By offering shoppers an outstanding array of perishables, along with hard- to-find local grocery favorites, Dave’s Fresh Marketplace is an Ocean State favorite.
By Richard Turcsik
Rhode Island may be the smallest state, but when it comes to culinary expertise and enlightenment it easily surpasses its larger, more cosmopolitan rivals.
Acclaimed culinary arts and hospitality school Johnson & Wales University maintains its head campus there and the Italian restaurants and pasta shops lining Providence’s Federal Hill have the reputation for being the finest in all of New England. Stop & Shops, Shaw’s and Wal-Mart Supercenters blanket the state.
But when Rhode Islanders want the very best in produce, meats, prepared foods, cheeses, baked goods, pizza, gourmet and local groceries, there is no competition. They simply turn to Dave’s Fresh Marketplace.
Founded in 1969 by Dave Cesario as a fruit stand called Dave’s Fruitland, Dave’s grew slowly, first adding a deli and some specialty groceries. It wasn’t until 1994 that Dave’s opened its third store, taking over an old 25,000-square-foot Almac’s in North Kingston. Gradually, stores were added in Cumberland, East Greenwich, Smithfield, Warwick and Wickford, along with veteran employees from defunct Rhode Island operators, including Almac’s, A&P, Value Land, Edwards and Ro-Jacks.
But over the past year, East Greenwich-based Dave’s has been on a tear, opening a North Kingston replacement store in Quonset and an additional “replacement” Smithfield store at The Crossing at Smithfield lifestyle center that’s home to several national big box players, including Kohl’s, The Home Depot, Target, Barnes & Noble and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Smithfield Crossing is actually supplementing the original Smithfield store, tucked behind the Benny’s Home & Auto store a half mile down Putnam Pike.
“That little store with 10,000 square feet was doing $220,000 a week. It was absurd!” says Bill Hogan, general manager. And all the more remarkable given that a Super Stop & Shop is less than 300 yards away. Yet the little circa 1977 store remains and was still doing a brisk business during a recent mid-afternoon visit.
Dave’s has become so popular that Stop & Shop has “taken to coming after us” with comparative pricing signs in their stores, Hogan says.
“Where they can’t make comparisons is on the perishables side. We take the educated consumer. We take the person who cares. That is our customer.”
Testament to Dave’s ability to draw customers is the fact that the mall’s owner, Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based W/S Development, doesn’t typically deal with independents. “We looked at their portfolio and there are no local stores—anywhere! They do have Stop & Shop and Whole Foods, so we were very, very surprised,” Hogan says. The Smithfield Crossing website even features a picture of the center angled to show Dave’s in the lead anchor position.
“The center has a coalition of stores,” explains Bob Fabiano, director of store development and grocery. “We had a meeting and they are very happy we are here. They said having us here is a lot better than Linens ‘n Things and talking to some of the smaller stores, their sales are up because we are here.”
Many employees of the other stores in the mall do their grocery shopping at Dave’s and often drop by for lunch. “People from Home Depot and Target will come in and order a pizza because our pizza is different than any pizza you’ve ever had,” Fabiano says, before whispering, “Employees from Stop & Shop actually order pizzas from us.”
Dave’s specializes in oblong “board” pizzas. “It’s better for cutting into singles. You get four large slices out of a pie and you can mix-and-match,” Fabiano says. There’s a library of some 15 different varieties, rotated on a daily basis, and prices range from $9.95 for cheese to $15.95 for specialty pies.
But the most popular pie in the house is the plain tomato pizza sold over in the deli department. It’s simply a plain crust with sauce—no cheese or anything else. It’s sold by the slice or in a 27-piece box. “It’s a phenomenal item!” Hogan says. “People eat it cold and we sell hundreds of these things a week. If the Patriots are playing, we’ll sell hundreds more.”
Housed under a faux barn facade with the carving station, sushi bar and other hot prepared foods, the brick pizza oven is one of the first things shoppers see when they enter the store. The barn was created by Cincinnati-based interior design firm CIP Retail Impact to pay homage to Smithfield’s reputation as a one-time apple-growing center.
A mural on the produce department wall depicts all of the apple orchards that once called the valley home. Most are gone, but Dave’s carries “Rhode Island Macs” from the remaining orchards, along with a hefty assortment of New York stock from Kiln Orchards. Merchandised outside in massive wooden crates, the New York apples were sold for 99-cents a pound. “For September and October between our eight stores we sold about 300,000 pounds of local apples,” Hogan notes.
Best in brussels sprouts
Dave’s was founded as a fruit stand and produce remains the chain’s hallmark.
“Our produce managers do a phenomenal job,” Hogan says. “They are educated and pay attention to the smallest of items. Items that are of no importance to most of the major chains are very important here.”
Like Brussels sprouts. “Nobody sells that amount of Brussels sprouts that we do,” Hogan says. “On any given week between our eight stores we probably sell 2,000 pounds of Brussels sprouts. That’s just crazy!”
Tender yellow squash is merchandised wrapped in tissue paper to prevent bruising. Butternut squash from Morris Farms in Warwick is sold whole, but also peeled, cleaned and cut up, dramatically increasing sales. “There is nothing in produce that you can’t do great with—nothing! It’s amazing what you can do with the smallest of items,” Hogan says.
Most of Dave’s produce comes from Tourtellot & Co., a wholesaler based in Warwick, but the chain’s buyer also regularly visits the Boston Produce Market.
In the Smithfield Crossing store, produce leads into the deli and prepared foods departments.
The self-service hot food bar is a popular spot. For $5.99 a pound, shoppers can pick up buffalo wings, prime rib as jus, General Tso chicken, chorizo and peppers, lemon ginger chicken (chicken breast seasoned in fresh grated ginger, lemon zest and breaded with panko breadcrumbs) and veal and peas (tender veal and crisp peas are combined with mushrooms, onions, red sauce, white wine, basil and parsley, creating a savory dish). “Signing is important and we pay particular attention to signage,” Hogan says, pointing to the descriptors above the hot entrees.
Many of the items in the hot case are sold cold by the pound in the deli (often at higher prices) and in fixed-weight portions from the refrigerated On the Go self-serve case across the aisle. “We bought a machine from Italy for like $100,000 to package these meals and we had to get approval from the health department because they wanted to make sure would could control the temperature from start to finish,” Fabiano says.
All of the items are made from scratch in the 12,000-square-foot commissary at headquarters that supplies all eight stores. That includes homemade soups. They are sold hot in the prepared foods area and cold by the pint, quart and gallon pail—complete with handle. “That’s a Rhode Island thing,” Hogan explains. “We used to have ‘soup and sauce’ restaurants where you’d bring your own pot and they’d fill it up and charge accordingly. That’s the basis for the whole idea with the pail and when it gets cold it flies. With the sick season, swine flu scares and stuff like that sales are unbelievable.”
With the exception of Willow Tree chicken salad, all of the other salads featured in the deli case are from the commissary. Other items prepared in the commissary include Dave’s signature rye breads, fig bars, potato snowballs (mashed potatoes with Italian seasoning and parmesan cheese coated with panko breadcrumbs), Grape-Nuts bread pudding and breaded eggplant.
“Eggplant has become a huge business for us,” Fabiano says. “We have one woman frying eggplant for us in the commissary. She works 40 hours a week and that’s all she does. It’s amazing how much eggplant we sell.”
In Smithfield Crossing there’s also a woman whose sole job is to make mozzarella cheese. She makes it behind a glass wall in the Cheese Lodge cheese department, housing the most extensive cheese selection in the chain.
In an environment where chains are cutting back on variety Dave’s is actually increasing theirs. No where is that more visible than in grocery, where even though the Super Stop & Shop is three times its size, Dave’s has more local and specialty grocery to pick from. “If you go down one of their aisles and compare it to our aisles, we carry specialty foods like you wouldn’t believe,” Fabiano says.
“We do a lot with Roland and we use a lot of their products in our kitchen, for example,” Hogan says of the New York-based specialty grocery supplier. “We import a lot of our products direct from Roland. They are phenomenal products.”
He says the same of Pittsburgh, Pa.-based DeLallo. Most supermarkets use DeLallo products in their olive bars, but Dave’s also stocks its pastas, sauces, olive oils and other products. “DeLallo is the most elegant, best-tasting oil by far. You could drink it,” says Fabiano.
“To compete in this business, our idea is to make us as different as possible from everybody else,” Hogan says. Part of that stems from a gift basket business Dave’s has run from its earliest days. “We make 20,000 gift baskets a year, so we’re always dealing with the Rolands of the world on specialty items. From the very beginning we’ve incorporated that into our stores. We’re trying to make our store look as different as possible,” Hogan says, pointing to the tea set.
“Teas like Lipton that you would expect to find front and center are on the bottom,” Hogan explains.
“That old supermarket rule about putting things at eye level because they make money doesn’t apply here. The design of our set is not dollar driven. We want somebody to stand here and say ‘Wow! Look at the different variety that they have here.’”
Much of Dave’s appeal comes from stocking local products that can’t be found at the larger chain stores. Take Autocrat coffee syrup, for example. Dave’s stocks it, along with competitors Stop & Shop and Shaw’s, after all since it is the key ingredient in coffee milk, “the Official State Drink of Rhode Island” it’s a must-have. But only Dave’s carries Autocrat tea bags and ground coffee “a Rhode Island favorite since 1895.”
Ditto for Seidner’s mayonnaise. Still packaged in quart glass jars and made in Westerly according to mayonnaise magnate’s Otto Seidner’s original 1920 recipe, the condiment has an almost cult-like following among mayonnaise aficionados. “Seidner’s has a little bit sweeter taste than Hellmann’s,” according to Hogan.
Kenyon’s Johnny Cake Mix and Kenyon’s Clam fritter mix out of Usquepaugh, R.I. is another local hit. Many shoppers buy it to make fritters out of the Rhode Island Cherrystone, Wild Caught Maine Steamer, cold water oysters, little necks and wild- caught Quahog clams sold in the seafood department.
“Seafood is where we shine,” Fabiano says, pointing to a self-serve case filled with stuffed scallops, seafood casserole, scallop casserole, stuffed rolled fish and clams casino that are prepared in the commissary.
“We do a phenomenal seafood business; it’s 5% of total store sales,” Hogan adds. “The chains were getting out of seafood and now they are getting back in. Stop & Shop locally is because of us. They had seafood and took out their counters and now they are putting in a [service] meat and seafood counter in some of the stores that are near us.
“We appreciate the good seafood customer. They have to come in three or four times a week because they are coming in to buy fresh,” Hogan says. “Once they find you have great seafood it is such a magnet for customers.”
At Dave’s that magnet’s other prong is meat. All Dave’s stores have a service case.
“The nice thing is that at our competition, at a certain time of the day nobody is staffing the meat department,” says Steve McDonnell, meat manager. “Here we are well-staffed until eight at night. Our customers know to bring their meat to the counter, ring the bell and we will help them out.”
The in-store bakery department specializes in Russian tea cakes, giant cupcakes and Bismarks, an éclair-shaped pastry stuffed with jelly and whipped cream and dusted with powdered sugar. An artisan bread program is being established.
Operating in the home state of Johnson & Wales makes staffing service departments and commissaries a slightly easier task than in other parts of the country. “Johnson & Wales has turned into a resource for us,” Hogan says.
That resource will play a role in Dave’s future expansion plans. Up next is a store in Coventry, R.I. in a building that once housed another independent. Beyond that, Dave’s has no immediate expansion plans outside of Rhode Island and in-state options are becoming more limited. The population is stagnant and the chains have a lock on many of the prime sites as well as many smaller closed former locations, Fabiano says.
“We’ve had a couple of situations where we could have gone, but there are other independents here and we don’t want to hurt any independents,” Fabiano says. “There are too few of us left and we love each other. We have to stick together.”