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Case Study: Training pays off

Heinen's Fine Foods earns seafood destination reputation

 - Photo courtesy of Heinen's Fine Foods
By Lisa Duchene
July 01, 2007

For seafood managers at Heinen's Fine Foods, a 17-store specialty grocery chain in Cleveland, at least one work day a year is, quite literally, a day at the beach. Capturing the fun atmosphere of a seafood meal is an important part of the company's bi-monthly trainings held for seafood managers and any other store employees who want to learn more about seafood, says Marty Gaul, Heinen's seafood buyer/merchandiser.

So this summer, the clambake training will be an actual clambake held on the sandy shores of Lake Erie. Gaul will bring in suppliers to talk about the clams, and teach the seafood employees how to plan and prepare a clambake with all the fixings.

"The company is committed to the investment to educate our people," says Gaul. And the payoff is "in the sales and profitability and, most importantly, in customer satisfaction," she says. "The smarter we are, the more we can sell."

And Heinen's must be selling 
a lot, considering its stellar reputation among local business 

"They are the premiere grocer in this marketplace and they have a high degree of loyalty," says Robert Antall, CEO of LakeWest Group, a Cleveland retail-consulting firm.

Many supermarket companies that are unable to compete with Wal-Mart on price have turned their attention to perishables and service, but Heinen's has had that strategy all along. "The years of experience are really helpful because they get it," says Antall.

Heinen's, founded by Joseph Heinen in 1929 as a small meat market, is still family-held and does not release sales and profitability figures.

The retailer has earned a reputation as a successful, well-managed company among the retail community and its employees, says Antall. Among Cleveland's foodies, Heinen's Fine Foods is known as a source of quality perishables and specialty ingredients.

"We highly recommend [Heinen's] seafood departments," says Ellen Falsgraf, who teaches cooking classes and buys all of the ingredients for the cooking school and private culinary events held at The Viking Store, seller of high-end Viking appliances and kitchenware in the upscale Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst.

In early May, The Viking Store hosted Napa Valley chef Hugh Carpenter, who taught a class of 30 people recipes from his latest book, "Fast Fish." Two days prior, Falsgraf shopped at Heinen's for No. 1 ahi tuna, swordfish, sole, halibut and salmon. "[The fish] has to be perfect," says Falsgraf.

Brian Doyle, who runs World's Fare Culinary, a personal chef service in Cleveland, says Heinen's offers the best seafood of any supermarket in the city. He shops Heinen's seafood department for its great selection, good quality and outstanding service.

How Heinen's delivers on that reputation is due in part to a vision statement Gaul spelled out a few years ago: To be the Cleveland area's seafood department of choice, offering the freshest, highest-quality product available. Gaul's vision describes the store's seafood sales staff as passionate, sales-oriented and educated. "Our pursuit of excellence will deliver growth in sales and profits," she says.

All 17 Heinen's stores offer full-service seafood departments. They are modest in size, all about 16 feet, but like every other department in the store, are bright, clean and crisply merchandised.

The departments emphasize fresh fish and offer about 300 separate SKUs, including about 25 different species of fillet and steak fish, and a large variety of value-added items.

The most popular species, says Gaul, are all-natural catfish, organic farm-raised salmon, yellowfin tuna, swordfish and mahimahi. Popular ready-to-cook, value-added items include instore developed marinades, shrimp and salmon kebabs, and tortilla chip and nut-crusted fillets. Foil bags, filled with marinated fish and vegetables and ready to place on the grill or in the oven, are also extremely popular, says Gaul.

The stores cook Ecuadoran, pond-raised shrimp on-premise as Heinen's signature item, and the company smokes its own salmon at a central warehouse.

Cleveland distributors Euclid Fish and Euro USA deliver to the stores six days a week. "We order to fill the case," says Gaul.

Clevelanders are not as fish-friendly as residents of coastal cities like Boston or Seattle, which, says Gaul, can present a challenge. The key, she says, is weekly product sampling and demos.

"Once they taste it they will continue to come back for it," she says. "That's what we have learned." Many Americans, in an effort to eat healthier foods, appear to be getting over some of their fish phobia. Clevelanders are no exception.

"So many of our customers are health-conscious," says Gaul, "and they know that seafood is the way to go to be healthy."

But consumers also have a boatload of questions about seafood, and that's where the investment in associate training pays off. Demos and one-on-one conversations are the primary seafood education vehicles. The counters are staffed whenever the store is open, and the staff has reference books and the Internet to help field questions that may not have been covered their training.

"We have extremely educated consumers," says Gaul. "I get calls all the time just to talk about fish. People come back from vacation and call to share their knowledge about what they learned."

One customer who visited New Zealand and returned crazy for greenlip mussels demonstrated a few recipes at his local Heinen's this spring.

Helping customers pair wines with various species and flavor profiles of seafood is the next frontier for Heinen's seafood, says Gaul. "[Customers] will come up and ask an associate, 'What wine do you recommend with this particular item?'"

Whether Whole Foods Market challenges Heinen's reign as Cleveland's specialty supermarket king depends on the performance of a new Whole Foods store on Cleveland's east side and a nearby Wild Oats store it controls following the planned merger of the two natural foods chains, says Antall.

But as long as Heinen's customers are as loyal and satisfied as The Viking Store's Falsgraf, Heinen's will be fine.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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