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Boston UnCommon


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Roche Bros. reincarnates a beloved Boston landmark with a vibrant store servicing a booming downtown. buildingWhat does the new 25,000-square-foot Roche Bros. supermarket in the heart of downtown Boston have in common with an 187,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter? The answer is easy. Both have 19 checkout lanes. However, unlike a typical Walmart, at Roche Bros. all 19 lanes are open most of the day. They simply have to be in order to handle the throngs of customers shopping the store. “Given the urban nature of the store, the traffic here is significant,” says Paul McGillivray, vice president, sales and merchandising, at Wellesley Hills, Mass.-based Roche Bros. “Sometimes we’re getting more than one visit a day from the same customer. We have extremely high customer counts.” Christine Damour, a sales rep for Rutherford & Meyer, a Wellington, New Zealand-based gourmet food manufacturer, can personally attest to the beehive of activity. She was in Roche Bros. on a recent Thursday sampling its new Honey Plus fruit-infused honey spreads. “This store is just phenomenal,” she says. “I’ve been calling on Roche Bros. for more than 20 years and this is just amazing… just amazing,” pointing to a completely empty six-shelf end cap across from her station that had displayed bottled water. “This was full when I walked in at 10:30. This area needed this—big time. And I’m expecting it to only get busier and busier.” That is because Roche Bros. is filling a gap in downtown Boston—in more ways than one. It occupies a small part of the first floor and the entire basement level of the historic Burnham Building, an ornate Beaux Arts structure that had been the home of Filene’s department store and Filene’s Basement—a subterranean clearance store famous for its automatic mark-down system—for decades. Filene’s closed in 2006 when parent The May Co. was acquired by Macy’s, which operates a store across the street. Filene’s Basement shuttered shortly thereafter when Vornado Realty Trust acquired the site with plans to redevelop it into a massive office complex. That stalled when the 2008 recession hit, leaving just the shell of the Burnham Building and a two-story deep pit where other, less historical annexes of Filene’s were torn down. New York-based developer Millennium Partners eventually took over the site and redeveloped it. In addition to Roche Bros., the Burnham Building houses the headquarters of Havas Media and sister advertising agency Arnold Worldwide, along with the future U.S. flagship of Irish fast-fashion retailer Primark, opening later this year. Behind it, the 625-foot Millennium Tower, a 442-unit luxury apartment tower, is nearing completion. Other high rises have brought thousands of additional residents to downtown. Prior to Roche Bros.’ opening in late April, residents had to travel more than a mile to a Whole Foods or the Star Market (formerly Shaw’s) near the Prudential Center, or shop the limited selections at CVS. “This is really changing from strictly a shopping/working neighborhood to a living neighborhood,” McGillivray says, “and the residents are quite thrilled with the presence of a market within their neighborhood.” “When we were opening, a lot of the excitement we heard from the residents was about buying perishables—things they could cook with—like produce, meat and fish,” says Dena Zigun, director of marketing. However, for shoppers entering through the Summer Street street level entrance, the emphasis is on prepared foods. A second basement level entrance opens directly onto the T Concourse underground corridor linking two of Boston’s subway lines. cartShoppers strolling down the Summer Street pedestrian mall are drawn in by the store’s bright umbrellas, outdoor seating, farmers market-style produce and floral displays and a Roche Bros. hand delivery cart used for the “You Shop, We Deliver” consumer delivery service and for catering orders to nearby offices. “With the bulk of the store being in the basement it is really important for us to have the street presence both on the sidewalk and with the expanded prepared foods shop,” McGillivray says. “It is more of a ‘welcome’ design for the customer, rather than just step onto an escalator, and it gives us the opportunity to appeal to the breakfast and lunch business in particular because we have a very strong workday population.” The first floor definitely entices with prepared foods. A glass-walled cookie oven is the first thing shoppers see—and smell—when they walk through the door, along with cinnamon buns, Belgium waffles and blueberry muffins. “Jordan Marsh (now Macy’s) was famous for their blueberry muffins, and we are happy to carry on that tradition by selling excellent muffins,” Zigun says. “We are very busy in the morning, right at 7 o’clock when we open the doors,” adds Larry Baxter, store manager. Office workers love the expedient service. “There are plenty of people in the morning that stop by to buy their lunch as well,” McGillivray says. “One of the things that sets us apart from foodservice competitors like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts is the variety of product that the customer is able to buy. We have cut fruit, tapas trays and sushi upstairs. We designed this store all about speed and service upstairs.” That has resulted in some unique operating practices. “We have a lot of production done at night,” Baxter says. “In the middle of the night we’ll set up the salad bar so the customer coming in at 7 o’clock in the morning can purchase a salad on their way into work.” Downtown Crossing has a much more extensive selection of prepared foods than other Roche Bros. stores. “The consumer is able to put together a complete meal of our hot bar along with numbers of prepackaged options and they are able to check out very quickly,” McGillivray says. “The whole shopping experience for prepared foods is quick and simple—and separate and distinct from the downstairs supermarket shopping experience.” Still, the majority of shoppers make their way downstairs. In fact, come 11 a.m. a non-stop stream of them board the escalator and the traffic does not let up until after 2 p.m. The scene is repeated during the 5:30 - 7:30 dinner rush. A down escalator in Boston has not seen action like this since the Basement’s famous “Running of the Brides” wedding gown blowout sale. Shoppers disembarking the escalator can head in several directions—cheese, produce and floral to the left; meat and seafood to the right; and the Fresh & Ready Chef Island of prepared foods (entrées, salads and side dishes), sushi, bakery and wing bar straight ahead. “Chef Island is a whole different prepared foods experience than what you get upstairs,” McGillivray says. “While upstairs is about speed and service, this is much more about shop, look, decide and maybe taste. It gives you the opportunity to put together something more custom and unique for yourself.” Jewelry-Style Cases Even the display cases are unique—all glass squares that showcase the product. “It is relatively new, a jewelry-style case,” McGillivray says. “It has a department store feel, and given its position at the food by the down escalator we really were looking for something stunningly beautiful and dramatic.” Downstairs has an “urban” architectural style of dark grays, stainless steel and a polished concrete floor. The architects saved some touches from the original building, including a terra cotta ceiling and steel support columns. “This is all designed to make the product pop, so the colors are very neutral and all the colorful stuff is the product,” Zigun says. In the meat department about two-thirds of the sales come from the service case. Since steaks are merchandised individually in cast iron skillets and chopped meat is packed into long stainless steel trough pans that enhance the presentation and retard browning, it is easy to see why. Seafood in the neighboring seafood case is from Foley’s of Boston, supplier to many of the city’s leading hotels and restaurants. The selection includes a wide variety of whole fish, fillets and prepared items. About a dozen varieties of pick-your-own live oysters are merchandised from quart wooden baskets at the front of the case. The deli department along the back wall features store-made charcuterie meats, along with the Dietz & Watson and Thumann’s brands. At the Salad Bowl counter, shoppers take a pre-packaged bowl of salad greens and then have a clerk add proteins, like chicken or shrimp, and other accoutrements, like olives, roasted corn, hot peppers and cheese. “This came right out of a New York-style salad bowl that you see everywhere there,” McGillivray says. “We don’t have a salad bar downstairs, so it gives our shoppers down here a chance to personalize their salad.” Opposite the Salad Bowl a hot bar features soups and wings. Across from it the bakery department is in the middle of the sales floor, featuring a variety of store-made, commissary and local vendor crusty breads, doughnuts, scones, pies, cakes and other desserts. The cupcakes are all-natural and infused with pastry cream on the inside to keep them extra moist. A pick-your-own cookie bar allows shoppers to mix-and-match more than 40 varieties of cookies by the pound. “We’re doing a lot of small sizes because it is a nice portion-controlled indulgence that still allows people to splurge,” Zigun says. On the flip side, large cakes are strong sellers. “There was no place downtown to get cakes for office celebrations, so our sheet cake business has been robust,” Zigun says. Across from bakery, a Kyo Sushi counter lures in a non-stop stream of customers. The line of customers is equally robust at the Grab & Go case running perpendicular to the perishables departments. Featuring many of the same items sold in the Chef Island, it also stocks Roche Bros.’ $5 Bowl—hearty entrées that are only $5 a serving. On a recent visit, 15 different items were available including lobster mac & cheese, chicken lo mein, shrimp scampi and chicken tikka massala. The produce department is at the front of the store. A large bay window allows commuters descending the Downtown Crossing T staircase to peer inside. “They get to look in on all this bright, fresh food,” Zigun says. The department contains a mix of local, conventional and unusual products, like rambutan, dragon fruit and fuzzy squash. “We have a few more Asian focused items just because of our proximity to Chinatown a few blocks away,” she says. “The idea here is that you’ll always find your staples, but it is fun to find new things too.” And the merchandising is creative. Bananas, for example, are suspended like frying pans from a wire rack around one of the steel pillars. “They’ve been really popular this way. It is easier to shop and a little bit more fun,” Zigun says. Produce is cut in-store, in the cutely titled Chop Shop department. “Everything is geared toward households of one or two people,” Zigun says. “On the asparagus they break off the bottom that you can’t eat and give you a little cup of basting oil. It is an ovenable tray so you just add the oil and put it into an oven or toaster oven.” A smoothie bar is also part of the offering. The neighboring floral department has a “cold curtain” to keep it at the proper temperature. Orchids are big sellers, along with other small plants for offices and apartments, plus small individual floral arrangements that are ideal for putting atop a desk. cheeseshopMozzarella is made fresh in-store daily in the adjacent Cheese Shop and sold by the piece, as well as used in Caprese trays and other store-prepared dishes. Two cases are devoted to local New England cheeses. “We are a member of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild,” Zigun says. “There are some artisan producers in particular that are trying to get off the ground, and some bigger players like Cabot and Jasper Hill. Throughout the year we’ll bring in small artisans that only have enough cheese for a day or two, do a special sale and let them sample their cheeses.” The grocery department shelves are higher than in suburban stores to maximize space. While the selection is broad, it is tailored. Overstock is placed on the top shelf to compensate for the lack of backroom storage. “We have fewer facings,” McGillivray says. “We cut back on sizes. We tried to eliminate duplication in favor of a full assortment.” That shortcoming should be rectified in next year’s expansion. But even with its tailored grocery and frozen food selections Roche Bros. at Downtown Crossing is an unabashed hit. “We get a lot of comments from our customers saying they really miss Filene’s Basement, but if it really has to not be here anymore we are a great alternative,” says Zigun. Even the Filenes agree. “On behalf of my family, the Filene family, we are incredibly happy that a local company will do what my great grandfather and great uncle did for so many years... serve the people of Boston with the best products they could. We are very happy and wish you all the success,” Bill Ladd, great grandson of Lincoln Filene wrote to Roche Bros. management. Special Delivery Operating an urban store can bring unbridled rewards in terms of traffic, sales and volume, but also unique difficulties, especially in downtown Boston, where the streets were laid out in the early 1700s. “Deliveries certainly pose a problem,” says Larry Baxter, store manager of Roche Bros. at Downtown Crossing in Boston. “The biggest truck you can get down the street where we get our deliveries is probably 36 feet, no 18 wheelers. We try to keep the trucks to 32 feet, and you have to be a really good driver. It is a hollow sidewalk over there, so they can’t pull up over the sidewalk.” Plus it is a one-way street and there are only two bays. “We probably get about 45 deliveries a day, so we have to space that out,” Baxter says. That makes night deliveries popular. “We can only have one truck at a time, and you can’t keep trucks on the street because the police come by and move them along, so the truckers have to keep driving around the block.” Then there are the receiving issues. “Our receiving is on street level and everything has to go down a freight elevator, so that takes longer too,” Baxter says. “We need smaller pallets because it is very narrow down there. Our receiving and storage areas are very tight.” Unfinished Basement Everybody could use a bigger basement, but for Roche Bros. at Downtown Crossing that dream is becoming a reality. In mid-2016 the store will add an additional 10,000 square feet of shopping space when it expands into the basement of the Millennium Tower high-rise apartment building, under construction next door. “Our shell is complete but we can’t occupy it until the tower receives its occupancy permits,” says Paul McGillivray, vice president of sales and merchandising at Roche Bros., based in Wellesley Hills, Mass. “The whole design of the store was done with the expansion as part of the project.” According to plans, greatly expanded grocery, dairy and frozen foods departments will occupy the space. Roche Bros. has applied for a beer and wine license and pending approval, a wine department will be installed next to the Cheese Shop, where grocery is currently located. “Probably one of our most requested items is wine,” McGillivray says. “There are not a lot of wine or liquor stores nearby. The Walgreens down the block sells wine but we will have a much bigger wine section with greater assortment.” Jam Packed Roche Bros. prides itself on its selection of locally produced, natural, organic and gourmet foods, including those from Stonewall Kitchen, the York, Maine-based specialty foods producer. “We are the largest retailer for Stonewall Kitchen products,” says Dena Zigun, director of marketing for Wellesley Hills, Mass.-based Roche Bros. It is a pretty impressive accomplishment, given that Roche Bros. only operates 21 stores under the Roche Bros., Sudbury Farms and Brothers Marketplace banners. Roche Bros.’ relationship with Stonewall Kitchen goes back a decade, and in honor of the partnership Stonewall Kitchen developed Wild Maine Blueberry Champagne Jam. Billed as a “celebration in a jar,” the limited-edition flavor is available exclusively at Roche Bros. “We brought back our Wild Maine Blueberry Champagne Jam as a way to celebrate our 10-year anniversary with Roche Bros.,” says Elizabeth “Libby” Madigan, marketing specialist at Stonewall Kitchen. “We brought it back just for them.”
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