NEW YORK -- If joining a startup dot-com grocery delivery company while Webvan crashed and burned in the headlines didn't deter David McInerney, a lack of experience in the supermarket industry certainly wouldn't either.
But as FreshDirect here becomes more firmly established as a major player in the New York City supermarket scene, McInerney is convinced he made the right decision.
"Everyone thought I was nuts, to go from working as a high-end chef to working for a supermarket," McInerney told SN in a recent interview at FreshDirect's headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. "This was the Internet era when companies were folding one after another. But I saw the vision. I knew I was doing the right thing."
The vision to which McInerney refers was of FreshDirect being a company dedicated not only to changing the physical shopping experience for New Yorkers, but also raising shoppers' expectations of freshness and quality. McInerney, who was an executive chef at the acclaimed New York restaurant One if By Land, Two if By Sea, joined FreshDirect five years ago, seeing the opportunity to lead a new kind of kitchen, sourcing the kinds of quality products he was accustomed to in the restaurant business, and selling them directly to consumers.
"I was living in Greenwich Village, and within three blocks of my apartment there were three gourmet food stores," McInerney said. "But my issue with them was that I was always able to get better food if I were cooking at home from the restaurant. The idea at FreshDirect was that we'd be able to bring in really great product and sell it at a good price."
McInerney serves as FreshDirect's senior vice president of merchandising and product development. His job involves finding new products to buy directly from producers or farmers, then directing creative ways to sell them to FreshDirect customers. FreshDirect offers shoppers in parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens next-day delivery on Internet orders of groceries and prepared foods.
Officials at FreshDirect say McInerney's knowledge of food, developed over a decade at fine restaurants in New York, as well as an innate gift for merchandising and a strong work ethic, has more than made up for his lack of traditional supermarket experience.
"David is a great fit for the merchandising role at FreshDirect because our passion is for food, and as a chef it just drips off of him," Steve Michaelson, FreshDirect's president, told SN. "He brings a chef's sensibility to what's fresh, but he brings an awfully good merchant's eye toward what we can sell. He's built us into new areas -- things that are truly fresh and direct."
McInerney's efforts have helped make a viable business of sourcing and selling products supplied directly from small farms and fisheries, as well as a catering division "that has blown the doors off our expectations," Michaelson said. While he declined to cite specific figures, Michaelson said FreshDirect is generating "high double-digit" year-over-year comparable sales in the neighborhoods it serves, much of it driven by prepared foods and fresh programs. Recent published reports said FreshDirect has around 200,000 customers and generates around $125 million in annual sales.
Searching for fresh products that would set FreshDirect apart from competitors, McInerney cast a line with local day fisherman off the coast of Montauk on Long Island. The result was FreshDirect's Montauk Dayboat Seafood program, which launched last summer offering customers fish "that were swimming in the ocean the day before," McInerney said.
"At first I said, let's buy directly from the fishermen. Then I realized I can't do that because if they bring in 20,000 pounds of cod, I can't use it all," he explained. "So I partnered up with Brian Gosman, who owns the biggest fish market [in Montauk]. I said, you be my buyer, and we'll promote you [through a link on the FreshDirect Web site]. You buy the fish for us and sell it to us at cost."
FreshDirect merchandises the offerings, which Michaelson described as "impossibly fresh," with banners on its Web site, special events like "Lobster Fridays," and with targeted pitches to customers in the forms of offers and inserts.
"I just got an e-mail from a fisherman I know who said, 'We're starting to catch cod.' So I said, let's tell that story -- Montauk cod is some of the best fish in the world, especially when it's fresh, and it's starting to come in this week," McInerney explained.
Dayboat seafood, along with similar efforts that buy produce from local growers, "used to be touchy-feely stuff," said Michaelson, a former executive with traditional supermarket chains Wegmans and Weis Markets. "But now it's becoming a viable model to connect reasonable-sized businesses, and a lot of that is because of the effort of Mac."
Customer tastes are also shifting toward support of local food producers, McInerney said: "One thing I have learned is that quality is becoming more and more important to people. The whole prepared foods arena is continuing to grow. I think that's evident when a guy with my background is in the position I'm now.
"The energy level is just as strong here as in the restaurant business, and for me it's not so much about cooking the food but being around it that's important," he added. "What I miss is the immediate gratification you get in a restaurant -- when celebrities ask for your autograph on a menu and people pay $300 for dinner and profusely thank you for it. Here, it takes a little longer to see that sense of accomplishment, and you have to look at it differently."
Senior vice president, merchandising and product development, Fresh Direct
Professional background: A chef in the restaurant industry until joining Fresh Direct at the time of its founding in 2000. He served as the executive chef of the acclaimed New York restaurants One if By Land, Two if By Sea and Raphael, and worked in the kitchens of chefs such as Bernard Loiseaux and Daniel Bouley. McInerney started as a chef of Fresh Direct, creating the kitchen, bakery and pastry operations before hiring a new chef, and moving to merchandising. Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.
Leisure activities: Skiing, fishing and dining at New York restaurants.
Career mentors: "I learned a lot from the chefs I worked under while I was coming up. Bernard Loiseaux taught me about the search for excellence, the strive to be perfect, and the importance of execution and following up on your goals."