NEW YORK — Bronx-based Morton Williams Associated received a nice holiday present in the form of impressive sales at the retailer's first suburban store.
Until now, the independent has had all its stores in New York City, most of them in midtown Manhattan. In November, the chain took over a unit of Turco's Market in the suburban town of Hartsdale, just north of New York, and hasn't had time to come up for air. The 30,000-square-foot store here averages $300,000 in sales per week, but in the week before Christmas, its sales hit nearly half a million dollars, reaching $490,000, an official with the chain said.
The company, which has a booming catering business at its Manhattan stores, attempted to make the most of its experience with catering here, but also got some surprises.
“One of the reasons we wanted this store was to learn more about catering. They [Turco's] are the experts around here. They're the Citarella of the suburbs, and we saw evidence of that over the holidays,” said Richard Travaglione, vice president of perishables and senior buyer for the Morton Williams chain, which now has 11 stores.
Catering sales and pickups of prepared foods were “amazing” during Christmas week, Travaglione said, but what really surprised him was the amount of fresh meats and artisan and high-end cheeses the Hartsdale store sold.
“People up here entertain,” he said. “It's so different from the city, where people go out more to eat. These people have parties.”
The amount of premium meats and cheeses sold just the three days before Christmas has reinforced Morton Williams' plans to almost double the length of the service meat counter and to significantly expand a “very successful” service cheese department, Travaglione said.
“I was surprised, amazed, that we sold 200 whole filet mignons in just the three days before Christmas, the cheapest being more than $100,” he said. “In addition to that, those same days, we sold 15 whole ribs of beef, ranging from $200 to $310.”
On top of that, the retailer sold seven or eight 100-pound rounds' worth of Parmigiano Reggiano and 400 pounds of premium imported provolone over the same period of time.
“There are three separate kitchens here,” Travaglione said. “We're just going to keep the largest one — and it is large. It has a work area alone that's about 20 feet by 35 feet.”
The space the other two kitchens occupy will be used to expand the prepared foods department, the cheese merchandising area and, above all, the service meat counter.
“The service meat counter is now 14 or 15 feet long, and we'll lengthen it to at least 24 feet,” Travaglione said. “It'll be right against the meat-cutting room, where we have four butchers.
“We have to do this for our customers here. You know, when a customer is paying upwards of $100 for a rib roast, they want to talk to someone about it. They at least want the butcher to tell them how good it's going to be.”
Travaglione said much the same thing about the cheese department, where four associates were cutting cheese to order during the week before Christmas.
“We have a fellow there making fresh mozzarella all day, and then the others are cutting and wrapping to order,” he said. “That's about 30 feet of space, and then we've been using the dairy case to display another 30 feet of self-service, wrapped cheese. It doesn't display well there in a dairy case. People want to get a good look at it. We'll take care of that in the remodel, too.”
The catering business is getting a lot of attention because Travaglione said he's learning things he can transfer back to his Manhattan stores.
“All Turco's associates stayed, and we're learning things from them. They've been very cooperative.”
One example Travaglione said he'll duplicate in other Morton Williams units is a limited menu.
“They don't make everything here. What they make is outstanding, but they have a certain menu and they stick to it. In the city, we make whatever the customer wants, but have to keep looking up recipes. I know we can do a better job with a smaller selection.”
In an earlier interview, Travaglione told SN the catering business is — or can be — the most profitable department in the store. Here, he said, he sees some inefficiencies that can be remedied, and thus boost profits.
“There's too much labor,” he said. “We had a man spend a whole afternoon last week slicing eggplant. You can source it already sliced. They've also been peeling all their own potatoes and eggs. We won't sacrifice quality, but we can cut some labor. We're learning what they do very well, and we're changing some other things. We'll meet in the middle at some point.”
Travaglione is also looking to expand the lunch business here, which is already good.
“I know we could do $50,000 in lunch business. There are about 4,000 people right here in this mall, and they all have to eat lunch someplace.”
The Hartsdale store is situated in a mall anchored by some high-traffic stores, including a Target. At the end of this month, an extensive remodel will get underway that will not only expand the meat and cheese and prepared foods departments but will also see the installation of the store's first in-store bakery. The makeover of the entire store will be from top to bottom, with new equipment ordered for every department.
A balcony also will be added so that seating can be more than doubled. That, Travaglione said, will be crucial to attracting more lunch customers.