Duane Reade is giving New York City quick-serve restaurants and supermarkets a run for their money.
Many pharmacies have expanded to offer groceries, but Duane Reade has been taking its commitment to food to new heights.
“We’re bringing them in for the food and we’re keeping them there for the drugstore,” Michelle Carnagio, Duane Reade’s perishables category specialist, said about the pharmacy’s customers.
The Walgreens banner offers fresh foods at 56 of its 250 New York stores and recently opened its second “up market” concept in Manhattan with home-style ready-to-eat prepared foods. These upmarket stores have manned chopped salad stations, a sushi bar, frozen yogurt machines, fresh bakery items and warm soups available. One of the Duane Reade locations even has a juice bar.
All prepared food items at Duane Reade are made with minimal ingredients and without preservatives, said Carnagio.
“We have some side dishes like mashed potatoes, a 1-pound container of mashed potatoes, that the ingredients in them are mashed potatoes, milk or cream, butter and a little bit of salt,” said Carnagio.
“It’s like what you would make at home. So we’re offering customers an option — when they’re out and about in their work day — of convenience, but better than homemade because we made it.”
Duane Reade keeps an eye on New York restaurant trends and incorporates them into prepared foods — including its sandwiches, soups, appetizers and sides. In fact, Carnagio’s visit to a New York restaurant inspired a gourmet mac-and-cheese offering.
“I went to the chef who works for us and I said to him, ‘We’ve got to get white truffle oil somewhere in one of our dishes. Let’s try it in the mac and cheese,’” said Carnagio. “We went into the kitchens, we tried it and I almost passed out, that’s how good it was. Fantastic stuff.”
The mac and cheese is part of Duane Reade’s comfort food line offered in the colder months. Other comfort food options include cranberry compote and mashed sweet potatoes made with brown sugar and agave nectar.
Some of Duane Reade’s grab-and-go options wouldn’t be out of place on a fine dining menu.
“We did like a brie en croute, which is like brie wrapped in puff pastry with a compote of cranberry and walnuts and orange sauce. Pop it in the microwave and you have a beautiful appetizer,” said Carnagio.
The retailer’s focus on fresh and premium ingredients extends even to grab-and-go sandwiches, which are made with artisan bread.
“Like figs baked into an artisan bread with prosciutto and brie and just wonderful combinations of flavors that New Yorkers know and love,” said Carnagio.
Fresh foods are either made on site or delivered to Duane Reade locations six times a week, according to Carnagio. Prepared foods all have less than a seven-day shelf life, with items like sushi having a two-day shelf life.
Sushi is made fresh either by a sushi chef from a nearby location or from a New Jersey supplier that specializes in sushi, Carnagio said.
“All of our fresh items are from local purveyors and local meaning New York, New Jersey, Long Island City,” she noted.
Even the frozen yogurt comes from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, an organic producer based only a few hours outside Manhattan.
Some products in the deli and dairy case are sourced locally, too, said Carnagio, who is hoping to focus more on local sourcing.
“One of the things that I learned about Manhattan is our customer wants local. They love to see the signs — I saw that at Eataly, I saw that at Dean & Deluca’s — signs of origin and local is very, very important and I think it is too because it’s the freshest products.”
Duane Reade is looking at communicating with customers more about local products it sells with in-store signs.
The pharmacy’s focus on local can also be seen in what products each Duane Reade location chooses to offer.
“We look at the neighborhood very closely. Even when it comes down to the frozen section [I look at] what is the best mix of frozen foods from breakfast to dessert for the customer in that demographic, in that area, what kind of traffic does the store get? That’s where the art and science play into each other,” Carnagio said.
Duane Reade regularly remodels stores and takes the remodel as an opportunity to reevaluate what offerings would be a good physical fit for the store, as well as what would work with the neighborhood’s sensibilities, said Carnagio. The pharmacy plans to continue remodeling stores through 2014.
So what made Duane Reade, a pharmacy, invest so much time and effort into fresh foods?
“We’re on every corner. We have the real estate for it. Once Duane Reade and Walgreens became one, one of our purposes is to get, stay and live well,” said Carnagio.
“And what better way in New York than to get into people’s bellies? They are such foodies, everybody is in a hurry and we wanted to provide them the freshest options the most convenient way possible.”
And New Yorkers have been enthusiastic about getting lunch, dinner or snacks from their local pharmacy.
“The city has been taking to it and I anticipate that it’s just going to keep getting better,” said Carnagio.
The grab-and-go program for soups, salads, side dishes and ready-to-heat meals in particular has resonated well with customers looking for convenience.
“We’ve built a brand that can be trusted in Delish and customers have come to expect and want the quality that we’re giving them. It’s done very, very well.”
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The store brand Delish also includes shelf stable items and frozen products.
In Manhattan, fresh chopped lunch salads are available on every corner, but Duane Reade has been seeing a lot of interest in the fresh salad stations in two stores, which have custom salads with homemade dressing.
It could be that Duane Reade’s ability to adapt to tri-state area customers’ preferences quickly has contributed to its success in grocery.
“We are a very nimble-run organization in that we’re very trendy. We can get trendy foods, trendy drinks, trendy refrigerated beverages, in and out really quickly to keep up with the expectations of the New Yorkers that are visiting our stores,” said Carnagio.
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