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Upscale Comfort Food Brings Shoppers Back to Sandy's

Mitchell Clute

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Upscale Comfort Food Brings Shoppers Back to Sandy's

From the outside, Sandy's Fine Food Emporium has a rustic, country look, but when shoppers step inside, they're greeted by a sleek quarry tile floor and oak tables piled high with every imaginable kind of produce. "Citrus, grapes, strawberries, blueberries—color is what really grabs your eye when you walk in the door," says General Manager Jim Goddiess. It's this combination of down-home comfort and upscale elegance that has allowed Sandy's to thrive even as it changes with the times.

Sandy's began 51 years ago, just across the border in Pawcatuck, Conn., and has been in its current Westerly, R.I., location for 28 years. In its first incarnation, it was essentially a produce stand, and produce still makes up a third of the store's total sales. But the store has also branched out into other areas, such as gourmet prepared foods, expanding its customer base without losing the loyalty of second-generation shoppers.

"We've worked hard to develop a broad base of customers," says Goddiess. "The younger folks coming in are looking for unique natural and organic products. Some older clientele primarily support the produce end of things, but they're migrating into the prepared foods area because it's hard to cook for just one or two people."

The store works to give people what they want. It no longer sells supplements because there wasn't enough demand. But thanks to a recent remodel, the deli and prepared foods section has expanded its offerings. It sells a broad array of foods, including what Goddiess calls "upscale comfort foods," such as a vegetarian shepherd's pie, and off-the-beaten-path meat dishes such as fresh salmon loaf and turkey loaf. Customers might also find grilled rack of lamb, poached salmon and what Goddiess describes as "the world's best mac and cheese."

"We try to use fresh, natural ingredients as much as possible," Goddiess says. The deli offers a dozen side dishes and, in the winter, at least that many fresh soups daily.

Customer service might be the biggest key to success for a small, independent store like Sandy's. "When you come in, you're going to be approached by one or two or three employees," Goddiess says. "They'll walk you around, help you taste and sample things. That's what makes us different."

The store has an intensive sampling program, offering five or six selections daily in each department. Employees even shop for regular customers, who phone in their orders, so the groceries are ready to go when they arrive. And, in a nod to its past, Sandy's retains house accounts for more than 300 loyal customers; they simply receive a bill for their purchases at the end of each month—a service almost unheard of these days.

"Our house-account customers spend significantly more than other customers," Goddiess says. "Historically, they shop in our store 1.8 times a week. They're my bread and butter, and I need to take care of them." Each month they receive, with their statement, a coupon for a free product plus a description of the product and a recipe—that's one way these customers are taken care of.

In the grocery department, Sandy's strives to offer something for everyone. "We spend an exorbitant amount of time searching out the right products," Goddiess says, even though it means working with 35 different suppliers. "In each category—tomato sauce, for example—we offer an everyday brand, a natural or organic brand, and an upscale brand." The recent remodel has also allowed Sandy's to highlight its general merchandise, including kitchenware and seasonal grilling products.

And then there's the bountiful produce department—the store's original purpose, and still its most obvious attribute. Sandy's has some direct relationships with local growers, but depends primarily on a Hartford, Conn.-based supplier and growers' cooperative. "It's a very high-quality native produce program," Goddiess says. "Farmers go to them, and they deliver directly to us.

Much of that produce goes straight to customers, but Sandy's also runs a wholesale produce business, delivering to white-tablecloth restaurants along the coast. This business within a business generated an additional $1.6 million in revenues for the store last year. The third aspect of the business is a specialty basket company. The business specializes in fruit baskets and themed baskets, such as Italian gourmet products or chocolates, selling to both individuals and corporate clients.

Within the store, a growing portion of the produce department features organic items. "In the last few years, the supply of organic produce has gotten much better," Goddiess says, "and a lot of our customers prefer organics."

If there's one thing Sandy's is good at, it's listening to what customers want. Its innovative approaches and solid emphasis on service have led to a growth rate of almost 20 percent in the last year—proof that some things really do get better with age.

Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 7/p. 50

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