Doing the local-motion

Fields Foods takes the local movement to new heights by stocking thousands of locally-produced groceries, meat, produce and other items in an architecturally striking store set on a hilltop overlooking downtown St. Louis. 

I was not local.butcher

That would be a fitting epitaph for a certain national brand of frozen pizza that is not being carried in Fields Foods, the newest entrant to the St. Louis supermarket scene.

Since its January opening in Lafayette Square, a resurgent neighborhood that still carries a somewhat sketchy reputation, Fields Foods has thrived in what was a food desert. The store is attracting residents of various income levels from not only the immediate area, but also foodies from throughout the city and even “the County,” as St. Louis’ ritzy outer suburbs are referred to by the locals.

“People are driving in from 40, 50, 60 miles away,” says Jeff Randol Sr., one of the principals in St. Louis-based Fields Foods along with real estate developer and former police commissioner Chris Goodson. “That’s unheard of in St. Louis for two reasons. One, people don’t like to travel that much, and there is still a stigma that this neighborhood is not all that safe. We are helping to overcome that.”

They are drawn in by Fields Foods’ unparalleled assortment of locally produced products—7,000 in grocery alone. They including coffee, jams, barbecue sauce, honey, beer, wine, ice cream, eggs, milk and meats merchandised in an attractive environment that includes antique-looking accoutrements coupled with outstanding service and amenities. For example, the wine bar has a concierge service that lets shoppers sit back and enjoy a glass of wine or beer while a store associate does their shopping for them.

Once the summer growing season gets under way and Fields Foods taps into its growing network of small, family farms in Missouri and Illinois, the number of locally produced items will really skyrocket, store officials say. Local products are given prominence on the shelves and highlighted with special green “LOCAL—sustainably grown & produced” shelf tags. They can be seen in every aisle of every department.

Take the frozen pizza set.

Three of its six doors are devoted to local brands. “The TJ’s sells like crazy, and the Dogtown sells equally good,” says Jeff N. Randol Jr., director of marketing and community development. “We can’t keep them in stock.”

He is not kidding. On a recent visit the local doors were half empty, while the adjacent ones with the national brands sat fully stocked.

“Most stores have all different kinds of pizzas and we did when we opened, but the national brand pizzas just sat and sat and sat,” says Nathan Eickermann, co-director. “They sat except for the Amy’s, and we have California Pizza Kitchen and a few DiGiorno because they have some movement. But we have three doors of local because that is what people want.”

Eickermann is the former co-manager of Culinaria, market leader Schnuck Markets’ upscale urban format store that opened in 2009 two miles away in the heart of downtown. Until Fields Foods opened that was where Lafayette Square residents had to go to shop, unless they visited a lower-end Schnucks two miles in the other direction on S. Grand, or drove more than nine miles out to suburban Brentwood.

“Our shoppers on the more affluent side of the spectrum would most likely have been going down to Brentwood, which is where you can get Schnucks, Dierbergs and Whole Foods all in close proximity,” Randol Sr. says.

To some extent, the traffic is now going in the opposite direction. Fields Foods’ location near the I-44/55-70 interchange allows for easy access from the suburbs.

“People will come down here from Ellisville and Chesterfield, a good 30 minutes away, and shop not only because they enjoy our product, but because they are learning about our area,” says Goodson. He adds that Lafayette Square—built around one of the oldest urban parks west of the Mississippi—is now home to bed-and-breakfasts, trendy restaurants and boutiques.

That is a big change from the past when the area was filled with dilapidated and abandoned houses, and dominated by dangerous 17-story low-income housing projects, and the old City Hospital complex that had been abandoned since 1985.

The projects were torn down and replaced with mixed-use apartments and homes, while Goodson renovated City Hospital into a 104-unit luxury condo, where the units go from $180,000 to $280,000—a princely sum by St. Louis standards. The block of nine or 10 ramshackle, abandoned homes missing roofs and back walls directly across from the hospital were torn down and replaced with a Walgreens and then Fields Foods.

“That Walgreens has become one of the most successful Walgreens around, doing more than $9 million in sales,” Goodson says. “I know Walgreens isn’t a sexy thing to write home about, but it has been great here because it has proven that you can be successful in this neighborhood.”

The preppy professionals, empty nesters and trendy twenty-somethings that moved in have proven to be the perfect Fields Foods customer. “They believe in healthy eating,” Goodson says. “Every town may be this way, but St. Louis is very parochial, meaning they really love the local aspect. In fact, when InBev bought out Anheuser-Busch,

Anheuser-Busch sales fell 35% in the metropolitan area the next year because people were mad. Now we have a lot of craft beers that have cropped up that we stock, and a lot of those are from former A-B executives who took a buyout offer or lost their job.”

One of them is company heir William K. Busch, whose St. Louis-based William K. Busch Brewing Co.’s new Kräftig Light six-packs are prominently featured in the craft beer case. It is just one of hundreds of new local products making a splash.

“We’ve been here two months now and we already have 160-plus local vendors—and that is before growing season,” says Randol Jr. “We have relationships with another 50 to 75 growers that will be here, so by the spring we will have at least 225 local vendors representing close to 10% of our store. I don’t think there is another full-service store out there that has 10% local.”

Weekend samples
One potential problem with having such a large assortment of local products is that consumers may be wary of the quality and not know what makes them as good as if not better than the less expensive national brands. Fields Foods overcomes that hurdle by inviting six to eight vendors to come in every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and set up card tables throughout the store to sample their products.craftbrews

“The customers love that interaction,” Eickermann says. “This really allows the owners to promote and sell their product. And I can attest that often once you try that product you won’t go back to the other one.”

Plus, sometimes the big chains are reluctant to deal with a small mom and pop firm that is not able to pay slotting fees or supply dozens of stores. “We will take anybody and talk to anybody, and if it sounds like a good fit for us we will try it,” Eickermann says.

Fields Foods defines local as being grown, sourced or manufactured within a 150 to 300 mile radius. These local products, as well as organic, gluten-free and vegan, are prominently featured on the shelf.

“Anything that is local, gluten-free or organic is all at eye level. It is not on the bottom or hidden, but right in front of you. Face it, if anyone comes in and wants Oreos, they are going to find the Oreos, but we can show them unique products,” Eickermann says.
“We are not doing the vendor game where they dictate where they are on our shelf space. We dictate it,” Randol Jr. adds.

That is why local vendor Park Avenue Coffee has the premiere spot in the coffee aisle. “He is right down the street, has three shops and we worked with him to get his coffee in here. It has been selling like crazy. He even made us our own blend,” Randol Jr. says.

“He comes in every day for a delivery,” Eickermann says. “Every day. We sell so much of it.”

Goodson says, “Park Avenue Coffee and 33 Wine Shop, which manages our beer and wine department, operate in here and connect us with the locals. We didn’t want to come in here and be competitors. We wanted that local theme.”

The local theme begins when shoppers walk through the door, pass the small floral department and head into produce. During the winter local product is not that common, but there are Japanese white sweet potatoes from Yellow Tree Farms in St. Louis and bagged salads and hydroponically grown “living lettuce” from B&H Produce Farm based in New Haven, Mo.

Across from produce is the Amish deli counter, featuring a huge assortment of Troyer meats and cheeses from Columbus, Ohio.

“Troyer products are delicious,” Randol Jr. says. “They do very well and the prices are 30%-40% less than Boar’s Head or the other premium brands. We are also the Midwest distributor for Troyer’s, so if a restaurant or local deli wants to come in and buy a whole brick of cheese we are happy to sell to them.”

St. Louis Food Hub    
Salads and entrées, artfully arranged on decorative plates and platters, are featured in another case. All are prepared in the St. Louis Food Hub, as the commissary in the back of the store is known.

Fields Foods has a larger back room than most stores with a comparable selling floor because future plans call for the store to do manufacturing and distribution. A smoker creates meaty, mouth-watering St. Louis-style ribs, while a flash freezer will freeze local produce so it can be sold frozen year-round.

“We expect to be distributing bagged lunches to charter schools, selling entrées to restaurants, all that stuff,” says Randol Jr. “We originally got started as a distribution company for local product. Now we’re able to buy a lot more local in higher quantities and push it out on business-to-consumer and business-to-business.”

Not everything is prepared in the back room. Cakes are decorated in view of the bar stool seating at the deli counter while meats are cut and trimmed right on the selling floor in plain site of the customer on a glass-encased Corian cutting board with a hole in the middle for the trimmings.

“You won’t see this in any other store,” Eickermann says.

“It just creates that fun butcher shop experience,” Randol Jr. says. “We can custom-cut anything on demand. If you want a two-inch thick Porterhouse steak we will cut it for you.”

Among the selection is local heritage pork from Rain Crow Ranch, based in Doniphan, Mo. “It is part of our effort to focus on products that are unique and local. Rain Crow is a huge seller,” Randol Jr. says.

In the dairy case there is Farm Fresh brand milk from across the river in Chester, Ill. Farm Fresh is still packaged in old-fashioned return for deposit glass bottles.

“People love the fact that they can come in here, get the glass bottles, bring them back and do all of that,” Randol Jr. says.

Natural and organic products are interspersed with conventional product, with the noted exception of frozen vegan items.

“About 50% of our store is natural and organic and we don’t separate it, but we did take three doors and made it just vegan products because we have a lot of vegans coming in and they are not used to being able to find vegan among the traditional products,” Randol Jr. says. “We’re trying to retrain them, but for the time being we are keeping it this way.”

More HBC
Fields Foods management continues to tinker with product assortment. The bulk food section is being expanded by eight feet because of its popularity, while private label soda is kicking the can in favor of local pops. Change is also afoot in the HBC aisle.

“We are redoing and expanding our HBC aisle by eight feet,” Randol Jr. says. “Right now we’ve got a lot of typical [wholesaler] AWG sets, but we are expanding into more high-end and organic things.”

Management initially played down HBC because of the Walgreens across the parking lot. “With Walgreens being here first we assumed that our customers would do their grocery shopping here and then continue to go to Walgreens. That is just not happening. They are here and they want to do it all in one place,” Eickermann says.

“There is a lot that you can’t get at Walgreens in terms of organics and some other things,” Randol Jr. says. “That is why we are changing.”

One thing that will not be changing is the wine bar at the front of the store. Part of the wine and beer department, it offers table and stool seating and sells wine by the glass along with two local beers on tap.

“Fields Foods has become a place to be seen. People talk and say, ‘Hey, I’ll meet you there.’ That is why we implemented this concept with the wine bar. You come here, get comfortable, go shop and talk with somebody you haven’t seen in a while,” Goodson says.
“Every day we are becoming more and more of a destination,” Eickermann says. “People are meeting down here. They are having drinks down here before they go out to dinner or whatever. It is not just a grocery store and not just a bar. It is an atmosphere.”

Randol Jr. says that can be witnessed in the Fields Foods mantra—Creating Healthier Communities One Bite at a Time. “We just want to create a healthier community,” he says. “We believe it all starts with food and then just expands from there. We are creating healthier options for food, creating a place for neighbors to meet and greet and just hang out and have fun and enjoy. We are what a grocery store used to be.”

More Fields—near and afar
Look for more Fields Foods to be cultivated—throughout the country.

Based on the success of the initial St. Louis outlet, company officials are already exploring expansion opportunities for the store which specializes in selling locally-sourced and produced product.

“We are looking at some possibilities here in this urban area, along with other markets,” says Chris Goodson, principal. “With our model we want to be in a food desert, but a food desert that is seeing sustainable growth. We’ve identified a few locations here in the urban area that fit that model, along with some other smaller towns. We don’t have to be limited to a big city. It can be a town of 50- to 60,000 that is seeing its Main Street come back alive.”

Additional stores in the St. Louis area might be able to operate with a smaller footprint because the flagship Lafayette Square store contains the back room Food Hub commissary where prepared foods are created.

“Every store will not have a Food Hub,” says Jeff Randol Jr., director of marketing and community development. “In St. Louis, this is the Food Hub and it will be used for other stores as we expand in the area. Then when we go to Denver we will have a Food Hub that will service stores in that market, when we go to Arkansas we will have a Food Hub, and when we go to wherever we will have a Food Hub.”

Strong local foundation
At Fields Foods there is a local flare to everything—even the charitable efforts. While many supermarkets encourage customers to “round up” their sales checks for the big, national charities, like MDA or Make-A-Wish, Fields Foods has adopted a local charity, the St. Louis Police Foundation.

The St. Louis Police Department operates on such a tight budget that there is little expenditure on technology, equipment and improved training. Since its founding in 2007, the foundation has donated $3 million for vests, canines, guns, bomb squad equipment, helicopters and other necessities, along with an additional $3 million towards the construction of the new police headquarters.

“We really wanted to come into the community and help, and we didn’t want to have a national charity that people do not feel they have an ownership to,” says Jeff Randol Jr., director of marketing and community development at Fields Foods. “Our police don’t get enough federal dollars for the kind of gear that they need, and crime has gone down a lot in St. Louis since this foundation was established.”

The foundation was co-founded by Chris Goodson, former police commissioner, and now a principal in Fields Foods. “This civic partnership helps make this city safer for its citizens and for the people who risk their lives to protect us,” he says. “Fields Foods is proud to be a part of St. Louis’ long tradition of giving back to the community, and we are happy to help support the men and women that serve and protect our city and country through our donation and discount programs.”

As part of its giving back efforts, Fields Foods has also instituted a 10% discount program to all service members, including members of the police force, fire department, first responders and the military when they show their proper identification.

“Offering a discount to service and military members is our way of thanking them for all that they do; we appreciate them choosing to shop at our store,” says Jeff Randol Sr., principal.

At a fast clip
Officials at Fields Foods not only seek out local groceries, but local technology companies too.

The supermarket has teamed up with Creve Coeur, Mo.-based DealieDo to offer its shoppers an all-electronic cardless loyalty system that delivers targeted manager and manufacturer specials to shoppers’ smartphones.

“DealieDo allows shoppers to download coupons to their smartphones and then swipe their phones at the register so that they can get all of the national discounts without having to clip coupons,” says Jeff Randol Jr., director of marketing and community development at St. Louis-based Fields Foods. “It is like a loyalty program in that it also helps track your purchases and knows which products you buy so that you automatically get a coupon for them if one is available.”

 

 

 

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