SIMSBURY, Conn. - There could have been hard feelings when Bryan Devoe and his wife took over Fitzgerald's Foods here, but that was not the case.
Since Fitzgerald's Foods has been revered here for more than 20 years, local residents might have resented an outsider acquiring the place, especially since he instantly began making changes, but response has been 100% positive, Devoe told SN.
Indeed, sales have climbed from the very beginning as area residents came in to check out the Devoes' new, full-service bakery and huge variety of made-from-scratch meals, sides and desserts.
“When we took over [in July 2010] sales were trending down 8% to 9% a year, now we're trending 3% ahead,” Devoe said. “That's a total of 12% up from last year.”
Devoe attributes such quick success to his new full-service bakery, to chef-prepared meals made on site, and to boosting the quality and service in every department.
“The bakery was definitely the draw, and prepared foods has grown far beyond our expectations, even growing at a higher percentage than the bakery.”
An essential factor is that Devoe wasted no time letting the community know about the changes he was making.
The first week, after he and his wife, Sandy, had finalized their acquisition of the store, they began running “just information” ads on the back page of the local weekly newspaper.
“We put out a weekly ad flyer with sales items. But these full-page ads explained not only who we are, but what changes we've made, such as expanding the bakery, making it full-service, and adding from-scratch prepared foods,” Devoe said.
The info ads, too, feature attractive photos of high-end pastries, cakes, chefs at work, even the family members in a group shot.
“Every department has one of my family members in it,” Devoe said, adding that they're all devoted to a high level of customer service.
Fitzgerald's Foods already had a loyal clientele.
“I think people were loyal to the location, and then they were delighted when they came in and saw what we were doing,” Devoe said.
What is particularly notable about the purchase of the store here, and the Devoes' quick adaptation to being store owners is that Devoe and his family had racked up many years in the supermarket business.
Most recently, they were employed by Manchester, Conn.-based Highland Park Markets, a family-owned independent whose four stores are in the Hartford, Conn. area. In fact, Devoe was director of perishables at Highland Park. His wife was deli manager at one of the High Park stores and his daughter was front-end manager and also helped out in the in-store bakery.
The whole family was immersed in the supermarket business, but they looked toward the day they could go into business for themselves.
“We always wanted our own grocery store. So when we heard that the previous owner of Fitzgerald's was going to retire, we figured this is our chance,” Devoe said.
Devoe kept Highland Park Markets owner Tim Devanney informed all along the way about what he was up to, and Devanney actually offered his help in the form of advice, financial information, moral support, and a big enough severance package to give the family a jump start in their venture.
Devanney had high praise for the Devoe family.
“They did a great job for us here. Bryan started here in the early ‘90s as a produce supervisor, then became store manager, and eventually director of perishables for the company.”
Devanney told SN he had mixed emotions about the Devoes leaving.
“We didn't want to lose them. They all did a good job. Besides Bryan, we had his wife, and daughter, and nephew and niece working here for years, but I knew Bryan always wanted his own store. I'm happy he's happy.”
Devoe left Highland Park Markets with his family, and has added his mother-in-law to his crew at Fitzgerald's. She's floral manager. His son, an electrician, even helps out on weekends in the meat department.
Though he's a trained chef, having attended a New Britain, Conn. culinary school, and has had nearly a quarter century's experience in the supermarket business, Devoe said starting out on his own was scary, “but our fears went away as soon as we saw things were working out.”
His strategy to do the best he could with the 16,400-square-foot store was to push up quality in every department, especially perishables, bakery and prepared foods.
“We changed produce around and changed suppliers, and expanded space for other perishables. Now, 52% of floor space is devoted to perishables. It had been about 40%.”
Quite notable is the bakery, which had been all self-service and had previously offered mostly thaw-and-sell items. Now, Devoe has decorators decorating cakes and bakers daily making carrot cake, red velvet cake and cheesecakes from scratch. Those, in addition to jumbo cupcakes, could be called his signature items.
“We don't have space to expand the store, but we made more room for bakery and for chilled meals by consolidating a lot of things such as packaged deli meats and cheeses. They were too spread out.”
The bakery now spans 20 feet with eight of those feet dedicated to individual cake slices that turn over at a dizzying rate.
“That's something I learned at Highland Park Markets. Individual cake servings do very, very well there.”
Devoe also added equipment to quick-chill prepared foods. While he offers limited hot food at lunchtime, most of his prepared meals, sides and desserts are chilled, and displayed in an upright, refrigerated case.
“By offering the meals chilled, we can really offer a large variety. More than 40 varieties. Customers can choose something different for every night of the week, or for every family member,” Devoe said. “The elderly stock up with meals for four or five days. You see them with 15 entrees in their baskets.”
Seniors make up a significant proportion of this community's high-end demographics.
While Devoe's chefs are given free rein for creativity, the prepared foods menu leans toward top-quality comfort food. Pot roast is a best-seller. So is chicken pot pie and also shepherd's pie.
Right now, the Devoes are getting set for Super Bowl Sunday, with ads, brochures, and displays of platters, prepared meals, wings and pigs in a blanket, Devoe said.
“I built a specialty section here that'll do well during this time of year. We have specialty chips, dips, sauces, and I'll be adding more specialty items.”