment shopping, that is, when shopping for dinner parties and holidays. I often feel that we have schooled them, have seasoned them, having offered them the foodstuffs that their lives depend upon, that is, all rock�n�roll stuff we have provided, much of it imported to Fairway exclusively, stuff that no other stores offers, stuff that our �consumer� is inured to, but would not be able to find elsewhere. Stuff like vacuum-packed and peeled and cooked beets, Australian roasted tomatoes, Rose de l�Autrec garlic, pruneaux d�Agen, D.O. Baena unfiltered EVOO, Paul Bertolli�s Fra�Mani salumi, sweet red Tropea onions from Calabria, toothpicks from Catalonia. Not to mention the signs we create and hang throughout the stores that proclaim, cajole, educate, challenge; information that stands as our passion and our authority. That we are invested in the food. That the food defines us. That if you can�t eat it, what�s the point? Now, while all that may sound like jingoistic claptrap, a saver-rattling of foodie nonsense, it us undeniable that Fairway is serious about food and is serious about your enjoyment of food, and that is what makes us so different from everybody else in the business. We like to talk to you about what you intend to do about dinner tonight. Because we have some ideas. In New World products, what rates and what doesn�t? And, generally, what are some of the products that are exciting you right now and why? Aussie and New Zealand imports? Pretty nil. Cheeses from both do well, though in my opinion they are all pretty derivative. That being said, my slight is feckless in that indeed they are doing quite well, now that I think about it. Lamb does okay, but most Americans, New Yorkers aside, choose lamb rarely. Our OBE beef has been a great source of pride to us. But the boutiquey stuff � over-priced olive oils and sauces and salts and teas leave me pretty cold. Aussie dried fruit is very special. We are not able to sell your fine wines in NY State. New World is Australia, NZ, South Africa, South America and the USA. South Africa is strong with rooibos tea and spice mixtures and breath mints. Australia and New Zealand, as I state, are strong with cheeses and fresh meat. Enough with the ostrich and emu, already. South America, minus wine, is dead in the water except for coffee and chocolate. The US is strong across the artisanal board � cheeses, meats, cured meats, sauces, waters, beers, snacks, smoked fish, bread, rice, grains, chocolate. I don�t think any of the New World players are over-rated � I don�t think they rate at all. Fusion cuisine is cheffy nonsense. What about Old World producers? Are any of them over-rated? The Old World, i.e. Europe, continues to set the standard for peak enjoyment; proper ingredients, the great recipes, clear across the counter � oils and vinegars, cheeses, style, chocolate, jams, olives, anchovies, tuna, yogurt, butter. Nor do I think that any of the Old World players are over-rated. Spain has raced past Italy in terms of coming to represent much that is lovable about European food � almonds, anchovies, cheeses, cured pork, the simplicity of potato chips and pork rinds, olive oil, sauces (romesco), rice, gazpacho, paella. France, of course, continues to reign, in my opinion, despite the association of Italy with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, pasta and Parmigiano, prosciutto and mortadella, espresso coffee and bottled water, rice and polenta. France has cheeses, butter, foie gras, vegetables, wine, sauces like aioli and hollandaise � more of the basics one cannot live without. There is an argument for each � Spain, Italy and France � that each is the be-all and end-all. It is refreshing that Spain is enjoying such a boom. But it is also heartening that Austria and Croatia, Turkey and Hungary, even Israel � are beginning to command respect in the food world. I import staggeringly succulent dates from Saudi Arabia. Dried gooseberries from Colombia. How do you feel retail is changing in the US marketplace? I don�t think retail food shopping has changed at all from the standpoint of the consumer, except that as I stated earlier, she and he are making more informed choices. It has changed greatly from the standpoint of the retailer, though, in that the movers and shakers are so much more sophisticated as regards product mix. Ten and 15 years ago, the best food retailers offered a fraction of the stuff they do today; what I regard as world-class food halls here, which certainly includes Fairway, all of which were merely shlubby supermarkets back then, and they were found in all 50 states, have as of today evolved into marketplaces for the serious cook as well as one-stop shopping for the convenience-seeking shopper. That�s huge. Back then, you couldn�t find the best of anything, much less a choice of several of the best of anything. You couldn�t find any prepared foods, even passably decent baked goods, pastries, cheeses. There was nothing, unless you lived in NYC or maybe some other big city. But really, only us New Yorkers had access to the best of anything. I know; I was out there a lot. Now every big city and a lot of smaller communities have at least one world-class food hall. We�re talking a sea-change in quality food shopping that has occurred over only the last 15 years. I am always at a loss to try to articulate the US attitudes about and susceptibility to food fads and trends. I consider Fairway aloof from all that stuff, if indeed it does exist. We set trends, we don�t follow them. More than that, we turn a blind eye to them in that we are rooted in tradition, in the old stuff, the old ways. We want fervently to preserve the old stuff, the old ways. We heap scorn on fads and trends via signage, particularly those that are diet-or health-driven. Cranberries and blueberries are good for you all of a sudden? What rot! Cranberries and blueberries have always been good for you, you silly goose! Cut this or that out of your diet? Idiocy. Deprivation-chic. Why not just push yourself away from the table more often? Say hello to a salad now and then. Find a sport, get some exercise. But don�t cut things out of your diet. Cut out the potato chips, the ice-cream. But red meat? Cheese? Prosciutto? Butter? That�s crazy! Food fads and trends can be profitable for the US retailer in the short term via promotions, recipes, demos, that kind of stuff. But I think it far more profitable to establish one�s self as the local authority, the go-to shop, the world-class food hall. The most successful food retailers are as much curators as shopkeepers. You�ve got to stand for something besides having the lowest prices, which we do. Put Fairway�s low prices on top of the finest selection of foodstuffs in the world and you�ve got a picture of the leader, the winner, the survivor in the truest sense.