NEW ORLEANS — Rouses Supermarkets has jumped on the opportunity to bring its already cultivated fresh format to downtown New Orleans.
In an acquisition last fall that netted the independent 21 former Save-A-Center and A&P stores, Rouses nailed down its commitment to the community and its commitment to introducing more people to its home cooking.
The Thibodeaux, La.-based chain has long prided itself on providing its customers with the freshest and best-quality local products. Then it revved up its relentless march toward being the best of the best nine years ago when Wal-Mart Stores appeared on the local horizon. At that time, Rouses took its prepared food program to a new level, adding theater as well as variety.
“Our concept of fresh is not new,” said Donald Rouse, one of the owners of the now 33-unit, family-owned independent.
Rouse is particularly proud of the company's well-executed prepared food program.
“We've been working on this. We've raised our standards beyond any around here,” Rouse said, referring to prepared foods, but also to the care and standout merchandising that characterizes all Rouses' perishables departments.
Rouses Supermarkets, being family-owned and not beholden to stockholders, can move fast. Within 30 days of taking over the acquired stores, Rouses was boiling shrimp and grinding fresh sausage from family recipes at those units, as well as at its others.
When crawfish season opened in February, Rouses fired up boilers at all of its stores.
That could account for the startling amount of crawfish — more than a million pounds, boiled and live — the retailer has sold so far this season.
The company also quickly brought in 300 private-label products. Well before Thanksgiving, each store had been turned into a Rouses banner store with all the signature products and ambiance that make Rouses Rouses.
Donald Rouse and his brother and co-owner Tommy Rouse were born and raised in southeastern Louisiana, where they were brought up on Louisiana cooking. In Rouse's opinion, this gives Rouses an edge on any grocer that isn't locally based.
“We grew up boiling seafood. Those out-of-towners don't even know how.”
Boiling crawfish and shrimp in-store and barbecuing ribs outside on a flatbed truck could be enough to set this retailer apart from others in the area. But there's more.
A long menu of chilled, prepared foods made in-store reflects what people in the area like to eat. Turtle soup, for instance, is a customer favorite. And, of course, jambalaya and gumbo and muffalettas are everyday menu items.
“Rather than go gourmet or very upscale as some retailers have done, we've gone local,” Rouse said.
“We keep a focus on Louisiana seafood, so when we redid the salad cases, we added such things as seafood-stuffed baked potatoes, and mirlitons — a chayote-like vegetable — stuffed with seafood. Artichokes are big here, too, so we have them with Parmesan and bread crumb stuffing.”
A new panini program is just about to get a send-off at Rouses' in-store Bayou Boys grills.
“We'll add some local flair to our made-to-order panini, with a local ham and probably roast beef with Cajun seasoning,” said Scott Miller, assistant to Donald Rouse.
Miller, a 30-year veteran of the supermarket industry with a background in fresh foods, joined Rouses a little over a year ago.
“As we go forward, we're adding hot seafood and Smoke House sausage, and we're going to start an evening program that spotlights a dinner from 5 to 7 in the evening,” Miller added.
“You'll see a chef cooking whatever the day's dinner is right up front.”
The chef, or culinary-trained person, will offer customers a taste. If they like it, they can buy it by the plate on the spot. It will be packaged up right there.
Up-front merchandising is, and will continue to be, a hallmark at Rouses. Miller pointed out that the company has added easily movable fixtures and equipment as it resets stores, so it's easy to take anything — a grill, a bank of flowers, a tableful of strawberries — to the front of the first traffic aisle.
“We don't tolerate average merchandising,” said Rouse.
“If fresh produce or flowers or something interesting isn't in your face right away, there's something wrong.”
“We want to keep creating a feeling of ‘fresh and new,’ adding excitement as the seasons change.”
Rouse said he had brought back some merchandising ideas from a recent trip to Italy. They're especially usable in the chain's specialty cheese departments, Rouse said.
“Piling it out and cutting wheels in-store — whatever emphasizes freshness.”
Rouses' in-store bakeries also are dedicated to highlighting local favorites.
“We just rolled out Doberge cakes to all our stores,” Miller said.
A New Orleans favorite, a Doberge cake consists of eight thin layers of white cake separated by chocolate cream filling. The cake is then finished with a thin, dark chocolate frosting.
Coming up next is St. Joseph's bread, an egg bread with a dense consistency that makes it easy to mold into shapes. It's traditionally served on St. Joseph's Day, March 19, but has become a year-round favorite locally.
With so many signature items to offer as well as the best of everything they can source locally, Rouses is devoting up to 50% to 55% of selling space to perishables in its larger stores.
Ready-to-roast or ready-to-grill turducken (a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with Rouse's signature bread-and-seafood stuffing) stands out in the value-added meat case. So does quail stuffed with freshly ground green onion sausage.
As the chain expands, greatly strengthening its presence in the New Orleans metro area, its biggest challenge is execution, as it is with most retailers, Rouse said.
“We can't lose our focus. We want to remain the best merchant, and that takes a lot of training and attention to execution.”
That is helped by the fact that Rouses is a family business. Rouse's son, Donny Rouse, is a district manager. They and other family members in key positions make a point of being in the stores at least three or four days a week.
With all its signature items and attention to detail, Rouses has still managed to keep its prices competitive. That comes in part from having solid relationships with local suppliers cultivated over the years.
A new relationship, too, with C&S distributors will be a big help in staying competitive, Rouse stressed.
“Their $18 billion worth of purchasing power will be a great benefit to us. Much more variety in perishables will be available to us, and at less cost.”
That's not to say Rouses is giving up its well-known support of local growers and suppliers. In fact, Rouses is buying fresh shrimp right now directly off a shrimper's boats in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We've agreed to buy everything he catches,” Rouse said.
The chain, priding itself on having as much Louisiana seafood available as possible, has just made a deal with a Louisiana catfish farmer to supplement the catfish it's been buying from a Mississippi supplier.
Donald Rouse and his family view the acquisition of A&P's Southern Division stores as only the beginning of more expansion.
Rouses has put 16 of the acquired stores, most of which are in the New Orleans metro area, into operation and has sold the other Save-A-Centers or closed them down. Rouses' store traffic is up and sales volume has doubled.
“When we acquired the stores [and made them into Rouses], people thanked us. There was a groundswell of support,” Rouse said.
The company's most recently built store in Mandeville is the prototype for the future. Its features will be incorporated in a 62,000-square-foot store currently under construction in Lafayette, La.
Now, the Rouses are looking for more stores to acquire and remodel “in the city and on the Mississippi coast.”
“We're doing well, and I want to continue to expand. I'd like to grow the company sales to $1 billion,” Rouse said.