NEW YORK -- Mario Batali is not the first star chef to cross over from food service to retail, but he is currently one of the hottest culinarians on the New York restaurant scene, and Whole Foods knows it.
The retailer has begun offering Mario Batali refrigerated pizza kits at stores throughout the Northeast region, and there are plans to add products, all of which share a connection with the chef's restaurants, cookbooks or television shows.
The pizza kits, priced at $11.99, are available in three varieties, and include two handmade crusts based on the recipe used in his Otto Enoteca Pizzeria on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Also in each box is an appropriate sauce and cheese to make any one of the three varieties: Margherita, Romana and Pantesca. Additionally there is Pizza Gnuda, a single 10-inch blank crust, for $2.99. When baked in a hot oven, the ultra-thin crusts puff and crisp up in under seven minutes.
"The pizza kits are pretty bulky, and they take up space," said Philip Teverow, a partner with Batali in Molto Sugo, the company that manufactures the products. "So while the department that's buying us is technically dairy, the kits don't usually end up in dairy. It's usually closer to prepared foods."
The 12-by-12-inch kits are currently in 28 North Atlantic-region Whole Foods stores, and were introduced during the March 16 opening of the retailer's Union Square store in Manhattan. For the first four weeks, prices in the kits were reduced to $9.99, and in-store demos were held. The introduction was helped along with an in-house contest among individual Whole Foods team leaders with prizes tied to sales.
"We also spoke with all of the 28 marketing team leaders, explained the products to them, and sampled them," said Teverow, who is a veteran of Dean & DeLuca, the New York-based specialty grocer, where he managed private label.
The line isn't Batali's first stab at retail. Before this, he had a line of jarred sauces at another national chain, but the relationship wasn't satisfactory, Teverow said.
"We got our start nearly three years ago selling Mario Batali pasta sauces at Trader Joe's stores nationwide," he said. "While sales of the sauces were going strong, the relationship was going nowhere."
The experience taught Batali and his company the value of finding a retail outlet that would be responsive and support the sell-through effort all the way to the customer. Usually, it is a fairly straightforward deal: Retailers want a famous name in their stores, and the chefs want to attract new customers to the foods they make. Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based food-service research and consulting firm, noted that supermarkets always look to promote exclusivity.
"It's a great way for supermarkets to have something distinctive," Paul said. "Restaurant food is considered the gold standard in terms of quality, and consumers are willing to, and do, pay more for it."
The retail landscape is dotted with food-service products and chef-inspired items. One of the first, from the 1970s, was Marie Callendar's frozen dinners and entrees from the West Coast restaurant chain of the same name. Industry observers pointed out that until recently, most food-service and restaurant crossover products were confined to shelf-stable or frozen items, where quality could be better controlled and shelf life was longer.
Paul Prudhomme of New Orleans' famous K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen was one of the first chef-stars to bring in select products, in this case, spices. Even restaurant chains are represented throughout stores: White Castle hamburgers, TGI Friday's appetizers and California Pizza Kitchen all occupy shelves in frozen food sections.
Placing limitations on distribution, and tapping a well-known regional chef, presents retailers with the opportunity to offer refrigerated or fresh foods. In this case, Batali's products are available only at the 28 Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast, where he has his restaurants.
"If it's not in every supermarket, the products give some cachet to the retailer, and give them a reason to stock it and promote it," Paul said.
Batali will soon introduce a line of pre-cooked sausages. Here, Whole Foods and the company had to work together to develop the item. Batali's sausages use pancetta as an ingredient, but Whole Foods' policy prohibits foods with nitrates. So, the company had to have a special pancetta created that was free of the preservative.
Twelve-ounce packages of four links will sell for $4.99 to $5.99, and come in five varieties: Tradizionale, Piccante, Fromaggio, Friulana and Pugliese.
Down the road the company plans to offer a line of five salsa crudas. The red tomato sauces are seasoned according to their names: Basilicata, Arrabbiata, Puttanesca and Olivata. The fifth variety is actually Pesto Pantesco, made with tomatoes, mint and capers. The sauces are packed in 15-ounce containers, the pesto, in a 7-ounce container.
Similarly, Batali will re-introduce the sauces it offered at Trader Joe's. The re-vamped line of three sugos (Pomodoro, Arrabbiato and Finocchiato) will now come in 25-ounce jars, which is standard for the category. At Trader Joe's, the line was packed in 18-ounce jars to satisfy the retailer's price point, Teverow said.