Touch down!

[See images from GHQ’s visit to Orchard Fresh here.]

Orchard Fresh scores big with farm-fresh produce, service meat and seafood, unique gourmet groceries and a bevy of 100% made-from-scratch prepared foods, all merchandised in an innovative environment.

The Buffalo Bills are not the only ones scoring touchdowns in Orchard Park, N.Y. these days.

Orchard Fresh—the new upscale banner from Tops Markets—has also set up shop in the tony Buffalo suburb where the legendary football team plays. However, unlike across town at Ralph Wilson Stadium, a visit to Orchard Fresh is a guaranteed winning experience.

pierThat is because Orchard Fresh is filled with an all-star championship array of farm-fresh local produce, Hawaiian seafood, high quality hand-butchered meats, elaborately decorated cakes, 100% made-from-scratch prepared foods, ground-to-order brewed coffee, hundreds of craft beers and thousands of gourmet groceries from mom-and-pop manufacturers that are unique to the Buffalo market—all merchandised in a visually striking setting.

“The goal is that every time you come in here you can find something unique and exciting,” says Kevin Donovan, store director. “Our mission statement is to give the guest a unique experience full of great tasting gourmet and healthy options, a knowledgeable staff to support them and a unique experience where they always feel welcome.”

That mission statement has been quickly embraced by Buffalo’s foodies and glitterati. “The president of the Buffalo News comes in here every day,” Donovan says. “And we see Buffalo Bills players in here all the time. On our Facebook page we have pictures of a half-dozen different ones that shop here often.”

Company officials say the success of Orchard Fresh is because Buffalo was lacking a true, gourmet market. This is despite the fact that the metropolitan area is sprinkled with Wegmans; the Rochester-based chain is number two in Buffalo market share behind hometown Tops Markets.

“Orchard Fresh is really a complement of our regular business,” says Frank Curci, president and CEO of Depew, N.Y.-based Tops, which operates 159 stores in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont. “We thought we’d do something that was different than the conventional store to reach a different customer. We thought there was an opportunity in this market to do that with an upscale smaller store. There is no Fresh Market here. There is no Whole Foods. Wegmans is here, but their stores are big. We felt there was an unfulfilled need in our marketplace, and why not us? We know the market very well. We know the customers and the demographics, so we jumped at the chance to do this.”

There is a Tops store 1.7 miles down North Buffalo Road, but Curci does not view it as competition. “We overlap very few customers between the two stores,” he says. “We’re not really cannibalizing that store. That’s been one of our learnings. We’re really attracting a new customer here. It is more of a restaurant person, the real food lover.”

Orchard Fresh is not just geared towards foodies; it is staffed by them too.

“The people that we hired here do not do it for the money. They do it because they love food and they love people,” says Donovan, whose resume includes key positions at Balducci’s and Conscious Corner. He says many were executive and corporate chefs in past lives and offer up shoppers decades of experience.

Staffing is just one way Orchard Fresh is a completely different spin from the other grocers in town. “This is 180 degrees from a Tops store,” Curci says. “It is meant for more of the gourmet. It is more upscale, more organic and all-natural. There is lots of gluten-free. This store is for a higher-end customer. This is the customer that we are not reaching with our conventional stores.”

As a result, Orchard Fresh is operated as a completely separate entity. Donovan and his team have free reign when it comes to buying, merchandising and recipes. National brands are eschewed. Instead management deals with up to 100 mostly smaller organic, natural and specialty vendors. “Our shipments are cross-docks at Tops’ warehouse, but that is about it,” Donovan says.

The difference is clear the second a customer walks through the door and steps into the produce department. For the most part, produce is sourced separately from Tops, with a high proportion of organic items, about 200 on any given day.

“We have restaurant-grade quality produce that we get from restaurant suppliers,” Donovan says.

Pointing to quart containers of cherries artfully arranged on ice in a large stainless steel washtub, Curci says, “Cherries would not be displayed like this in our conventional stores. They would be displayed in a bag—and the specs would be different.”

The neighboring stuffed hot peppers are also merchandised on ice. “This is a signature item that we do ourselves,” Donovan says. “They are stuffed with cream cheese, four-year cheddar, red onions… it has a Cajun feel to it and they sell really, really well.”

Donovan is especially proud of the “cut fruit wall” along the side wall of produce. “We have more than 96 varieties of fresh cut fruit that we do right in the back room. Nothing is pre-cut here,” he says.

Local is carried where possible, and those products get a “Local Vendors Partners We Love” sign. “That is right in line with our mission statement and we probably have 15 or 20 of these around the store,” Donovan says.

The adjacent seafood department is called Gloucester Pier Seafood, a name Tops picked up when it acquired Grand Union or Penn Traffic, but had never used before. It houses an impressive selection with up to 28 different varieties of fillets stocked daily. They may not be necessarily local, but they are fresh, trucked up a few times a week from Boston and flown in twice a week from Hawaii. “We are the only store in town that has Hawaiian seafood. No one else carries it,” Donovan says.

In addition to Hawaiian mahi-mahi, another unique touch is the pick-your-own clam bar. “You buy your own, as many as you want. We have customers who want two clams,” says David Fahmer, meat and seafood team leader. “Next we have our seafood bar where the hottest seller is the octopus salad. People love that. It is unbelievable.”

Fahmer is one of those foodies Donovan was referencing, with an impressive resume including executive chef positions at Fairmont Hotels and Sheraton, and an executive position at Federal Meats, Buffalo’s premiere meat supply company.

He oversees the 36-foot service meat case, where everything sold is butchered in-house. A whopping 19 varieties of sausage are stocked—all made by hand. “We make between 150 and 200 pounds of sausage a day,” Fahmer says.

Frog legs—technically seafood—are merchandised next in the case, and stand as witness to the previously lacking niche that Orchard Fresh fills in the marketplace. “Ever since Duck Dynasty people come in and have Duck Dynasty parties and want to serve frog legs,” Fahmer says.

Only organic chicken raised in Pennsylvania is sold. Many are bathed in marinades of Fahmer’s creation, like spicy orange pineapple; the Dijon pretzel coated chicken cutlet has also become a best seller.produce

“Then the Disneyland of meats starts,” Fahmer says, referring to the red meat case, stocked with everything from bison—a natural in a city named Buffalo—to a wide assortment of six different varieties of beef.

“Frontierland” is further down the store, past bakery, in the frozen food cases. There an entire door is stocked with exotic meats, including python at $56.99 a pound. “This freezer case is a point of difference for us,” Donovan says. “We have elk, wild boar, buffalo, rabbit, rattlesnake, alligator, ground goat, venison, kangaroo, camel and python. People have come in just to see this four feet right here.”

More than just desserts
Increasingly they are also coming in to ogle over the mouthwatering dessert cases, especially the neon-frosted layer cakes.

“Our thought process for the bakery was to make it feel like you were walking into a New York City bake shop, very gourmet, with very detailed cakes that are indulgent,” Donovan says.

What are not indulgent are the prices. An elaborately decorated layer cake will set one back about $21, a fraction of New York City prices. “A customer came in here and ordered a graduation cake. First she went to Dessert Deli, which is a very prominent store in Buffalo, and it was $139.00. Here it was $42.99,” Donovan says.

“All of our cake decorating is done in-store,” says Tom Tabaczynski, perishables team leader. “We do custom cakes, but the majority of folks that come in here really just like what we have on display. Most of the time it is tough keeping the case full. That is a great problem to have.”

One case is devoted to Aléthea’s Chocolates, hand-crafted in nearby Williamsville. “One of the things we really wanted to push in this store was that local feel, to be able to build the community and help through these local distributors and companies,” Donovan says.
The donuts in the self-serve case are gigantic, so big that Orchard Fresh had to order new boxes because a dozen did not fit in a standard box.

“Pastry hearts are definitely a best-seller,” Tabaczynski says, referring to the elephant ear-type puff pastry coated with icing or jam. “Pastry hearts are a definite Buffalo thing.” Bagels are made from frozen dough, but as is usual at Orchard Fresh they come with a twist. “A lot of people have asked us where the hole is in our bagels, but we wanted to be a little different,” Tabaczynski says. “Just like our donuts are not traditional donuts, our bagels are not traditional bagels. They are topped with blueberries and golden raisins. They have become our best sellers and give us a point of difference.”

Likewise, all breads are baked from scratch. “Our Italian bread is starting to become a ‘known,’” Donovan says. “People come in just for our Italian bread. It is wider than a traditional Italian and makes a nice sandwich.”

Orchard Fresh is also known for the Amoeba. That is the nickname given to the stainless steel and orange prepared foods counter in the center of the store. According to Orchard Fresh lore, the store designer came up with the idea of a curvaceous, amoeba-shaped service counter after helping his eight-year-old son with his science homework. “He didn’t want it to be a circle or a square because everybody does that,” Donovan says.

“The design is great because you can always see what is around the corner so it keeps you going,” says Erin Horton, Orchard Fresh’s executive chef, who hails from Wegmans.
The part of the Amoeba facing the front of the store is where shoppers can pick up Shizen Sushi (Orchard Fresh’s only leased department) and made-to-order salads, sandwiches and pizza. Unlike other stores, at Orchard Fresh everything is made to order. Shoppers take a handbill and golf pencil and check off what items they would like in their salad, on their sandwich or pizza and it is custom-created for them.

Cup-and-char pizza
It is the same with the sandwiches and pizzas. Pizza is cooked in a 700-degree wood-fired oven, one of only a few in the Buffalo area, and has quickly become the number-one item in the store. During the dinner rush, sometimes there is an hour wait.

“We have a direct line for our pizza shop,” Horton says. “Because people have seen and know that there can be a long wait, especially on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, we have people calling in at 9 AM to order a pizza for 5 o’clock.”

The most popular is the pepperoni. Unlike the rest of the country, in Buffalo pepperoni is the size of a quarter. “They are called cup-and-char because when you cook them the edges pop up and get charred and the grease pools in the center,” Horton says. “That’s what Buffalo loves.”

On the other side of the Amoeba is the service “hot bar behind glass” featuring hot chef-made entrees, like cabbage smothered pork chops and the spicy turkey roll with turkey, mozzarella cheese, peppers, onions, fresh parsley and crushed red pepper wrapped in puff pastry.

In August a burger bar was set up. “We had 18 toppings, including fresh homemade ketchup that was made by our chefs,” Donovan says.

Next are the Coleman Natural rotisserie chickens, followed by a Boar’s Head deli and homemade cold salads and entrees. “Everything is made here from scratch,” Horton says. “We don’t bring in any premade dressings. A lot of our items are vegan, a lot are gluten-free. We do several dishes where we use Vegannaise instead of mayonnaise, vegan agave instead of honey.”

The Amoeba then wraps around to the service cheese case, featuring close to 300 varieties, all of which can be cut to order. “A lot of customers come in and want smaller pieces or bigger pieces so we do everything fresh cut,” says Antonio Evans, cheese team leader. “We tell people not to be intimidated by size because there are ways to preserve it and we tell them how.”

Over at the coffee and gelato bar each cup is made fresh, using Trifecta machines. “Every cup is actually ground fresh. When you order a cup they are going to get the beans, grind it on the spot and brew it,” Donovan says, adding that each day six different blends from Orchard Fresh’s 30 whole bean options are available.

On the grocery aisles national brands are few and far between. “Most of our vendors are direct,” Donovan says. “We search across the country, and in some cases the world, to find different unique vendors. We have more than 60 direct vendors who ship directly to us. When you walk down our aisles you see a lot of unique brands. This is something that is really important to us.”

Also of importance is reaching out to specific communities. “We’ve done Vegan Days here where we have vegan specials from 4 o’clock to 8 o’clock and then we leave the store open an extra hour on Sunday night and closed all the non-vegan departments,” Donovan says. “People appreciated that. It is the same thing with gluten-free. Gluten-Free Support Group Chapter 33 is in here every single weekend shopping. They love us.”

So apparently does every other food lover in Buffalo, and with good reason.

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