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What's in Store: Focus on fresh

Rouses' seafood department plays up Gulf Coast species, supports fishing community

Supporting local fishermen has helped Rouses increase
    seafood sales by 65 percent. - Photo courtesy of Rouses
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 friends.

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 seafood.

"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 Winn-
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 Heatherington.

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 time, for 
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," says Heatherington.

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 special.

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, Fla.

 

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