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What's in Store: Focus on fresh
Rouses' seafood department plays up Gulf Coast species, supports fishing community
By Christine Blank
January 01, 2009
The smell of Cajun-boiled crawfish and shrimp greets
customers as they walk through the doors of a Rouses grocery
store in Louisiana or Mississippi. The unmistakable aroma is a
reminder of good times and great food shared with family and
Playing up local flavors and supporting local fishermen is
the philosophy of Rouses grocery chain in Thibodaux, La.
Starting out as a small produce market in the 1920s, Rouses has
grown to include 34 stores in Mississippi and Louisiana that
range in size from a few thousand square feet to up to 62,000
square feet. A year ago, the small chain acquired 21 stores
from A&P and is looking to expand to more towns along the
Mississippi Gulf Coast that have not had a grocery store since
Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
After the acquisition, Rouses brought in grocery consultant
Rick Heatherington as director of seafood merchandising and
operations. Heatherington, along with Rouses president Donald
Rouse and other executives transformed Rouses' seafood
departments into the place in Louisiana to buy local
"Local is really important down here and gives us an
advantage over Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie: We can source fresh
fish," says Heatherington. He and the chain's seafood managers
are on the phone most of the day with fishermen and
distributors arranging shipments.
While Rouses remains competitive with Wal-Mart and
Dixie on price, according to Rouse, the chain
differentiates itself from other grocery retailers with Cajun
specialty meats, its smokehouse and fresh, local seafood.
Supporting fishermen in Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf
Coast has not only been a boon for the local seafood industry,
it has also increased sales for Rouses. Since it began a fresh,
local sourcing initiative in December 2007, seafood department
sales have increased by about 65 percent, year over year.
One seafood item is featured on the front page of the
chain's weekly circular, which is unusual for many grocery
chains. In the ads, Rouses includes information on the local
fishing boat or company from which they purchased the seafood,
such as the F/V Ana Marie in Grand Isle, La.
Rouses also launched a marketing campaign earlier this year
to support local seafood, "Where the Chefs Shop." Renowned
Louisiana chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and executive chefs from
Brennan's restaurants and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse are appearing
in TV ads promoting the chain.
But the best marketing for Rouses' local seafood is the
sights and smells inside the store, which are designed to feel
like a local fish market with a wide variety of offerings.
Rouses boils Cajun crawfish and shrimp daily in season, and
holds crawfish boils outside on the weekend, going through
12,000 to 14,000 pounds of crawfish a weekend.
"We have become a destination for hot boiled crawfish. Last
year, we went through about 5 million pounds," says
Local blue crabs, which are in season in April or May, are
also boiled in each store. Fresh Pontchartrain Blue Claw crabs
were selling for $10.99 a pound in late November. Even Alaska
snow crab legs in season are flown in fresh and boiled in
Rouse's Cajun spices.
The Cajun-flavored seafood is added to hot tables that are
set up in most of its stores. With about 10 trays, Rouse's
offers boiled crabs, boiled crawfish, potatoes, turkey necks,
sausage and vegetables.
Rouses buys about three truckloads a month of head-on, wild
Louisiana shrimp from suppliers such as Dean Blanchard Seafood
Co. of Grand Isle, La.
"Our shoppers put it on the table, 30 to 40 pounds at a
barbecued shrimps and stews during the summer," says
Heatherington. One of Rouse's holiday specialties is also
cocktail shrimp, cooked in Cajun spices and sold in rings.
"Those cocktail rings account for 6 to 8 percent of seafood
department sales for the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving,"
Another popular local item is Mississippi catfish, but that
is slightly more expensive than in the past, after some ponds
closed because of high expenses. Still, Rouses is able to sell
catfish for around $3.89 a pound for fillets and sells about
10,000 to 12,000 pounds a week chain-wide when it is on
Gulf Coast oysters are another popular item, and Rouses goes
through them fast in the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.
At $8.99 for a pint of shucked oysters, Rouse's goes through
4,000 to 5,000 pounds a week before the holiday.
Bags of live oysters from local suppliers such as Crystal
Seas of Pass Christian, Miss., are also displayed along with
self-serve, head-on shrimp.
Because Gulf Coast residents use a lot of crawfish during
the year-end holiday season, Rouses had several thousand pounds
of Louisiana crawfish tail meat frozen last spring. In the
three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Rouses had sold around
$60,000 worth of the crawfish meat. "We have received a lot of
compliments that we had it available; [customers] would have
had to buy Chinese farmed crawfish," says Heatherington.
It is those efforts to bring in local flavors and seafood
that Heatherington hopes will keep locals coming into Rouses'
stores for years to come.
Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary,