NEW YORK -- The Garden of Eden Farmers Market specialty food store here is in the business of tempting customers and, by all accounts, it's doing a good job of it.
On a recent visit to the company's newest store on East 14th Street just off Fifth Avenue, SN observed customers perusing a 36-foot service case of prepared foods with reverence usually reserved for objects d'art. But they weren't just looking. They were buying.
One customer who said she had come in to get roast pork loin for dinner, at $7.99 a pound, decided on the spot to also buy four baked lobster tails at $5.99 each. "They look so good. Everything I've tried here so far has been wonderful. It's all so fresh," she explained.
And that was the theme. SN watched customer after customer, on a weekday afternoon, add onto their orders as a platter caught their eye or a proffered sample tickled their taste buds. They also bought bottled sauces and marinades. Impulse buys drive sales here and that's no accident. Logical positioning of related items is a hallmark here.
"Freshness is our specialty. We only make the food we can sell that day," said John Coskun, one of the owners, who manages the 14th Street store.
"Six days a week, we go early in the morning to buy produce for the day and our chefs make only what we expect to sell that day from the prepared foods case."
The use of space in Garden of Eden's merchandising scheme is particularly efficient. The 14th Street store's selling space is just 7,500 square feet. Displays in some departments are literally floor to ceiling. That's not unusual in Manhattan where real estate is hard to come by, but what's notable here is the displays look great and the aisles are still navigable with a grocery cart.
"This is probably the best merchandised food store in the country," said Jim Riesenburger, managing partner in RL & Associates, a Rochester, N.Y., consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
"It's the epitome of merchandising in my opinion. The way things are displayed and the product adjacencies, it's a mouth-watering experience. The whole store is exciting. It's definitely ahead of the rest of the pack, even among the upmarket gourmet stores [like Manhattan's Balducci's and Dean & DeLuca]," Riesenburger said.
That comment is particularly significant coming as it does from Riesenburger whose background includes management posts at Zabar's on Manhattan's upper West Side and several years as director of deli operations at Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.
Besides looking good, the food also tastes fresh, SN noted. Baby watercress from the salad bar tastes like it's just been picked and chicken cutlets from the prepared foods case could be just off the grill.
More than 90% of the food in that case is made from scratch in a 2,000-square-foot production kitchen at the back of the store. And what's more, 95% of the prepared items have only one day in the case. With the exception of a few marinated products, all prepared food that hasn't been sold by 10 p.m. is donated to city agencies that distribute food to the needy.
About 10% to 15% of the prepared foods is given away daily, Coskun said.
Sales from the case are about evenly divided between lunchtime and early evening. Coskun said the bulk of his customer base probably falls into the mid-income range. There's a mix of businesses and apartment buildings surrounding the store that generate traffic of about 2,000 people a day, he said.
Some of the best sellers from the prepared food counter are seafood, with grilled salmon topping the list. Grilled and poached salmon and sesame tuna are $15 a pound. Grilled shrimp is $11.99 a half pound and crab-stuffed mushrooms, $6.99 a half pound. The seafood section is followed by salads, where prices range from $3.99 a pound for egg-potato salad and to $9.99 for wild rice with dried cranberries. Beet salad at $7.99 adds a burst of color and artichoke hearts, still on their stems and marinated in herb oil, look like a spray of flowers on a platter.
Next comes 12 feet of meat entrees. They range in price from $7.99 for meatballs to slices of roasted filet mignon for $20 a pound.
The store, which opened Dec. 1, is the largest of Garden of Eden's three units. Coskun and his brother, Michael, launched the first Garden of Eden -- which isn't even half the size of this one -- in 1994 in Manhattan's Gramercy Park section and then another on West 23rd Street in 1996. It took about a year and a half for each of those to begin turning a profit and the Coskuns expect the same to be true here.
The larger space here has enabled them to add three elements they don't have at the other stores: brick oven pizza, a service meat department, and floral displays.
"We do very well with pizzas and calzones and stromboli. We put the brick oven pizza in here because we get a lot of students. New York University is nearby," said Coskun.
The department is positioned smack against the front window and the oven is angled in such a way that passers-by can see inside as fresh-baked pizzas are retrieved on a wooden paddle.
Pizza is not sold by the slice. Prices for 12-inch pies range from $5.99 for one with tomato sauce and mozzarella to $8 for scamorza, made with tomato sauce, smoked mozzarella, panceta and carmelized onions. The line-up at lunchtime was six people deep the day SN visited the store.
Throughout this unit, a high level of service is evident. At the meat counter, a customer was telling an attentive associate that his directions for broiling lamb chops were perfect.
"They came out just right. My husband was happy," the customer said.
Another customer, bearing two containers of shredded cheese from the self-service section, asked an associate which of the two were sharper and she unhesitatingly answered, "The romano." Associates in each service department know that an important part of their job is to impart information to customers, Coskun said.
"The first thing we ask when we interview someone is what do they know about food. It's great if they have some food background, but if they don't, we'll teach them."
Coskun explained that the training isn't formal but the manager of each department educates the associates and provides them with reading material that will help them get up to speed.
"The woman at the cheese counter, for example, didn't know anything about cheese when she came here, but now she does. She's read a book on cheese and we've helped her," Coskun said.
On a typical day, at least 40 of those knowledgeable associates are on the sales floor.
SN visited the store one day just after lunchtime and noted that all displays had "a full and fresh look," as Coskun puts it.
"That's our job, to keep them looking good. We're constantly watching. We don't have empty display cases anytime," one associate said.
Even the self-service departments are inviting. An olive bar displaying 24 different types of olives in crockery bowls stands adjacent to the salad bar. Containers of toothpicks are available at the display so customers can taste the olives. A miniature bushel basket-look waste basket is set right there to catch the used toothpicks and olive pits.
"Our customers love the olive bar, that they can taste the ones they're not familiar with. People in America don't know much about olives. They know green ones and Kalamatas and that's about it. If we had those olives behind a service counter, customers might be shy about asking to taste one," said Coskun.
"We might bring out some cracked black pepper olives today or some with herbs de Provence," he added, pointing out that varieties are rotated to keep customers interested.
This store sells 100 to 150 pounds of olives a day. The retail: $4.99 a pound. The most popular: garlic-stuffed green and Kalamata.
At eye level, above the bulk olives, are jars of different kinds of imported olives.
Just to the right is a floor-to-ceiling 5-foot by 5-foot tower of bottled olive oils.
"We carry 135 olive oils from Spain, Greece and Italy, some for $100 a bottle," said a manager at another unit of Garden of Eden.
Like other specialty stores, Garden of Eden undoubtedly relies on high-margin dry grocery items to help pay the bills. A 7-tier tower of high-end sauces is situated near the service meat counter. Chef Bobby Flay's signature sauces are $8.99 a bottle.
The pleasing adjacency of products that consultant Riesenburger spoke of is evident everywhere. Seafood sauces and seven varieties of bottled anchovies are displayed on a tall, island tower just across from the service seafood department. That's situated right behind customers as they stand facing the seafood counter. Standing there, the customer would see, on his right, a sushi display. To the left is the smoked fish service counter. The smoked fish collection, aside from belly lox at $19.96 a pound and chopped herring at $6.99 a pound, includes such items as smoked tuna for $22 a pound. Following that is the traditional service deli with a variety of high-end meats and cheeses. Schaller & Weber and Smithfield were featured brands. After that counter, comes the long expanse of prepared foods which meets the pizza counter at the front.
The last element is a pastry section, two four-foot, lighted cases with a cash register in between. All pastries are single servings. There are mini fruit tarts for 99 cents, individual creme brulees for $2.99 each, and individual key lime pies, $3.99.
On the other side of the store, where customers enter, they first see produce. Directly ahead is an island display of Driscoll strawberries, the packages set on end so the top of the boxes are facing the customer. On the floor, tomatoes, mangos, oranges and other fruits and vegetables tower out of wicker baskets. And just beyond that, at a counter, two associates create gift baskets.
"In December, we were selling 50 and 60 baskets a day," Coskun said.
The Coskuns took "listen to your customer" so literally that that's what put them in the specialty food business in the first place, John Coskun pointed out. In 1992, the brothers opened a fruit and vegetable store in Brooklyn, then another one. Next they tried Manhattan at the site of their first Garden of Eden store.
"When we opened that store, it was mostly fruits and vegetables because that's what we knew about. But customers asked about deli, and then bakery." Thus the first store grew into a mini version of the 14th St. store.
That's how they realized there's a huge market for fresh prepared foods in Manhattan and that people will pay for quality and freshness.