Grocers and restaurants can—and should—partner to provide normalcy amid uncertainty.
Rouses Markets, one of the largest independent family-owned grocers in the U.S., with stores in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, has a long-standing reputation for being the grocery chain “where the chef’s shop.” Its chef-driven marketing campaigns, feature and help to elevate some of the Gulf Coast’s most famous chefs. The company has always had a pointed interest in partnering with chefs and restaurants in their region, but now during the COVID-19 pandemic, is directly helping some of them survive.
Rouses Markets was the first grocery chain in the country to partner with local chefs to bring restaurant signature dishes into the grocery store to sell directly to customers.
Today, I’m calling on all grocery chains to follow suit in supporting our struggling restaurants in an effort to uplift the entire food ecosystem across the U.S.
By sharing Rouse Markets story of how it began at its store on Tchoupitoulas Street in Uptown New Orleans and Baronne Street in the Warehouse District and expanded from there, grocers and chefs can learn the how-to’s of quickly developing, implementing and supporting a program that serves restaurants, grocers, and their customers.
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The grocery-restaurant partnership program was started about six weeks ago by CEO Donny Rouse-his grandfather started the company, and James Breuhl, VP of Perishables, who came up with the idea. The two met to discuss the challenges and potential benefits of quickly implementing the idea in stores. Rather than focusing on why it would be too difficult to execute and the potential myriad of problems that could arise, the duo gave the idea the green light. The first two products they sold were a hummus and pita from Chef Alon Shaya of the modern Israeli restaurant, Saba (Shaya owns Safta restaurant in Denver) and turtle soup and “Grits and Grillades” from Chef Tory McPhail, Executive Chef of Commander’s Palace. The dishes flew out of the stores faster than the chefs and their delivery drivers could stock them.
Culinary institutions like Galatoire’s and Ye Olde College Inn and more modern concepts like Johnny Sanchez soon joined the program, along with restaurants in Baton Rouge, and Lafayette, Louisiana. You can now find the eclectic “local flavor” of these eateries inside select deli cases at Rouses Markets across Louisiana. Chef Shaya and Chef McPhail have both pulled back from delivering to Rouses Markets and rearranged their operations to focus on catering, citing delivery concerns. But other restaurant partners are full speed ahead.
Rouses Markets learned quickly which items sold and which didn’t. They understood that what their grocery customer was craving was the freedom they had only weeks before: to dine in at their favorite places. “We’re doing everything we can to give our customers a taste of normalcy right now,” says Mike Westbrook, director of deli, cold cuts, and sushi at Rouses Markets. “We feel it’s important to help our restaurant partners in any way we can right now, which is a win/win. Our customers love helping local restaurants by purchasing their signature dishes and we’re the ones able to provide that to them”
Rouses Markets is also considering bringing in smaller food vendors that can give customers even more choice and excitement. Marcy Nathan, Creative Director at Rouses Markets has explored ways to bring in festival food vendors that typically sell thousands of portions to French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest and Festival International attendees that often come to NOLA for the food experience. “We’re trying to provide our customers with items they long for all year and feel they may be missing out on,” Marcy says.
Through this exploration and trial and error, Rouses Markets now provides some guidelines to their new partner restaurants, not only about what kinds of items to sell, but also how to showcase and market them. Because Rouses Markets is only taking 5 percent of the sales from this program to cover credit card processing fees, they are letting the restaurants keep 95 percent of their sales. With that generous offer, Rouses expects the restaurants to be responsible for most everything else.
Besides the obvious need for restaurants to safely prepare and deliver food at proper temperature to the store for sale, restaurants are responsible for creating all their own point of sale materials; from signage to labels to displays. Rouses Markets also requires all restaurants to post on their individual social media channels that their dish is now available at their stores. Because Rouses Markets is requiring restaurants to deliver fresh portions every few days, they can help the restaurants keep spoilage and waste to a minimum.
“Rouses Markets deli managers are creating direct relationships with the chefs when they come into the store to deliver. This relationship solidifies success, Mike Westbrook says. “Our managers and staff are getting to taste the products, and then they are raving about it to customers. They are also calling chefs directly when they see that they are about to sell out of an item, asking them to make more or to ramp up production for the next day.”
There are various other tips and tricks on how to ensure that chef-to-market programs are successful. Chef/Owner Johnny Blancher of Ye Olde College Inn and Rock and Bowl has been selling his famous crawfish mac and cheese at Rouses for several weeks, which has been a learning process.
“When deciding what to sell at Rouses, we realized that our customers are looking for comfort right now, and it was important to us to make people feel good. We decided to sell our crawfish mac and cheese, because there is no better comfort food than that, period,” Blancher says. “We also considered what was easy to execute and can sit on the shelf for a few days and still be in great shape. Chefs need to remember that prepared food and plated restaurant food is not the same and that when cold, food looks less appealing, we made sure to put our bright orange crawfish on top to do what we could for visual appeal. We also reformulated a bit and added some extra cheese sauce on the bottom to keep it from drying out when the customer reheated it at home.”
Chef Miles Landrem of Johnny Sanchez, an authentic Mexican concept in New Orleans, shared what he’s learned from selling their famous queso dip at Rouses Markets. He emphasized that his local clientele wants the signature items from his restaurant. He chose queso because some of the other signature dishes wouldn’t travel well or hold up to sitting for a few days in a deli case. “Choose items that will best represent your restaurant and display it as nice as you possibly can in this moment. Bright stickers, clear packaging and staying as close to your restaurant recipe as possible will showcase your brand in the best light and will provide customers with exactly what they want right now: familiarity. Make sure you can provide consistency and quality and get a fair price for it.”
Price and portion sizing are considerations as well. “At the restaurant, Johnny Sanchez Queso comes elaborately plated and costs $9.00, I can’t charge $9 at the supermarket for queso that comes in a plastic tub, but I’m also not employing as large of a staff as I had before and my variable costs are lower so I can still make money and offer value at $5.99 for 8 ounces in the store.”
Chef Landrem has been selling over 30 units of fresh queso a day at some of the 12 stores his queso is placed and is looking forward to connecting with a co-packer to continue sales of his queso and perhaps his famous fresh salsa even after the pandemic. “This partnership with Rouses has helped us make the most of a pretty bad situation, said Landrem. “We’ve been able to hire more of our team back and are making plans to expand into different markets, which we weren’t even thinking of before.”
As of last Tuesday, April 7, Rouses Markets has sold over $95,000 of their restaurant partner meals from their deli cold cases. They’ve not only been able to delight their customers with new and exciting options, but they’ve also been able to support restaurants, chefs, and employees in their surrounding communities. In response to asking Mike Westbrook if he thinks this program will extend past COVID-19, he says, “If we don’t continue this, customers will be upset. I’ve never seen new product adoption happen this quickly, so clearly there is a demand for this now and likely into the future.”
Another benefit of the Rouses Market program is that many of the restaurants have been able to re-hire or continue to retain dedicated staff because of this program. Rouses market is not only giving the restaurants space in their deli cooler; they are giving them a fighting chance and providing them with connections to restaurant customers that may never have reached before and potential ways to recover from this when it all blows over.
Liz Moskow is Principal at Bread&Circus Hospitality, focused on consumer experience consulting. She provides culinary infused strategic thought leadership for CPG food and beverage development, foodservice product and menu innovation and hospitality wellness integration. Liz is a leading Food Trendologist tracking, uncovering and predicting the future of food and beverage: Author of many creative culinary publications, Liz is an Industry expert quoted in and contributing to multiple food articles in industry trade publications, and newspapers; The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today and many others.