« July 2007 Table of Contents
Case Study: Training pays off
Heinen's Fine Foods earns seafood destination reputation
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
"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,"
Heinen's, founded by Joseph Heinen in 1929 as a small meat
market, is still family-held and does not release sales and
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,