KING CREOLE

In New Orleans, food is everywhere -- and everything. It's infused the generations-old Creole and Cajun culture to the point where the old city is a culinary capitol of flavor and style unmatched anywhere else in the United States.The importance Louisianans place on their food is readily apparent in the many shops, markets and stores where freshness from the land and local waters is a year-round sight.

In New Orleans, food is everywhere -- and everything. It's infused the generations-old Creole and Cajun culture to the point where the old city is a culinary capitol of flavor and style unmatched anywhere else in the United States.

The importance Louisianans place on their food is readily apparent in the many shops, markets and stores where freshness from the land and local waters is a year-round sight. Supermarket retailers here -- regardless of size -- have found success promoting abundance by bridging the gap between tradition and progress.

The market area encompassing New Orleans includes national players like Albertsons and Wal-Mart; regional powerhouses A&P and Winn-Dixie; and local favorites such as Rouses. In each one, the produce department is an integral part of their strategy to satisfy the multiple cultural and ethnic elements that make the area an important part of the retail landscape.

According to culinary experts, the "holy trinity" of New Orleans cooking is green bell peppers, onions and celery, which combined make up the base for many dishes. The green portion of green onions, or scallions, are used frequently to finish a recipe; while okra, tomatoes, corn and eggplant also figure regularly in popular meals, according to The Food Channel.

One tomato in particular is revered and sought out often when in season, and retailers make sure there are plenty available. The Creole, a big, red beefsteak-style tomato, is grown locally -- a product of the farms in the Mississippi River delta, said Jeff Patterson, director of produce merchandising, southern division, A&P, Montvale, N.J.

"Like a lot of local produce, these have a high-flavor content because we grow them in this rich delta soil, which gets swept down the river from the north.

We can grow stuff like crazy."

Joe Watson, director of produce and floral for Rouses Supermarkets, told SN he tries to source Creoles that hit the 4-by-4 mark.

"There is such a following for that tomato. Every year in the spring and early summer that's the one thing you have to have. You can't be without it."

The Creole tomato is one of the produce items that any smart New Orleans-area retailer stocks because they know it is a demand item and traffic generator. Entire department ad programs and in-store promotions are built around it, no matter what the size of the retailer.

Patterson, who runs A&P's southern division produce operation, oversees 21 Sav-A-Centers and three A&Ps in Louisiana and Mississippi. The larger departments stretch upwards of 2,500 square feet and offer 750 fresh and non-fresh stockkeeping units.

"There's such a mix of people down here, and certain things that may be run-of-the-mill for everyone else sell in huge numbers -- we can put a sweet potato display up here any time of the year, and they'll sell," he said. "Where I came from in the Midwest, they only sold at Thanksgiving and Christmas."

As 12-month favorites, sweet potatoes are prepared by New Orleans consumers the same way the rest of the country uses white potatoes, Patterson said. And, as such, it's important to target produce merchandising in a specific role.

"Meat is still center of the plate, but produce is an important part of the picture," he said. "We try to build our produce ads around what they're doing in the meat department a lot of times."

Rouse, with 19 stores, has departments ranging from 800 square feet to 3,800 square feet, with 325 SKUs on average. Though it's small compared to some of the competition, the chain hypes big produce, Watson said. The list includes not only sweet potatoes, but extra-large bell peppers, 48-56 count Washington apples and nine-count cantaloupe.

"We've gained a reputation for handling large, jumbo, premium-grade product. Not to say our competition doesn't, but we try to do it on a consistent basis in several categories," he said. "And our customers know we're going to have it day-in and day-out. Now we don't proclaim to be the cheapest guy, either. We want to be competitive and offer the best value."

At any size, there are certain products besides Creole tomatoes and sweet potatoes that big chains and small independents have to stock. Patterson noted that chayote squash -- or mirliton, as it's called locally -- is another year-round item that gets an even bigger holiday boost when people use it in stuffing.

"In past lives, I would sell the smallest count case that a supplier would have available, and down here we regularly sell the largest case available. Then around the holidays, we just buy them in bulk bins and they still sell like crazy," he said, noting that 60-count cases are the norm during the year.

About this time, most New Orleans retailers start pushing satsuma, even though the super-sweet citrus fruit comes in green. Watson said Rouses launched its annual promotion of local-grown satsuma just last week.

"I had no experience with that item until I moved here. It wasn't so much the item itself that got me, but the fact that they start them green. People buy them at that stage, and it continues to surprise me that they do that. As we get towards Christmas now, the fruit starts getting peak color and flavor. They move strong right through then," he said.

A&P's Patterson said that the national retailer's approach to merchandising the fruit is to wait until they sugar up a bit.

"That's a fall item for us," he said. "It doesn't look like a clementine or tangerine from Florida; it's more greenish, and very sweet. I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised and became a big fan of Louisiana satsumas when they first became available."

Determining local tastes specific to the store's customer base has emerged as a key operational goal of New Orleans-area retailers. With growing neighborhoods of ethnically diverse residents, tailoring inventory to the demands of those who patronize a particular store has become paramount, particularly for independents like Rouses.

"None of our stores are cookie-cutter style, and there are a lot of differences within our stores, depending on who our customer is," said Watson. "Donald [Rouse, president] says we have 'what you want, when you want it.' That's the goal. Now we can't always do that, but we always try."

The chain opened two newer units, called "Epicurean" stores by in-house personnel, that measure 62,000 square feet and have some 600 SKUs of produce. The upper-income image the stores project is somewhat misleading, however. Watson noted that these formats regularly attract middle- and lower-income shoppers as well, because the stores stock "what they want, when they want it."

"That's the motto at work, and it works for us because we're local and know where our customers are coming from in each neighborhood we operate," he said. "We impress upon our [associates] to be there and help people; just don't be standing there filling out the case. Communicating with the customer is the way we find out what they want and what they're looking for."

At A&P, the produce department helps set the tone for the entire store, and Patterson said putting out the best product available helps boost customer counts.

"The thing I'm interested in is not necessarily the first purchase, but definitely the re-purchase," he said.

With near-identical approaches to sourcing local, in-season favorites and employing proven local merchandising methods, retailers in this tight-knit city have also included produce in their efforts to become destinations for signature products. At 21 A&P Sav-A-Centers, shoppers will find fully stocked self-service salad bars that give produce the ring; while at local favorite Rouses, a cut-fruit program is still growing after its introduction 10 years ago.

"Melon bars seem to be a thing that's kind of dying -- Winn-Dixie pulled theirs out -- but we feel they're a niche for us," Watson said of his program. "We're local, and we've built that business over a 10-year-period, and we've developed a good customer base for it. We don't want to throw that away -- that would be a 'me too."'

All but two Rouses stores have been retrofitted with multi-deck cases for the signature line. Large containers and platters of melon pieces are cooled on ice in the well, while the refrigerated shelves above hold cups and trays. Employees cut and pack product at floor stations in both Epicurean stores and two regular Rouses, while 10 others have back-room prep.

Business has been good. Watson said at the highest-volume store, the melon bar contributes 5% to total department sales. Volume can be particularly heavy in the party platters, he said.

"They're 12- and 16-inch platters with a [selection of] five to seven items, whether fruit or vegetable, with a big container of dip or something of that nature in the center," Watson told SN. "We also do 16- to 60-ounce containers of melon salads, fruit salads, chunk pineapples and the like."

And even within this specialty category, there is a signature product: "We do a fresh-fruit dip. It's our own recipe that's evolved over the years. We put it in the trays and also sell it separately."

Rouses was also in the salad bar business, but they were handled by the deli department then and were pulled out about eight years ago. Not so at A&P, where the 12-foot island merchandisers buffer the produce and deli departments, typically offering more than two dozen produce items, as well as two wells of soup.

"We have refrigerated prep areas in the back room in each store," said Patterson. "I came from operations where we ended up taking salad bars out, but they go over very well down here and are popular. A lot of people pick up a salad for lunch or dinner, going to work or on their way home."

Getting produce into the store also reveals some differences in the way these operators approach business. At A&P, a company that covers the East Coast, virtually all produce items are shipped through the retailer's regional warehouse in Hanrahan, La., including local-grown items, which must still be checked for quality, Patterson said.

"We partner with local growers that can supply us and keep us in business most of the season. One thing we won't do is jump into an item too early. You may see it elsewhere earlier than us, but it doesn't have the sugar, or the flavor, yet. So, we'll wait an extra week and put it in when it reaches full flavor."

Rouses pulls primarily through Associated Grocers in Baton Rouge, with ancillary support from two distributors in New Orleans, according to Watson.

"What helps is having close relationships with one or two key suppliers who really know what we want and have the specs for our stores," he said.

For locally sourced produce specials like the chayote or Creole tomatoes, Rouses seeks to make the local source-local grocer connection on multiple levels.

"These last three weeks, our buyers have been going out to the farms, taking pictures and then inserting them in our ads," Watson said. "Just last week, we had pictures come in from our local farmers growing our cabbage for New Year's. It's just a little update telling the customer what's coming, but it helps create a little excitement for our stores."

Organics and Specialties

The new National Organic Program coming Oct. 21 has retailers throughout New Orleans re-examining their organic produce categories to determine what changes -- if any -- are needed.

"There's more and more demand for organics, and more appreciation for it," said A&P's Patterson, noting that quality has improved to the point to where it's hard visually sometimes to tell organic apart from conventional, and price points are closer together more often.

"We've expanded our organic sections based upon the geographic locations of stores; we're sourcing more and more bulk organics and, in some cases, we may carry organic in place of conventional."

For example, if the retailer chooses to carry organic beets and signs them as such, "it doesn't offend the non-organic customer, and the organic customer appreciates it," said Patterson.

Rouses sources its organic produce exclusively from Natural Selection Foods, the San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based supplier of the Earthbound Farm brand. Depending on customer demand, organics generally range from a low of 12 items in smaller stores to up to 50 items in larger units. As director of produce, Watson said he thinks the category will get a boost from the NOP, but he's already found that his customers simply prefer a choice between conventional and "premium."

"In the summertime, we run a two-tier program for conditioned and conventionally grown tree fruit. We try to meet the needs of customers who want what they may consider a better piece of fruit, and are willing to pay a higher price -- yet still have a value item that's competitive with our competitors on price point."

This summer marked the fourth year Rouses has run the program, created by the California Tree Fruit Agreement. For it, Rouses offers conventional stone fruit as well as conditioned product that is cooled and shipped, single-layer, at a lower pressure, which keeps the sugar up and maintains firmness. The retailer also has since expanded the idea to cover summer Bartlett pears.