RICE MARKETS ITALIAN FOOD, WINE FESTIVAL SPURS SALES

HOUSTON -- Shoppers at Rice Epicurean Markets here are chowing down on Center Store products imported from Italy as part of the chain's fourth annual Ciao! Chow! Italian Food and Wine Festival.The six-week promotion began in early September and runs through mid-October, when a grand prize 10-day trip to Italy is awarded. Center Store products featured during the event include pastas, olive oil, balsamic

HOUSTON -- Shoppers at Rice Epicurean Markets here are chowing down on Center Store products imported from Italy as part of the chain's fourth annual Ciao! Chow! Italian Food and Wine Festival.

The six-week promotion began in early September and runs through mid-October, when a grand prize 10-day trip to Italy is awarded. Center Store products featured during the event include pastas, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, canned tomato products, Orrozo rice, bottled waters, wine and dessert items, including candy, Italian cookies and biscotti.

"Our Ciao! Chow! festival really moves a lot of product. We find we lose about a display a week due to sell-through," said Scott Silverman, vice president, specialty foods.

Silverman explained that Rice buys heavily from three pasta companies and three olive oil vendors, but promotes an additional five pasta and an additional 30 olive oil lines. "Every year we do our Ciao! Chow! festival it just gets bigger and bigger. We continue to get more support and interest from our vendors," he noted.

Silverman said Rice devotes a significant amount of ad space to Ciao! Chow! during the first two weeks of the festival, with less space needed for the festival's duration. About 99% of the groceries featured during Ciao! Chow! are imported from Italy.

"We try to tie in the whole store, and it seems to increase the sales of these items throughout the year," Silverman said, adding that sales receive a special push from Rice's Tuesday Tastings.

"We have Tuesday Tastings throughout the year where we sample different products. During September we sample Italian products, such as a different cheeses or balsamic vinegars or different olive oils. This way people are able to taste 20 different items against each other," Silverman said.

About 600 Rice shoppers also got the chance to sample pasta dishes created by 25 of Houston's top restaurants during the Ciao! Chow! Pasta Cook-Off, which was held on Sept. 12. Judges included the hosts of a local morning radio program, writers from the Houston Business Journal and Houston Chronicle and several lay people. In addition to first, second and third prizes, there was also a "people's choice" award.

"Surprisingly only about one-third of the restaurants are Italian, another one-third are Asian and the rest are mainstream.

The first prize winner this year was an Asian restaurant," Silverman said.

Wine also plays a big part in Ciao! Chow!, with six wines being featured each week in massive displays. Wines are also sold at "Vineyard Dinners" which Rice hosts at local restaurants.