FRESH FOOD SALES SURGE IN KATRINA'S WAKE

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Volunteers and residents returning to hurricane-damaged areas caused fresh food sales to surge at supermarkets, officials at Associated Grocers told SN."People here had, and some still have, whole families living with them. When you're feeding 30-some people in your home, sandwiches are a good thing to have," said Clayton Lester, vice president, corporate marketing/special services,

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Volunteers and residents returning to hurricane-damaged areas caused fresh food sales to surge at supermarkets, officials at Associated Grocers told SN.

"People here had, and some still have, whole families living with them. When you're feeding 30-some people in your home, sandwiches are a good thing to have," said Clayton Lester, vice president, corporate marketing/special services, at Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge.

Lester spoke of the nearly quarter-million evacuees who fled north from New Orleans and were taken in by relatives, and some by complete strangers.

Serving more than 230 retailers in the storm-drenched areas, the wholesaler scrambled to keep up with orders. By putting in extra hours and keeping steady communication with vendors, the company met the challenge, officials said.

"We expected a lull after the storm, but what we got was a big [geographical] shift in business, and more of it. We had the best sales week following [Katrina's landfall] in the history of the company," Lester said.

AG's sales of deli meats have easily doubled, Pete Tortorich, director of bakery/ deli, said. Meanwhile, sales of apples doubled and tripled.

One AG member, Rouse Supermarkets, Thibodeaux, La., has seen total store sales soar 93% above a normal week, even though store hours have been cut. Rouse's managing partner, Donald Rouse, told SN the huge percentage increase would definitely hold true in all his fresh food departments, especially in meat and deli.

"The public lost fresh food in their homes when we lost power," Rouse said. "Now, as they come back, they're having to restock. We've noticed that particularly in meat sales. But people are purchasing a lot of prepared foods, too. Sandwiches, but also plate lunches.

"Yesterday, when I visited one of the stores, I noticed the entire seating area was full and there were lines at the deli counter," he added.

Thirteen of the independent's 15 stores have reopened. Rouse attributes some of the fresh food sales boon to an influx of government money for food purchases, as well as an increase in customers due to the arrival of workers who are helping clean up in the wake of Katrina.

"FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] has distributed food purchase cards with no restrictions," Rouse said.

Normally, government subsidy programs such as the food stamp program don't allow the purchase of fresh prepared foods or ready-to-eat items such as sandwiches with the issued stamps or cards.

Another retailer and Associated Grocers member, who's doing three times the normal business, said fresh foods are key.

"It's the stores that got restocked with perishables quickly that are doing the best. That's what people want, fresh. They're tired of eating canned food," said Barry Breaux, owner of four-unit Breaux Mart Supermarkets, based in Metairie, La., just outside New Orleans. His stores are in metro New Orleans.

Breaux had one of his stores open three days after Katrina, another store re-opened a week later and then a third two weeks later. Only one store remains closed.

"Sales are great, and that's with shorter hours and a third of the employees I usually have," he said. "Slicing meats, produce, all perishables are a very important part of it."

Breaux attributed his quick restocking to having efficient employees and to Associated Grocers for having the inventory ready for its members.

Indeed, officials at Associated Grocers said they had no trouble keeping inventory up.

"We never lost touch with any of our vendors. Phones were out for some of the time and cells still work sporadically, but e-mail was OK all the way. We were able to keep up communication with vendors and our members," AG's Lester told SN.

Getting orders to retailer-members in the city was challenging at times.

"We had to get permission and then have an escort for their [AG's] trucks to come through to us. It was a little cumbersome, but I have good people working for me and Associated Grocers was there. We got through the details and did it," Breaux said.

Breaux's stores suffered physical damage, some structural, "but except for one we were able to Band-Aid it and get back in business quickly."