FreshDirect Boosts Sales With Chef Brands, Ethnic Cuisine

FreshDirect has seen excellent sales of its new chef-designed meals, and this has spurred plans both for more partnerships with renowned chefs and for the addition of more ethnic cuisine to the Web grocer's prepared foods menu. FreshDirect, a fresh foods home-delivery company serving the New York Metro area, added meals created by Roberto Santibanez, award-winning chef and culinary

NEW YORK — FreshDirect has seen excellent sales of its new Rosa Mexicano chef-designed meals, and this has spurred plans both for more partnerships with renowned chefs and for the addition of more ethnic cuisine to the Web grocer's prepared foods menu.

FreshDirect, a fresh foods home-delivery company serving the New York Metro area, added meals created by Roberto Santibanez, award-winning chef and culinary director at New York's Rosa Mexicano restaurants, earlier this spring. That venture followed on the heels of a successful partnership with Terrance Brennan, chef and owner of several upscale restaurants, including Manhattan's Artisanal.

Both sets of chef-designed meals have rung up satisfying sales, with Rosa Mexicano's exceeding projections, FreshDirect officials told SN.

“We didn't know what to expect with Terrance Brennan's meals, since that [type of venture] was new for us, but we're happy with sales. In fact, we'll be adding more of those menu items in the next few weeks,” said David McInerney, the company's senior vice president of merchandising.

He added that the Rosa Mexicano meal repertoire is seeing higher-than-expected rings.

“I think that can be attributed to a couple of reasons: the brand, and the cuisine. Ethnic cuisines do very well for us, and authentic Mexican food is not easy to find.”

Rosa Mexicano is known for the authenticity of its fare.

McInerney said FreshDirect will add more ethnic cuisine, probably designed by well-known chefs. Indeed, he said, the company expects to add another before the end of the year.

“It could be Asian, Indian, Italian. We also see a market for vegetarian [cuisine]. We think it makes sense to sell by ethnic categories. When New Yorkers order out, they order by cuisine. They don't just talk about ordering dinner in. They talk about ordering Japanese or Chinese or French or whatever.”

So far, the best-selling Rosa Mexicano menu item has been beef short rib enchiladas with salsa and cactus, at $9.99. Halibut in tomatillo herb mole with asparagus and red bliss potatoes also is very popular, at $13.99.

Six other Rosa Mexicano “Fresh Dining” meals fill out the menu. To optimize freshness and flavor, meal components are raw or partially cooked, depending on the ingredients, and a special steam-in package allows the meals to be fully cooked in a microwave in just four minutes. Terrance Brennan-branded meals also are packaged that way, as are the selections in the company's own Smart & Simple line, which features meals with 500 or fewer calories.

As grilling season gets into high gear, McInerney expects the company's ready-to-grill/ready-to-cook items to take off. In fact, ready-to-grill and ready-to-cook items are becoming a large part of FreshDirect's offerings, dovetailing with a fast-growing trend that favors kitchen-ready entrees and whole meals.

“It's absolutely growing. We've done a lot with our own line of ready-to-cook, and I want to increase that,” McInerney said. “There's minimal work for the customer, and yet he's actually doing the cooking. Our line includes marinated items, special kabobs. We even have salmon, packed with a glaze and a cedar plank to cook it on.”

Eight items from Rosa Mexicano's chef fall into the ready-to-cook category. One that's particularly appealing is chipotle-orange marinated jumbo shrimp at $6.99 per half-pound. Others include swordfish steaks with chili adobo at $8.99 a half-pound, and three-chili marinated skirt steak at $11.99 a pound.

Chef Santibanez was born in Mexico City and studied at top culinary institutions in Paris. He then returned to his home country to open a string of groundbreaking restaurants before becoming culinary director of Rosa Mexicano, which has restaurants in Manhattan, Atlanta and Palm Beach, Fla.

McInerney pointed out that Fresh Direct's partnerships with chefs like Santibanez are the culmination of a rather lengthy process.

“It can take six months to a year,” he said. He explained that the chefs come to FreshDirect's kitchen in the early stages of menu development. Menu items are tested, there are tastings, and FreshDirect's nutritionist looks at each item from a nutritional standpoint. Then hours are spent training the kitchen crew in order to ensure quality and consistency.

And even after the menu items have had their send-off, FreshDirect's chefs are in contact frequently with Rosa Mexicano's chefs by phone and email.

Such teaming up with chefs and their restaurants serves both parties well. Currently, FreshDirect's hundred-plus delivery vans carry the Rosa Mexicano message on their sides, which gives an immense boost to the restaurant's visibility on the New York scene.

In turn, the restaurant brands serve FreshDirect well also.