Eating organically has become a way of life for many of your customers. But when they only have a half-hour for lunch, where can they turn for a quick meal that'll satisfy both their growling stomachs and their values? If you're willing to do a little research and invest some capital, the answer can be your store—even if it's on the small side.
"It's a convenience for the customer. As long as it's not making you bankrupt, it's a really good idea," says Donna Prizgintas, proprietor of Ames, Iowa-based Someone's In The Kitchen With Donna, culinary consultant for numerous organic and environmentally conscious organizations, and former personal chef to celebrities such as Sally Field and Warren Beatty.
Prizgintas, who recently helped a 10,000-square-foot Midwestern naturals retailer install organic foodservice, has lots of tips to help you avoid a cash-flow catastrophe and, in fact, develop a profitable niche.
Who's your customer?
The first thing to determine is what kind of clientele you have, Prizgintas says. "You need to know your business well enough to know who's going to stop in and grab a sandwich: Are they vegans, or do they want organic chicken salad?"
But, she adds, "You also have to know your customer flow really well." That means understanding whether people are more likely to stop in for a smoothie in the morning or a quick bite on their way home from work.
That information can help you decide whether to offer just refrigerated items—the simplest approach—or whether you want to sell, say, hot soup as well. In either case, you'll need to contact your local health department to find out about the regulations governing foodservice.
Prizgintas strongly cautions all but the largest businesses against offering hot foods other than soup because of the complexity of the health codes and the greater potential for shrinkage. "The range of temperature preservation is much smaller, the food dries out, and there's a much shorter shelf life," she says.
Kiss the cook
Once you've spoken with the health department and learned about rules governing everything from surface sanitation to dishwasher capacity, you may decide that the best approach is to outsource the job to a catering company.
Prizgintas recommends finding a company that has the same values as you do regarding organics and sustainability. Then you can sit down with them and figure out how many soups, sandwiches and pastries you think you'll sell each day. "They'll tell you how much it's going to cost, and you'll have to put your markup on top of that," she says. "The markup will not be as big as if you made it in-house, but you're also not taking on the overhead responsibilities."
And, Prizgintas adds, you're likely to get a good deal because most catering is event-based. "If they think they're going to have a client that's going to give them a steady production schedule, they should be able to help you out. You're going to be a long-term client—with room to grow."
Using a caterer also means the foodservice segment has little impact on your staffing needs. "Food prep is very labor-intensive," Prizgintas says. "You're not popping French fries out of the bag and throwing them on the conveyor belt." But with a caterer supplying the bulk of the labor, your staff only has to put sandwiches in the cold case and pull the ones that are past their sell-by date.
Going it alone
On the other hand, donning an apron and producing the food in-house can help you develop a following and really connect with your customers. It's also a great way to rotate your stock. "If you have a good produce business and have room for a small kitchen, you can use up a lot of vegetables that don't look pretty enough" for customers to buy, Prizgintas says. But, she cautions, "For that you need a fairly experienced culinary person."
That person might also be responsible for developing recipes for the store. Prizgintas recommends using organic cookbooks, such as Your Organic Kitchen by Jesse Cool (Rodale, 2002). "Or any of your favorite recipes you use at home can be adapted for cleaner, healthier ingredients," she says, noting that you'll just have to do a little math to make them in larger batches.
When creating recipes, think about what matters to your customers. Prizgintas' Midwestern client changed all its oil to either canola or olive oil. The store also switched to organic whole-wheat pastry flour for baking. "You're getting more fiber, but not changing the flavor," Prizgintas says.
Prizgintas recommends that retailers have a published standard of what they will and won't sell, and then maintain that standard in their prepared foods line. "The store needs to be clear about what [it is] as a retailer, and then that should be consistent in their prepared foods."
Getting the word out
You may wonder, with all these considerations, how soon you can expect your foodservice operation to become profitable. That, Prizgintas says, depends on how much you communicate with customers.
Prizgintas did a lot of publicity for her Midwestern client, banking on her culinary star power. "I did radio interviews, [as well as] some television, some newspaper, so it was all about me as a chef," she says. But she says even without a big-name chef, retailers can still get lots of exposure for their foodservice. "The local media are usually looking for health-centered stories. Develop a relationship with them, and help them find stories that work for them," she suggests. "You can save buckets of money that way, and you develop a reputation in your community as a source of health information."
Prizgintas also worked with the local farmers' market organization. "We picked a night to actually have a farmers' market in the parking lot at the store," she says. They also fired up a grill in the parking lot to cook buffalo burgers and veggie dogs. The weekly events helped the farmers as well as the retailer, and created a lot of goodwill in the community, she says. "The numbers on the night of the farmers' market turned out to be quite good. It brought out a lot of people who might not have come [to the store] otherwise." And while they bought veggies from the local farmers, they also stepped inside the store to buy butter and bread.
Start small and carry a big idea
Prizgintas' No. 1 recommendation is to proceed in baby steps. "Even if you're a very good retailer, doing food and restaurant business is a completely different thing."
She says that initially, you'll probably have some food loss, until you have a firm grasp on the size and demographics of your prepared-foods customer base.
It's easy to start by offering grab-and-go products such as smoothies and yogurt, which are already in your store. If you have a small oven, you could even heat up a line of frozen baked goods, such as French Meadow's, and serve them warm, along with your soups and sandwiches.
"If they get used to coming for coffee and baked goods, maybe eventually they'll want to come for soup and salad," she says.
Later, when you install a soup pot and customers are used to getting lunch at your store, they may also stop in for soup and a sandwich "after work while buying bread and toilet paper," Prizgintas says. "Start small and go easy; you can always add products to your line."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.24,26