Meat & Greet

Excellent meats, homemade prepared foods, local produce and groceries, plus outstanding customer service, are helping Edwards Food Giant carve out a niche.

By Richard Turcsik

First-time customer Ron Adams has just become a huge fan of the new Edwards Food Giant in Little Rock, Ark. “This is a beautiful store. I love it!” the retiree gushes. “They have good quality and sell good meats.” He should know. “I worked in the Kroger meat department for over 30 years,” he adds. “I know deli and meats. My son-in-law, he trades in here all the time. He lives right down at Foxcroft and so I thought I’d try it.”

“We excel in meat. That is our drawing card,” says Gary Proffitt, vice president, operations, at GES, Inc., the Marianna, Ark.-based operator of the seven-unit Edwards Food Giant. “We use Swift Premium all-natural pork, Sanderson Farms chicken and Certified Angus Beef. All of those programs have been good for us.”

That is not surprising given that Edwards Food Giant bills itself as “The Meat People.” It is even spelled out in neon above the store. But this Edwards Food Giant is a whole lot more. The store prides itself on its selection of dry grocery—it features a canned goods section second to none in Little Rock—and three aisles of frozen foods. Another source of pride is the deli, which stocks Boar’s Head cold cuts, specializes in homemade prepared foods, has an in-store smoker and offers signature baked products. As a result, the store has been steadily gaining traffic and customer counts and is more than holding its own in a market overwhelmingly dominated by Kroger and Walmart Supercenters.

Located in The Heights, a largely upper middle to upper class neighborhood, the store, officially called Edwards Food Giant Tanglewood, marks a new approach for GES. Its other six Edwards Food Giants are more run-of-the-mill stores located in lower income neighborhoods; an eighth store is under construction about 15 miles away in Bryant, Ark., in a building that was originally a supermarket but most recently a Baptist church.

“With this [Tanglewood] store we’ve had to adjust our normal marketing with this neighborhood by having all the specialty foods and the gluten-free and things we don’t normally do,” says Steve Edwards, president and son of founder Oral Edwards, who started the company in 1962. The Tanglewood store was built in the 1960s as a Safeway and became a Harvest Foods when Safeway pulled out of the market. Edwards Food Giant took it over last year, remodeled from top to bottom and held a grand opening last September.

“This is a high bar for us,” Proffitt says. “There are a lot of things we developed just for this store. A lot of those we will continue to use in future locations—because we learned. It was a big step for us,” he says, motioning to the deli counter, to the right of the entrance, just beyond the self-serve floral case.

“All of our stores have deli/bakeries, but we knew in this store that we had to be different,” he says. “We started from scratch and redeveloped the packaging program and the items that we’re offering,” Proffitt says. “Like our Market Fresh Deli take-and-bake pizza program. We developed that for this store and we’ve taken it out to the rest of the stores.”

GES worked with the Little Rock office of Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio-based Joshen Paper & Packaging to develop packaging for its new Heat-and-Eat meal program and improved bakery packaging too. “We went to a clear cake dome container without the ridges in it,” Proffitt says. “It offers a better presentation. You can see more of the product. It is just like looking through a window. It’s a better, stronger product, but it is a lot more expensive too.”

Signature Selections

GES vice president Paul Rowton developed the Signature Selections program for deli and bakery items made in the store. In bakery that includes items like banana nut bread, snowflake rolls and focaccia bread.

About 80% of the entrees and side dishes in the chilled Heat-and-Eat case bear the Signature Selections label says Cleo Robinson, deli/bakery manager and executive chef. “We do home-cooked green bean casserole and this is our baked chicken over wild rice,” he says. “Our two favorites are our meatloaf and our chicken spaghetti. Of course they love the twice-baked potatoes also.”

“We developed that program for this store and it has been successful and we’re doing about as well as I’ve seen anybody do it,” Proffitt says.

“This department really picks up in the afternoons and after work,” says Ron Davis, store director. “We have a lot of elderly that depend on it because the servings are just about the right size for them. They’ll shop it during the day and in the afternoon we get people coming home from work. Little Rock is not shy with restaurants, so we are competing with restaurants too, but a lot of people like to eat at home.”

Robinson also oversees the Smoke House, a stainless steel in-store smoker made by Cape Girardeau, Mo.-based Ole Hickory Pits.

“That smoker has been a great addition because many grocery stores don’t have one,” Robinson says. “It has been real, real good for us, it sure has. The customers really love it.”

At the prices Edwards Food Giant charges it is easy to see why. Smoked hams, brisket and pork loin are only $3.99 per pound, while a rack of baby back ribs is $14.99 and spare ribs are $16.99. Items can also be special ordered. “We have chicken and ribs every day and sometimes we have weekly specials. Last week we had smoked beef brisket for $3.48 a pound,” Robinson says, noting that is only 49 cents more per pound than the raw product was over in the meat case. “We looked at the prices in some places that just do smoked barbecue and the prices are much higher,” he says.

In addition to lunchmeats from Boar’s Head and other leading brands, the deli department also includes a service hot case, featuring Chester’s fried chicken and entrees and side dishes, like Salisbury steak, fried fish, macaroni and cheese and steamed cabbage.

Adjacent to the deli is a well-stocked salad bar that for $4.99 per pound includes fixings like diced turkey and ham, shredded Sea Legs, seasoned corn, hard boiled eggs, ambrosia, homemade pickles and banana cream pie. “We’ve had the salad bar before, but just not at this level,” Proffitt says.

Say “cheese island”

Across from the salad bar is another first for the company­—an equally impressive self-service cheese island. It features more than 100 varieties of imported and domestic cheeses and includes an easy-to-use binder that allows customers to look up the perfect cheese for any occasion.

“There are items out of that cheese island that we’ve taken out to all of our stores, even some of our ethnic stores,” Proffitt says. “Cheese is something that we had dabbled in off and on, but had never done it right. We’ve now become an expert in that area and it has helped us in our other stores.”

The produce department is set off by a colorful farmers market-themed mural created by artists commissioned by Kansas City, Kan.-based Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), Edwards Food Giant’s wholesaler and store architect. “It was originally painted, but AWG had it made into wallpaper,” Proffitt says. “When we open a new store we won’t have to wait for an artist to hand paint it, we can just have them print out some more wallpaper.”

The department specializes in local produce. In summer that includes cabbage, peppers, peaches, yellow squash and tomatoes and corn. It is easy to spot the difference. At Edwards Food Giant the husks of the corn grown right outside Little Rock and delivered that morning are a vibrant green; in Kroger and Walmart the hue is more of faded sea foam.

“The best selling items are the homegrown stuff,” says produce supervisor Jeff Nosbisch. “People want homegrown stuff. We normally sell three or four cases of tomatoes a day, but last week we had the homegrown ones and we were selling 15 cases a day.”

The department totals some 400 items and includes an eight-foot section of organics. “We carry almost every item available from our warehouse,” Nosbisch says.

A big seller has turned out to be the store-cut fresh fruit, another first for Edwards Food Giant.

“Other stores have their cut cantaloupes, honeydews and pineapples [factory] packaged. We do it fresh,” Nosbisch says. “People want that fresh stuff. They want to eat healthy nowadays, rather than eat something that has been sitting in some solution. It takes a lot of time and patience to do it and we make sure that the product is right.”

Nosbisch joined Edwards Food Giant from Buffalo, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets. “I just wasn’t going anyplace there. It was all corporate. Here I am running the show as far as making the ads, doing the price changes and doing what the customer wants,” he says, pointing to a display of raspberries for only 99 cents each. “When you work for a big chain they are telling you what to do. I’m listening to the customer.”

Always listening          

That “listening to the customer” theme can be found throughout the store. On just about every aisle is a stack of customer request cards. Part of the company’s “Got what you need Grocery Store” campaign, customers simply fill out a card requesting an item that the store does not carry and hand it to a cashier. The store director and buyers then try to obtain the item and notify the customer when it is in stock.

The cards are part of an overall mandate to excel in customer service. “One of my goals is for the customer to be talked to at least five times before they leave the store,” Davis says.

One thing not found at Edwards Food Giant is a parking lot cart corral. That is because associates carry bags out to the cars for customers. “Kroger and Walmart don’t carry the groceries out,” Davis says. “It’s funny because it used to be the standard, but it’s been gone for so long now that some people take offense to it. So I instruct my employees to not force it on them. It is a service.”

When it comes to store size, Walmart and Kroger may offer more square footage, but Edwards Food Giant has them both beat hands down when it comes to grocery offerings. “Look at the selection here in canned goods,” Davis says. “We’ve got turnip greens, mustard greens, all kinds of peas, field peas with seasonings. You just won’t find that in other stores.”

Edwards offers both the Allens and Margaret Holmes versions of the Southern classic Hoppin’ John, for example. Kroger only sells the big can of the Margaret Holmes brand, while Walmart doesn’t stock any. It’s the same thing with succotash. “You might find one succotash somewhere, but to find two is a rarity,” Davis says. “I’m amazed with our selection. And we sell a lot of it. If we don’t sell an item we analyze it and see if we need to keep it. We get a lot of positive comments about the store and our variety is one of the things people like.”

Local flavor

Edwards Food Giant’s selection is also outstanding when it comes to locally produced products. Just about every grocery item manufactured in Arkansas can be found throughout the store. “We try to stock regional and local stuff as much as we can,” Davis says. “We have barbecue sauces and seasonings from Northwest Arkansas to Bryant to South Arkansas that we pick up for people, like Cavender’s Greek Seasoning. We sell a bunch of it.”

Local wines are also a big seller.

“Arkansas has a restriction that you have to have Arkansas wines or small-farm California wineries,” Davis says. “You can’t have Gallo in the grocery stores, but you can buy it in liquor stores.”

That is why a large section of one of the two wine aisles is devoted to wines from the local Post Familie Vineyards, Mount Bethel and St. John Winery. “Our wine selection is probably as good as any store in Little Rock,” Proffitt notes, “and as good as any supermarket in Little Rock easily.”

The store also does a good job with beer, largely thanks to the “Pick Any 6 Beer Bottles for $8.99” section of the case. It allows consumers to mix-and-match a large number of brews, including Michelob Honey Lager, Sam Adams, Dos Equis, Red Stripe from Jamaica, Heineken, Goose Island, Rolling Rock and Pilsner Urquell, to name a few, and put them in a cardboard six-pack holder. “You can’t sell singles by law in Arkansas’ grocery stores, but you can sell a six-pack,” Davis explains.

Stellar seafood

The wine aisle parallels the meat department. Meats are sold from self-service in-line and coffin cases as well as a service counter. One special service is that any ham purchased in the store can be spiral-sliced for free. “We have a spiral slicer saw in the back. During the holidays it is real popular,” Proffitt says.

One of the most popular offerings in the meat case is the homemade Market Made Sausage. “It has just really taken off,” Davis says. “We started out with bratwurst, jalapeno and Italian and then expanded with chicken, chorizo, sweet Italian and Polish, and I’m telling you we sell pounds and pounds of it on the weekends. We sell about 250 pounds a week.”

Edwards Food Giant is also developing a reputation as the place to go in Little Rock for fresh seafood. Seafood is sourced from a company called Off the Dock in Memphis that Proffitt found by Googling on the Internet. “We found out that they deliver to Little Rock three times a week because they service a lot of the high-end restaurants in town. So we developed a relationship with them and they deliver to us three times a week,” Proffitt says. “Immediately our sales improved. We didn’t tell anybody anything. It is just that the customers who buy fish walk up to that case and they know it’s fresh.”

“And so many of the other stores still do frozen,” Davis adds. “Even Kroger does frozen. Walmart doesn’t do fresh fish anymore, just packaged, so it is kind of unique to this area right now.”

That is helping to draw still more customers through the door.

“We started out thinking that once our meat caught on in this area, especially the Certified Angus Beef and the sausage and the seafood, that we would be a destination just for this market and we have started being that,” Davis says. “People will come in here and buy our steaks because of our quality and then they will buy other things.”

Looks like they better change that neon sign out front from “The Meat People” to “The Meat, Seafood and a Whole Lot More People.”  

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