MENLO PARK, Calif. -- As the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association prepares to convene in San Jose, Calif., operators visiting from around the country may be curious about what makes Bay Area independent Draeger's tick.
The two-unit independent here manages to stand out in one of the biggest food meccas in the country by running on a deceptively simple food-service strategy: Be special, but not too special.
In an upscale retail setting, Draeger's food mix strikes a delicate balance between gourmet preciousness and bread-and-butter comfort that draws foodies from 60 miles away.
To Richard A. Draeger, vice president, it's simpler still. "The strategy of our food-service operation is to provide fresh items daily," he said in an interview with SN.
The store's overall theme, he said, is that "we are food-driven. If we get additional square feet, we put it back into adding more food, not a bank or more [health and beauty care]. We add more cheese, pate, European cold meats, more specialty foods. We want to create in the customer's mind a food identity, not a general store identity. We want no gray area."
In the deli, that translates to "selling everyday favorites to our customers. Potato salad, macaroni salad and cole slaw are the backbone of the deli department," he said.
At the same time, Draeger's strives to position itself as "the end-all of food with tremendous service." The 48,000-square-foot store here is stuffed with unusual specialties.
"As a destination store we want to offer great food that is unusual and new," Draeger said. "We don't want to be so special, however, that we can't sell deli items Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday," he said. "Selling just for the Friday and Saturday dinner parties just doesn't pay the bills."
In determining the product mix, Draeger's looks at the more popular items selling in the produce or meat departments, for example, and tries to incorporate these ingredients into deli food offerings.
The deli staff also tracks the consumer food press and brings in favorite family recipes. "The best ideas do not come from any one individual," Draeger said. "Most of our best sellers come from a collaboration of our staff's family recipes."
Some of these best sellers are a black bean salad and Draeger's own family recipes for potato salad and for stuffed potatoes. Other signature deli offerings developed by Draeger's staff include spinach dip and a salsa guacamole.
Draeger closely monitors customers' shifting preferences. "Grains are popular because of their lighter, more wholesome appeal," he said. "There is some movement away from sour cream and mayonnaise-based items toward more vinaigrettes. We are seeing more grilled and less sauced items being the hit of the case."
Items with a Mediterranean flair are currently being introduced with great success. Current offerings that are big sellers include couscous, hummus and dolmas. More are being developed by the deli staff.
After the recipe has been introduced, a sample product is presented to the production kitchen staff and the deli staff who evaluate the recipe for taste and feasibility of production. "There is tremendous openness within that group," Draeger said.
"The customer will tell you if you have a good product," Draeger said. "It might not be discovered for three or four weeks, however, so we give new items a month before we consider dropping it."
With very few exceptions, all of the cooking is done in-house in the Menlo Park unit's production kitchen. Each recipe is followed closely, with no adjustments allowed.
The production kitchen prepares its first delivery at 5:30 a.m. and delivers two additional times during the day. The two deli managers order independently directly with the kitchen.
Food production at Draeger's starts with whole ingredients purchased from the operator's various departments, such as meat and produce. The food-service does not use component items, precut, presliced or otherwise prepared items. Stock ingredients such as spices are rotated to ensure freshness.
"There is always time in a day to find someone to peel onions, or rotate spices," Draeger said. "We have the staff there to do the job."
In spite of the efficiency of an on-site production kitchen, Draeger's only prepares batches for one and a half days of production.
"From a perishable standpoint, we do this to ensure our product is fresh and the flavor is intact," Draeger said.
"The challenge for the department in meeting these customers' needs is maintaining eye appeal in the case and the taste of the product after being reheated," he continued. "If there is not the taste, we have lost the customer."
Draeger's typical customer has an average household income of $100,000 and over. "These people are affluent and sophisticated," he said.
Keeping in mind that many of them are professional people who may be stopping off late in the evening, Draeger makes sure that there are enough foods in the merchandising mix that can be quickly microwaved at home.
The deli department at Draeger's Menlo Park unit includes a 95-foot running display case with hot and cold sections. Adjacent to the display case is a 12-foot cheese island and a 6-foot, 21-item olive bar. The department accounts for an impressive 13% of the total store's business.
The main deli cases accommodate about 96 items. While the product mix remains somewhat constant, about eight to 12 seasonal favorites, such as soup, are rotated.
Following the traditional cold and hot deli cases is a section of imported and domestic cold specialty meats and cheeses, including three-year-old Dutch Gouda, Fontaina val D'Aosta, Swiss gruyere, Westphalian ham, Prosciutto di Parma, Black Forest ham and salamis.
Exclusive personnel is the key to specialty niche departments, such as cheese and olives, Draeger said. These specialists buy and merchandise cheese selected from local small farms and European imports.
European cheeses have gone over well and increasingly the cheese section of the deli is becoming an entity unto itself.
"When you are making available $32-per-pound cheese, there must be an expert available to answer questions." he said. "Cheese is a learning process for customers. Some know what is available, and the cheeses we offer often cannot be purchased everywhere."
In the self-service case running beside the deli cases, customers can find feta, marscapone ricotta, mozzarella, a full line of chevre selections and several brie and triple cream offerings.
The adjacent walk-around case across the aisle includes cheddar, jack, sheep's milk, smoked mozzarella, Swiss and French gruyere, Port Salut, morbier, blues and Reggiano Parmigiano.
The cheese experts are continually doing cheese demos, and they also instruct classes in the operator's cooking school.