Gastronomical giant

Woodlands Market towers above the competition with outstanding service, community involvement, scratch bakery, famous meats, mouth-watering prepared foods, a penchant for local products and A unique business philosophy.

By Richard Turcsik

With competition, inflation, the seemingly endless recession and now skyrocketing gas prices taking a chainsaw to sales and pro­fits, some retailers can’t see the forest for the trees. They can learn some lessons from Woodlands Market, a small, 17,000-square-foot Northern California independent operating what is arguably one of the best stores in the country.

Woodlands follows a tried-and-true formula centering around quality, putting the customer and community first and sourcing local when and wherever possible. Many of the meats in its full-service butcher shop come from right within Marin County, likewise the fruits and vegetables in its produce department. Almost all of the breads, cakes, pies and other treats in the bakery are baked daily from scratch.

Gridlock is common in Aisle 1. There, the lines are often five deep at the deli/prepared foods counter, where customers snatch up homemade entrées and side dishes, including Chicken and Bell Pepper Quesadillas, Polenta Turkey Pie, Sicilian Meatloaf and Spinach Dumplings in Marinara.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, the median sales per square foot for a conventional supermarket is $8.12. Woodlands brings in $24. “Today we are doing nearly three times the national average,” Woodlands’ owner Don Santa tells Grocery Headquarters.

The retailer accomplishes all of this without spending a penny on advertising. Instead, he donates about 2% of sales to the local school districts. Over the years that has amounted to more than $2 million. [See sidebar, Page 33.]

Celebrating its 25th anniversary in Septem­ber, Woodlands’ sales are growing ever-
skyward. “We’ve never not done better than the year before for 23 straight years—up until the Great Recession, when we basically flattened out,” Santa says. “We had our first off year last year, but now we’re up again.”

“A lot of people shop here every single day,” says Leslie Harlib, a public relations consultant for Woodlands. “It is part of their ritual. You see the same faces. They are on a first-name basis.”

For some, that is literally 365 days a year. “This store has never closed in the whole 25 years that I’ve owned it—not a single day,” Santa says. “We’re open on Christmas and it is almost a local tradition for people all over the county because we are really the only real market that is open. It is pretty festive here and certainly rewarding. Even for the employees it is a fun experience.”

Santa’s roots run deep in the grocery industry; in 1910, his family established an Italian grocery store on California and Hyde streets across the bay in San Francisco and ran it until the 1970s. A stockbroker by trade, Santa purchased what was then called The Woodlands Store, a gourmet/convenience store named after the Kent Woodlands subdivision, because he wanted to do something “more tangible” with his life.
Under Santa’s ownership the store has grown along with the town.

“I think Woodlands has kind of become representative of the dynamics of this community,” Santa says. “I’ve been in Kentfield since I was an infant, so I have a pretty good understanding and feel for what those needs, desires and demands are.”

At the epicenter
“Woodlands has become a major community center. It is an epicenter for this area,” including Kentfield, Ross and Larkspur, Harlib says. “It’s become more important than ever because so many people are working from home. They are alone and  telecommuting, so where are they going to go? Woodlands is a place to go. It’s warm, it’s pretty, there is always something to eat and you meet people. More than ever a market like this is a necessary part of the community.”

Located directly across the street from the Kent Middle School, Woodlands is even a hit with children. “When the kids get out of school they all come here,” Harlib says. “The whole sidewalk in front of the store becomes a sea of backpacks. There are just lines of kids getting ice cream, sandwiches and post-school snacks. It is their home away from home. Their parents pick them up here.”

Marin County is chock full of tourist sites, but Santa notes that when locals have out-of-town family members visiting, one of the first stops is Woodlands. “They’ve embraced our market as if it is part of their own [family] and that is what our intention is,” he says.

Give it a few years and chances are what those out-of-towners see on Woodlands’ shelves will be found in their own local supermarkets. That’s because the Woodlands team prides itself on innovation. “I think part of what sets us apart is that we can react on the fly,” Santa says.

Ever heard of Niman Ranch beef? Woodlands was the first store in the country to stock it. Ditto when it comes to Strauss Family Creamery organic dairy and a slew of other now-household names.

“Because we’re small, we can experiment or react a bit more swiftly than the others,” Santa says. “We developed a reputation of being on the forefront and that kind of took on a life of its own. If you got into Woodlands, that helped you get into other stores.

“Some of these smaller people—these real artisans—are seen as weaknesses in these large operations. They are assets and positives for us.”

Homemade ice cream
Another asset for Woodlands is its restaurant venture, Woodlands Café, which opened in January 2010. Located at the end of the small shopping plaza housing the store, it offers indoor and sheltered outside dining and has become a popular dining and gathering spot. Woodlands Café features a wide variety of breakfast and lunch entrées, including om­elettes, quiche, waffles, pancake soufflé, burgers, pizzas, soups, sandwiches and a variety of desserts, including homemade ice cream.

“In 2010 we launched our own line of ice cream using Strauss organic base and it has become very, very popular,” Harlib says. The ice cream is sold by the scoop in the café and by the pint in the supermarket. Retailing for $7.99, flavors include Salted Caramel, Venezia’s Vanilla, Chocolate, Lemon Butter­milk and a seasonal Egg Nog. “It’s very, very rich and a little bit goes a long way,” Harlib explains. “When you think people will pay $8 for a tiny restaurant dessert, this is actually a good value.”

The ice cream is made in the rear of Woodlands Café, where many of the store’s baked goods are also created. That frees up valuable kitchen space in the main store.

Between Woodlands Café and the main store sits Woodlands Floral Shop, which operates as a standalone business. It specializes in cut blooms, arrangements, bouquets and flowering plants. “We are the top floral shop in the county,” Harlib says. “We always have a couple of dozen different blooms and customers can buy one bloom or make their own bouquet. Our floral manager really does a good job of tailoring what sells for the season in terms of colors.” Unlike the main store, the floral department delivers and many area residents, including Star Wars producer George Lucas, have house accounts.

Fresh-squeezed juice
In the main store, many shoppers prefer to start their trip in produce, which is to the left of the entrance. There, produce is merchandised on wood-lined shelves and on packer boxes. Where possible, Woodlands carries local product. “Our buyer has sourced out and developed exclusive relationships with some of the growers in the Sierras,” Harlib says. “A big thing that people look forward to in the summer is the Gold Bud peaches and nectarines. They are extraordinary! They are expensive, but those things fly out of the store because they are very special and you can only get them here.”

Something else shoppers can only get in Woodlands are fresh-squeezed, house-made juices. Varieties include orange, organic orange, grapefruit, Blackberry Twist (apples, bananas, blackberries, vitamin C), Raspberry Twist, BOS (bananas, orange, strawberry), BOB (bananas, orange, blackberries), SOM (strawberry, orange, mango), MOR (mango, orange, raspberries) and the most popular, Tropical Express (orange, mango, strawberry, bananas, lime, mint).

“We have such a big following on our juices and offer them as a unique private label item,” Santa says. “It is a very strong category for us.”

Produce leads into the HBA section, which specializes in natural and organic items such as Burt’s Bees skin care and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, along with a large assortment of vitamins and supplements.

In keeping with its name, the walls and fixtures—even freestanding refrigerated cases—are framed in light, knotty pine paneling. Adorning the tops of the back and side walls is a huge Marin-inspired landscape mural, painted by Tony Sbragia. “These are all real areas of Marin that he captured and embellished on,” Santa explains. “It has everything from the redwood groves to some of the rural areas and even a vineyard. It is a nice touch that represents Woodlands.”

Luscious liver
The store’s outstanding meat and seafood department also captures the culture of the area. Running much of the back wall it is renowned for its local, organic and farm-fresh meats. Santa doesn’t own the meat and seafood department; it is a concession owned by Steve Sbragia and his family.  “We have a lot of interesting products,” Sbragia says, motioning to the rows of trays in the display case. “Every single platter here has a story. There is a reason why it is that particular chuck roast or leg of lamb.”

What about that marinated flank steak? “That’s Sean Penn’s favorite,” Sbragia says. “About 10 years ago he gave an interview to W magazine and when they were driving around the neighborhood and passed Woodlands he said to them ‘Let me tell you about their flank steak,’ and they put that in the article.”

There is also a story behind the tray of calves’ livers. “Nobody else in Marin County really carries calves’ livers anymore,” Sbragia says. “You can’t find it anywhere. So people come from Novato to buy our calves’ livers. We get whole livers from freshly processed calves. We trim them, skin them, hand slice it and put it in the counter. It’s a goofy little item that nobody would think about, but we drag people in from 15 to 20 miles away to buy calves’ livers.”

Woodlands chicken is supplied by Mary’s Chicken, based in Sanger, Calif. “The reason we buy from them is because they source their feed domestically,” Sbragia explains. “Most of the soy-fed chickens in California are grown and processed in China. Mary’s gets their organic corn from California, sources soy from the Midwest and gets it shipped to them by the car load on the Union Pacific railroad.”

But the department’s No. 1 seller is salmon fillet. “Salmon fillet sells twice as many dollars as our next best-selling item,” Sbragia says. Also popular are the jumbo Louisiana Gulf prawns, a summertime treat. “We have a fisherman who drops the pots, goes and retrieves the pots at midnight and gets them on a plane. They show up in San Francisco at 6 a.m. and we get them by 10 a.m. Nobody else has this stuff.”

Wine and cheese
After picking up their meat, many shoppers head across the aisle to the wine department. “We have a lot of wines that you wouldn’t see in the average large chain supermarket,” Harlib notes.

Along the right wall are the extensive cheese counter and the hot prepared foods and deli. According to Santa, Woodlands was at the forefront when it came to developing a take-out food program.

“That foodservice area, while it only represents about 10% of our square footage, is somewhere around 25% of our overall company sales and half of our company profit,” he says. Everything is made from scratch, even the pastas used in dishes like the Ricotta Beef Lasagna. Other hits are Polenta Pie, roasted chicken, meatloaf, chicken tacos and Ana’s Chicken and Bell Pepper Quesadillas.

Like in the best of restaurants, Woodlands shoppers know to save room for dessert. That’s because the store’s scratch bakery is famous for its artisan breads, cookies, pastries, pies, tarts and cakes.

Press your nose against Woodlands’ glass display case and you can almost inhale the mile-high German chocolate cake, Garden of Berries shortcake, pistachio-green Princess Cake and the pièce de résistance, Blum’s Coffee Cake, a layer cake filled with coffee whipped cream and topped with coffee-flavored brittle crunch.

“Blum’s was a bakery in San Francisco that made this cake that was almost a legend,” Harlib says. “A lot of times when people buy it they tell us ‘I remember when I was a kid I bought that in San Francisco.’” Now their children and grandchildren will remember buying it at Woodlands.

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