ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — After 11 years, Riesbeck's Markets has revived a pre-holiday event that's designed to showcase the exclusive products that shoppers can get at Riesbeck's and nowhere else.
Riesbeck's already holds an advantage over its competition up and down the road. It makes a huge repertoire of items in its in-store bakeries and delis, largely from scratch.
“The idea is that with Sample Fest, we're making customers — and potential customers — aware that we can do some very unique things,” said John Chickery, bakery director at the nine-unit independent.
“We have our homemade, or rather store-made, nut rolls and poppy seed rolls, for instance. People can't walk down the street to Kroger or any of our other competition and buy one of those.”
Riesbeck's prides itself on its nut rolls and poppy seed rolls. They've been making them for years, and shoppers now drive miles to get them at holiday time, Chickery said. He told SN in the past that the ISBs have to make those rolls in October and freeze them. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to keep up with the rush for them that starts right before Thanksgiving and keeps up through New Year's week.
Store-made cranberry nut bread, banana nut bread and pumpkin bread are holiday favorites at Riesbeck's as well. In fact, one of the most popular items as Christmas approaches is a tray piled full of stacks of slices of each, along with a sizable crock of deli-made cream cheese spread.
“We definitely have an advantage in this market, because we make so much from scratch. The competition's holiday bakery items are mostly thaw-and-sell,” Chickery said.
The chainwide Sample Fest, revived after 11 years, was held Thursday, Nov. 15, from 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening.
“We chose a Thursday this time, because we had bad memories of the one we did 11 years ago. It was on a Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and of all things, Friday is high school football night here.”
That presented a conflict for a lot of local people, keeping store traffic much lower than officials had expected. The experience put a damper on plans to do another one the following year.
“This year, we figured it was time to revive it, but on a different day and different hours,” Chickery said.
“At one of our regular meetings, early this fall we discussed how we can make more people aware of some of the top-quality products we have — especially in bakery and deli — that nobody else has. We could do more advertising, and will, but somebody suggested we bring back Sample Fest this year.”
And the company did just that, with aplomb. Decorating with holiday tablecloths and banners, officials made sure holiday music played in the background. Extra associates were brought in to staff the demo stations throughout the event.
“It's very important to have our own people do the demos. People ask a lot of questions at these types of things, and our department associates know how to answer them,” Chickery said.
The event was expected to alert and remind current customers about the fare the store has available for holiday family gatherings and entertaining. It was aimed, too, at drawing in people who do not shop regularly at Riesbeck's. The goal was to increase foot traffic on the event day by 5% to 10% over a typical Thursday around this time of year. It worked, Riesbeck's officials told SN in the aftermath.
The company set up demo stations in all its perishables departments, but the bakery showed off a tremendous number of items good for entertaining. Cookie trays, featuring a large variety of store-made holiday favorites, were displayed in three sizes: small, medium and large.
“We showed off the quality of our products. People look for the best, especially around the holidays. They're entertaining, and they want to treat themselves, too. They're not worried about price. They just want top quality,” Chickery said.
“It's the flavor they remember — not even how the item looks, but how it tastes. That's why I think the Sample Fest is great. Food is fun. If I can get them to taste an item, they'll definitely remember it.”
Each in-store bakery was instructed to demo six items: nut roll, poppy seed roll, pumpkin roll, chocolate cake yule log, cranberry nut bread and sauerkraut rye bread. Then, in addition, at least 17 other store-made items were to be prominently displayed.
Sauerkraut rye is a Riesbeck's signature product that dates way back and has a loyal following, Chickery said.
“It's great for sandwiches made with leftovers, or anything, for that matter. Unlike other breads, our sauerkraut rye is even better on the second day. It's moist and more flavorful.”
Riesbeck's is not a stranger to sampling.
“We try to do it on a fairly regular basis, and when we do, it at least quadruples sales of whatever it is we're sampling,” Chickery said.
At Sample Fest, the deli showcased its store-made dips, putting its popular spinach and mustard dips in the spotlight. And, a store-made seafood spread was a hit in the meat/seafood department.
This year, the only marketing that the big day received was an announcement in the chain's Sunday ad circular, and a highlight on the company's website.
“Next year, we're planning to do it again, and we'll get the word out two or three weeks earlier,” Chickery said. “We'll use bag stuffers, too, and probably radio as well.”