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ShopRite Chef David Cingari uses an in-house committee meeting when he wants to add a new meal to the group's 'Grade Above' prepared foods line.

Want to up your prepared foods quality? Lean into a ‘tasting board’

That’s what this group of east coast ShopRites is doing

Sprouts executives recently told analysts that deli was the fastest-growing category in 2022, and that the company was becoming more efficient in its deli strategy. After testing a prototype with a larger space dedic (1).pngChef David Cingari is standing in his kitchen holding a steaming hot dish. The moment is now.

It’s the beginning of a time-intensive process that begins in that kitchen. That’s the place where Cingari comes up with potential meals to be added to a premium line in the family’s 12 Connecticut ShopRite stores — “Grade Above.”
When a few ideas pop in his head, Cingari gathers up the ingredients needed at the store front and goes back to his own personal kitchen where he puts it all together. After taste-testing with his executive chef and making any necessary tweaks, the meal is then ready for door delivery to about 10 people, which make up what Cingari calls a “tasting board,” an exclusive club made up in part of chefs in the area.

An in-house committee meeting follows and the decision to add the meal to the Grade Above line is made. The process from start to finish can take as long as three months, and currently there are 63 meals on the shelf. Lasagna dishes (South America, Italian and vegetarian varieties) are also currently in the testing phase and could be No. 64 on the hit chart.

“We are having a hard time keeping up and we’re looking for a bigger space as we speak,” said Cingari.

Cingari’s day starts at 4 a.m., and by 7 a.m. the chef can be seen taste-testing every item offered to ensure consistency and quality.

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Supermarket News editor Bill Wilson spoke at length with Cingari about the Grade Above line, as well as his history in the industry.

Bill Wilson: You have a deep history of grocery stores in your family. You want to talk about the impact grocery stores have had on your family?

David Cingari: My grandfather started out when he came over from Italy selling produce from his garden to make a few extra bucks out of his car. It increased, got a little bit bigger. He bought a small bus, cut the windows out of it and would run down to Hunts Point Market overnight and would go to a different neighborhood and town during the day. And then he bought a small shop, about 600-square-feet, and it just kept getting a little bit bigger. And now they have 12 supermarkets. We have 12 supermarkets that are over 80,000 square feet, each one of them, and we have over 3000 employees. It's a big business now, it’s great. It’s quite a story.

BW: Do you have a favorite memory as a child of being around the business?

DC: Yeah, since we had to start working there when we were about 10 years old … we spent our whole lives in the supermarket and it was great — if a new product was trying to get on the shelves of the market, it started out in our house first. So we would try it and if it was good, then [my grandfather would] have it on the shelf. If not, it didn’t make it. So we were always kind of on the cutting edge of food, which was a lot of fun.

BW: Do you remember any of the products that you really liked?

DC: Well, we were young, don't forget. So, things like new frozen pizzas were always a big hit amongst us with six kids. Ice creams were another big one. I remember Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip coming out and it was all over. Loved it.

BW: Talk about your career and how it blossomed.

DC: I went to culinary school, so I followed in the food tradition. And after working for Hyatt Hotels for a bit, I opened up a catering company here in town and had that for approximately 30 years. And when COVID hit, when I was closing up, selling pieces of the business, closing down the business, we mainly ran cafes in office buildings and I didn’t see that coming back real soon. I had a 6,000-square-foot kitchen, and my brother Tom, who is president of the company, kind of asked me to help create an elevated restaurant-quality product in the food service departments of his stores. After a few conversations, it’s what I ended up doing and over the last couple of years, we have rebranded a family brand called Grade Above. And we’ve brought approximately 60 new items to market.

BW: Can you point to some of the more successful products in that line?

DC: A couple of them didn’t work so great. But we’ve got 63 on the shelf right now that are selling very well. We’re having a hard time keeping up and we’re looking for a bigger space as we speak. Believe it or not, one of the most successful items are our salads from a sales standpoint. BLT, chicken salads, and a bacon gorgonzola greek with chicken. Nothing crazy, but made fresh every single day, delivered to the stores every day. They’re a great price point. And they are the largest growing segment in our kitchens right now. Our empanadas are also very big sellers. Chipotle chicken black bean quesadilla … huge seller. Everything’s made from scratch. The sauce is from scratch. Again, it sells tremendously. Chicken pot pie is another one of our other big sellers. From scratch … a puff pastry crust, and it’s flying off the shelves as well.

BW: Talk about your typical day because it sounds like you are just always doing innovative things.

DC: We start at four o’clock in the morning. First staff comes in between 4:30 and 5 a.m. Between 5 and 7 a.m. we’re fully staffed and in full production. So the tasting of almost every batch of say cranberry nut chicken salad is done every single day by myself or my executive chef. We want that consistency throughout the brand across all 12 stores. Whether it’s a chicken cutlet, something is tasted or brought to us, or we’re walking by that station and taste it from every single batch that comes. The fun part is constantly searching out and figuring out what’s going to be the next product that comes to market.

BW: What new products look promising?

DC: That’s the fun part. So sometimes I’ll have three or four ideas in my head and I’ll take a half a day and gather up the products and go back to my house where I can actually cook with some peace and quiet and start the development of a new item. That’s where they all start. I’ll bring it back, and then my executive chef will taste it. And then once we like it, then it goes to about 10 different people. I have created this kind of tasting board, a few chefs are amongst them, to find where [the meals are] at, and what they think they need in terms of consistency, flavor profile, packaging.

It’s a long process. It’s upwards of three months from that first recipe that I’ll cook, to it finally getting to the shelf, and that’s fun. That’s a lot of fun. This one meal that we just brought out is very promising. The sales on it in the last week  have almost doubled … It’s a six-hour braised beef stew that is just right on. 

Lasagna has also been on the board for about a month. It’s a big process and a heavy lift because I know once we get it to market, it’s going to sell a lot and we want to make sure that we’ve got it down and have the capacity to do it. But we want three or four different flavor profiles in lasagna from South American through Italian, through the vegetarians.

BW: Consumers are tired of meal prep. Has your strategy all along been to hit on that paint point?

DC: All the data from the last few years shows that it is the fastest growing segment in any market. People just don’t have the time, and from a supermarket price point because profit levels are so low, it’s all about volume. So we can keep the margins low. There are items that you couldn’t possibly shop the store and make yourself for the same money that we’re selling them for. It would cost you more and you’d probably have waste.

And you see these meals for $7.99, $8.99, you can almost feed two people, which I have done with my wife. You just can’t beat it. Uber Eats is going to cost you 15, 20 bucks. You go to McDonald’s and you’re going to spend $10, $12. We want to think that everything that we’re putting on the shelf is considered homemade, home-cooked. It’s chef made, it’s all scratch made and it’s just great. It’s refreshing. We try and keep the labels as clean as possible. I’m constantly looking to take as many of the ingredients out as possible. Even in some of the products that will go in, if it’s a base or a buffalo sauce or something that’s in, I want the cleanest one so the label doesn’t have 200 ingredients on it. And it seems to have been working. It is definitely the way that the market is going amongst pretty much every age group. It’s so much easier to pick up something that’s really good versus ordering out or making it yourself.

BW: How does it feel to be recognized as a SN Foodservice at Retail Innovator?

DC: I was impressed. I was happy to be recognized. It just puts a little bit of, god, I don't even know what the word is. It makes me know or feel that what we’re doing makes a lot of sense. We believe it. I know it. I’ve picked up a whole lot of data to think that what we’re doing is correct. But when you get recognized for doing something like this, you say, “Okay, it is absolutely right. Let’s keep doing it. Let’s go harder.” It makes me go a little bit stronger because you kind of got to keep up with that level of knowledge or support. So we’re going to keep going, keep rushing it, and we’re looking for bigger space like I talked about. And once we do, we can bring 200, 300 products to market. It’s huge what we can do. It really is exciting.

This feature is part of our 2023 "SN Foodservice at Retail Innovators" list: see more innovators here.

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