Natural Foods Merchandiser

Roots Markets' gourmet genius

For Roots Markets, employee education goes far beyond weekly staff meetings and training sessions. By enrolling buyers in culinary classes around the world, the stores are positioning themselves to be premier gourmet and natural hotspots on the east coast.

“Many describe ‘gourmet’ as foods using high-quality ingredients,” says Kate Smith, general manager of Roots’ Olney, Md., store. “What Roots considers ‘high quality’ is a food that is pure and in its natural state.” Smith says the owners and managers never planned on Roots entering into the gourmet niche—it just happened as the stores’ “pure” and “natural” products started being derived from more and more specialty sources.

Going gourmet
In the early years, Roots buyers brought in gourmet items from Fancy Food shows, Smith says. Customers responded well to the products, so the store started using its employees’ acquired knowledge to bring in more specialty SKUs.

“It’s all about education and experience,” Smith says. The owners, Jeff and Holly Kaufman, go to vendors’ facilities to learn about new products firsthand. Sam Withall, Roots’ beer and wine buyer and prepared foods manager, has a background as an executive chef and is currently continuing her education with wine classes. And Andy Craig, Roots’ general manager and cheese buyer, traveled to Europe again this year to tour artisan facilities and learn how to make cheese himself. The trip was arranged through Roots’ cheese broker.

“Customers know how hard Craig and other staff members work to bring in the best gourmet products,” Smith says. “He’s not just filling the shelf. He takes the extra step to create signage that describes the process, where it comes from and things to pair it with.”

Customer education
That signage is not only educational, it also helps Roots secure a spot as an expert on both natural and gourmet products. But Smith says many customers still have a hard time differentiating between gourmet, natural and organic. Worse, many still think organic and natural foods “taste like cardboard,” she says. “When people hear gourmet, they hear flavor. It’s our job to educate consumers that they can have organic, gourmet foods that taste good.”

The store works to dispel this myth by converting current and crossover customers into gourmet foodies. In-store events such as beer and wine tastings, along with consistent food sampling, allow regular customers to try something new, and get first-time shoppers in the door. The stores’ specialty product mix and competitive pricing keep these customers coming back.

Tastes great, lower pricing
Roots employees know that in these economically challenging times, competitive pricing must really seal the deal for those buying gourmet and organic.

“We are extremely price conscious,” Smith says. “On many gourmet and organic products we offer the lowest price in the area, even when compared to the larger national chains.” The stores prove this through weekly website postings of their products’ prices next to competitors’ prices. When Roots’ prices are higher, the store turns back to its education efforts to remind customers of the reasons to buy high-quality.

A two-store chain in Maryland doesn’t wield the buying power of the larger national stores, but Smith says Roots gets the best deals possible by buying in as large a quantity as they can. “It’s tough going sometimes,” she adds, “but we help customers make sound investments in their health and the environment.”

Bryce Edmonds is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, where gourmet doesn’t always mean “vertical food” on giant plates. But sometimes it does. Additional reporting by Morgan Bast.

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