Natural Foods Merchandiser

Sprouts Farmers Markets' meat and fish counters

Vince Dreshner knows meat. He started out at the counter of a gourmet meat shop in 1976—the year is easy to remember, he says, because he had to work during America’s bicentennial celebration. He moved up the meat-retailing ranks until, in 2002, he finally got the opportunity to design a meat and fish department from scratch.

As director of perishables for the then-new Sprouts Farmers Market in Chandler, Ariz., Dreshner took the lessons he learned from a career full of hits and misses to initiate a program that has propelled Sprouts to the top of the retail world. When other stores are cutting back on expansion plans, Sprouts has inked deals to open a minimum of 12 locations in 2010. While other stores are laying off employees, Dreshner estimates that the new Sprouts locations, at around 85 employees per store, will create more than 1,000 jobs next year.

Getting schooled
Aside from special skills—everything from pinpointing a sweet spot in pricing, to knowing when to take a risk on a new supplier, to pushing just the right promotion to move 500 cases of USDA Prime beef—Dreshner has a secret weapon built into his departments. His employees are trained in old-school butchering and fish mongering. They don’t just put out displays of pre-cut, pre-processed, pre-trayed beef and chicken. They cut. They clean. They tray. They display. And every employee is cross-trained in both meat and fish so that any of the seven people at the counter on a given day can do it all.

“We put labor back into the departments in order to give it an old-fashioned feel and to keep it fresher and better,” Dreshner says. “Every single person learns how to make sausage, how to make ground beef, how to do some kind of cutting. And every single person learns how to trim and tray the chickens up to Sprouts’ standards.”

Mark Senn, a Sprouts regional meat merchandiser in Texas, started out in the conventional grocery world. He says Dreshner’s hands-on approach makes a big impression. “Customers notice it,” Senn says. “We hand-package everything for quality and make smaller portions—it’s important, especially for older clientele who don’t need the value-sized portions.”

And the handmade sausage is a big hit too. “I hadn’t done that since I was a kid making sausage on the kitchen table with my great-great-grandfather,” Senn says. Dreshner is particularly keen on the store-made sausage as well. “It’s kind of an art,” he says. This was one of the gourmet touches that Dreshner insisted upon, along with sourcing higher-quality beef than is found in a typical supermarket, and offering lighter options such as chicken sausage.

Investing in employees
Because every employee is cross-trained, Sprouts ends up investing a lot of time and energy in its staff to maintain top-of-the-line service. “In a time when other stores are trying to limit help and hire fewer people, we’ve put in programs that require additional labor,” Dreshner says.

Sometimes that means losing those well-trained employees to the competition. “We develop people,” Dreshner says. “One of the best feelings I have is to see someone who started out making $7 an hour as an entry-level meat clerk at our first store making almost triple that as a meat manager two years later. Because we gave him a career, he is now able to support a family. That’s one of the things we’re most proud of.”

Sprouts also works to keep operations localized. “We don’t have just one regional meat and seafood merchandiser responsible for 50 stores who has to travel 1,500 miles like a lot of stores do,” Dreshner says. “We have a merchandiser for eight stores—he or she gets to make it out there often to be sure rules are being followed and everything’s going smoothly.”

A standard scale
Sprouts’ fish department runs on a simple motto: “If you can smell it, we won’t sell it,” Dreshner says. “Our wholesale partners know that if it isn’t up to our standards, it will be coming back. We do a great job of taking advantage of fresh fish seasons and try to purchase local varieties when available.”

It’s all about what sells. Salmon fillets have been a big hit in the past year, along with mild varieties such as tilapia. As for farmed vs. wild-caught fish, Dreshner says the debate is not as heated as it once was, but Sprouts still sources wild species whenever possible. “It gives us the opportunity to really scream out ‘wild caught’ when we do have it,” he says. “For example, in the past year, we’ve been able to get wild-caught Gulf shrimp from Texas.”

But it doesn’t matter how fresh your fish is or where it comes from if it’s not selling. “We don’t work on outrageous margins; we try to work on volume,” Dreshner says. “So much of our program is about just pricing it right from the start so you end up selling it rather than throwing it away.”

“We work in tonnage and we have really good partnerships with suppliers, which means we can buy in bulk and pass those savings on,” Senn says. “It’s about fast nickels instead of slow dimes.”
Headquarters: 11811 N. Tatum Blvd. Phoenix, AZ 85028
42 stores in Arizona, California,
Colorado and Texas
Growth: 12 new stores confirmed for 2010
Average store size: 26,000 square feet
Employees: 3,500 (around 85 per store)
Meat and fish dept. employees: 7 to 14 per store

Cara Hopkins is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.

Store Tour is changing. We’re going inside the stores to give you an in-depth look at who’s doing what right and how they’re doing it. Would your store like to be featured? Contact Associate Editor Morgan Bast at [email protected].

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