NEW YORK -- To build a meals business, the conventional wisdom says, retailers must follow certain agreed upon procedures that will capture and hold consumer attention. Frequent samplings and demonstrations. Prominent signage. Branded formats. Signature entrees. Educational brochures. In-store chefs. Prepackaged family meals. The requirements that experts say are essential to operate a successful ready-to-heat meals business seem endless -- and daunting.
But when you enter Manhattan's newest Gourmet Garage at about 6 p.m. during the week, there's little evidence of those widely recommended steps. There is, however, a mad rush of customers snapping up containers of dips, soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees, and at the same time plenty of harried staffers struggling to keep the refrigeration units well stocked.
Word among local residents had apparently spread rapidly, long before the store was ready for business. In fact, a few days after the unannounced and tumultuous opening night, Gourmet Garage staffers were still reeling from the unexpected amount of business rung up, especially in prepared food.
In the two other Gourmet Garages in Manhattan, the company has already established a reputation among New York's demanding shoppers as a headquarters for high-quality and low-priced produce, cheese and specialty items. Developed by Andy Arons, John Gottfried and Ned Visser, the three owners of Metropolitan Agribusiness -- a wholesaler to Tavern on the Green, The Four Seasons and other top New York restaurants -- the first Gourmet Garage opened in late 1992.
Arons once claimed that Gourmet Garage had the potential to be a "30-store urban chain," but the openings have come slowly. Yet in this newest venture, the owners may have hit on a successful hybrid market/meals format by listening to their customers.
"We've found that the other stores have given us a lot of research material to work with," said Visser, chief operating officer of Gourmet Garage. "We've found that packed-out prepared food in our private label is what really sells best and is giving us the best return in the stores. We've used this store as a prototype to bring forward the items that are really working well for us.
"Produce, and especially specialty produce, has always done well for us; and in the cheese area, we found we can sell as much in a smaller amount of space. But what's really booming here is the packed-out prepared food."
It is clear after spending some time in the store that the prepared food is finding favor with Gourmet Garage's customers.
Take the store's chilled soup section, for instance; a tall cooler stocked with more than 10 varieties at a time -- borscht, cream of spinach, cream of potato, Middle Eastern lentil, carrot ginger, asparagus and roasted eggplant, potato and leek -- all selling for $2.95 a pint. Packed in plastic tubs with an unassuming Gourmet Garage label, the soups are among the store's best sellers.
"We can't keep the soups on the shelf, we're selling so much," said Visser. No fancy branding, no introductory messages, no high-profile promotion: Gourmet Garage, it seems, has found a way to build a chilled foods business on reputation and word of mouth alone.
It's true, they have the added advantage of location. On Manhattan's Upper West Side, the new Gourmet Garage opened in a bit of a food shopper's wasteland, with a Sloan's Supermarket, a few greengrocers and a health-food market as the nearest competition in a neighborhood densely populated with professionals earning well above the city's average annual income.
And while the other stores were mostly deserted during an early morning SN visit, Gourmet Garage was already bustling.
With about 10,000 square feet divided into three levels, the store mostly resembles an old-fashioned city market, with lots of produce, some international and specialty groceries, a cheese counter, specialty meats, a hot-food section and a bakery section.
A demonstration kitchen is set for the mezzanine, and the owners are gearing up for a kosher department and beverage section in the basement.
While the owners are still experimenting with what works best, some procedures have proven sensible. "What's also surprising is that the cold salads are really moving well, too, everything from potato salad and coleslaw, to chicken Caesar, kasha varnischke and beet salad," said Visser. "We've found that the variety we offer doesn't have to be any wider, but we're giving them better target areas -- for instance, we have a refrigerator stocked only with soups, and we're trying to establish that with salads, sandwiches and sushi as well. What we've found is that if we give them a home, they sell better." Gourmet Garage's hot-food program is also ringing up more business than the company's other stores. The service area has a modest counter area in front of a rotisserie cooking free-range chickens, and the unit has proven popular enough to encourage the owners to experiment with squab and quail, and soon, perhaps duckling.
Although Gourmet Garage still prepares much of its private-label product, when the volume reaches a certain level, the owners begin to seek out manufacturers for help.
"We started out making our soups with damaged product, and turned that into gold. As we reduce the amount of waste that we can use, we find those programs mushroom, and we have to get out of it or it dominates the kitchen," Visser said. "We're trying not to expand our kitchen space."
If a product line becomes too popular to handle, they begin to research likely companies to produce them. But finding manufacturers small and quick enough to turn out relatively small volumes of recipes created by Gourmet Garage chefs hasn't been easy.
"What we try to do is find companies that are expert in doing a particular product line, instead of having one guy do it all. Most of the guys who are very good are fairly new companies still in the same entrepreneur spin as us, still expanding and willing to do new things," Visser said. "Many of the older companies are stuck in second gear and don't want to do anything but cruise; they don't want to hear about it unless your willing to do truckloads of product. What we need is guys who are wiling to do a pallet at a time."
So about half the company's branded soups are trucked down from a Massachusetts manufacturer, while some of the company's salads are provided by a New York supplier. And as other items hit a sales peak, they, too, may be farmed out to co-packers, Visser said.
The store's design helps promote business, too. Just inside the front door is the bakery section, where breads gathered from Amy's, Eli's, Tribeca Bakery and others of New York's best-known bakeries are displayed in open baskets for self service. Also visible from the street are boxes and boxes of Krispy Kremes, a doughnut until recently unavailable in New York and proving to be a favorite.
Just beyond the bakery is the hot-food section, where trays are filled with herb roasted potatoes, stuffed chicken breast, chicken burritos, foccacia pizza, fermented black beans with bok choy, Bengali cabbage, turkey meat loaf and green beans with sun-dried tomatoes.
Directly across the aisle is a low-profile cooler filled with roast beef; mozzarella, tomato and basil; and ham sandwiches, Greek and green salads, sushi trays, shepherd's pie, baked ziti, baked five cheese macaroni, eggplant parmigiana, chicken pot pie and other meal components, all ready to heat or eat.
Along with the soup refrigerator, running along the length of wall on the opposite side of the store are a series of coolers filled with small-portion prepared sauces, salsa and dips, also packed under the Gourmet Garage label.
Included are plastic tubs of tabbouleh, hummus, taramosalata and babaganoush; tomato salsa cruda, a variety of pasta sauces, including tomato, alfredo and wild mushroom sauces in 8- and 16-ounce tubs; and flavored pestos, including sun-dried tomato, and pecan pesto, packed in 7- and 12-ounce portions. Directly adjacent are bags of pizza dough, and a large selection of stuffed pastas -- spinach tortellini, cheese ravioli, wild mushroom ravioli, chevre ravioli, pesto agnolotti and others.
All this -- plus a large produce section, with not only specialty produce, but also a significant organic selection as well; an imported and domestic cheese area; lots of specialty gourmet; international and snack items; and a self-serve olive section -- crammed into only 4,000 square feet of main floor space.