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FRESH FOOD: Meat Case Study: Pioneering a branded pork program

Forth's Foods, Inc. isn't apt to make rash decisions when it comes to altering the lineup of its highly regarded fresh meat departments -- but this is one grocer that has learned it sometimes pays to mess, just a little, with success.

The Huntington, W.V.-based company operates what Mike Mazzone, meat and deli director, describes as "very traditional grocery stores where service and quality are key." A strong fresh food philosophy is the grocer's claim to fame in an ad-driven market where most retailers live and die by price points, including formidable competitors Wal-Mart and Kroger.

One of Forth's not-so-secret weapons: a fresh meat program that relies in no small measure on branded programs.

"Even though our own FoodFair brand is highly regarded, the relationships we've forged with premier packing companies have been very, very successful, not only because of the POS and training support, but particularly the consistency of product," affirms Mazzone.

Forth's launched Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions' branded premium Tender Choice, last August, roughly two years after the grocer bowed a signature branded beef program.

"A branded program provides consistency, from both a product quality and procurement standpoint," notes Mazzone. He also credits such programs for allowing meat managers to "cut out a lot of rogue suppliers. When you're buying from a variety of companies, you're simply negotiating loads, bringing them in, and hoping for the best."

Hand-cut, self-serve

Although Forth's 13 FoodFair retail stores feature only self-service meat sets in all stores, "everything is still hand-cut and processed in our stores by meat and deli managers," says Mazzone. This best-of-both-worlds strategy "has certainly given us a significant competitive advantage in our marketplace," where many of the large competitors are already well entrenched with case-ready meat programs, he adds.

To be sure, the lack of a service meat case has hardly hampered FoodFair's strong meat reputation. According to Mazzone, "Our meat managers have strong backgrounds in conventional meat-cutting; they work out on the floor quite a lot and have lots of customer interaction."

Mazzone says Tender Choice clicked "right off the bat," thanks to Cargill Meat Solutions pork specialist Kip Padgelek, who played a key role in launching the program.

Forth's kicked off the program with six feature items in the fourth quarter, a period Mazzone says is notoriously tough for some proteins, especially fresh pork, because of the large amount of attention given to traditional holiday turkey and ham features.

The grocer played up the program's debut on the front page of its ad circular, with eye-catching logos. "We brought in large orders over two consecutive weeks," reports Mazzone.

To pave the way, Forth's and Cargill held extensive training sessions for meat department staff. Noted Mazzone, "We set up grills and prepared thick center-cut pork chops for all of our meat managers, to give them a first-hand chance to get to know the product and, in turn, get behind it."

The partners also hosted a highly successful promotional contest for FoodFair meat managers six weeks before Thanksgiving, with 10 merchandised cuts. "During that time of year, we were really impressed to see about $130,000 in fresh pork sales," says Mazzone. "We were extremely pleased with the percentage increase, which was also reflected in very favorable November and December fresh pork sales gross profits."


The makings of a 'porkchops and applesauce' partnership

Last August, Huntington, W.V.-based Forth's Foods, Inc. and its meat and deli director, Mike Mazzone, made a strategic -- and ultimately fortuitous -- decision to convert from a disparately sourced pork program to Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions' branded premium Tender Choice pork line.

After reviewing the entire Tender Choice product mix, Forth Foods, which operates and also supplies a 22-store local FoodFair ad group, saw immediate increases in fresh pork volume.

Kelly Perrier, Cargill Meat Solutions' pork brand manager, says the dramatic volume increase resulting after the conversion was the direct result of Forth's Foods' adherence to high standards and attention to detail.

"It's very important to kick off a branded meat program properly," explains Perrier. "It's very motivating to see their hard work paying off, which enables them to stand behind the brand and feel good about what they're offering their customers, who are also noticing the details that they put into their service and merchandising."

The Forth's Foods-Cargill Tender Choice partnership has been seamless from the start, according to Perrier. "They pride themselves on service and presenting the program as well as possible, by using the product and POS materials we're providing to them, to create uniform case sets" that further enhance the retailer's own brand and image.

In turn, Cargill's Tender Choice team "takes great pride in our brand's pledge to be 'tender, juicy, and delicious' every time," says Perrier, citing independent studies that find Tender Choice to be approximately 30 percent more tender than traditional pork. Further, she adds, the premium pork brand, which has been on the market for about 10 years, is color-graded and adheres to consistent trim specs, which also elevate the overall cooking and eating experience.

Perrier says Cargill is in the process of releasing an update to Tender Choice's current proprietary brine, with a 25 percent reduced-sodium content that she says has been found to be better accepted by consumers, based on feedback of recent consumer and analytical studies.

With an eye on meeting customers’ specific and unique needs, Cargill tailors its mix by "providing a variety of SKUs and cuts -- everything from larger primal cuts for further processing at individual stores, as well as case-ready cuts, half-cut loins, and an array of fresh ham products," says Perrier. "In addition to working closely with its retail partners to develop programs based on their exact needs and requirements, we also track trends in the marketplace to help them" stay ahead of what’s next, she adds.

"Consumers remain in search of portable indulgences," observes Perrier, and this also applies in the meat case. It's imperative that retailers offer "quality premium meat brands consumers can become familiar with and trust," and that are also well merchandised. Consumers don't want surprises when preparing premium proteins, but instead "want to know they're going to have a consistent taste with a product that they can take pride in serving to their family and friends."

Generally speaking, shoppers often make fresh pork purchases on impulse rather than on a planned basis. For that reason, says Perrier, "It's especially important to have a full case set, including seasonal promotions with recipes available to give consumers new ideas and twists that fit well with their established dinner routines."

Forth's Foods' big fight

Huntington, W.V.-based Forth's Foods Inc., faces two huge and tough chain competitors, Wal-Mart and Kroger, "the latter of which has been a key competitor of ours for years," says meat and deli director Mike Mazzone.

Those rivals and others have presented Forth's Foods with more than its fair share of adversity, Mazzone says. With 13 corporately owned FoodFair stores, Forth's is one of the last of the remaining independents in the market, but the 40-year-old grocer "has been able to stay competitive and see growth in both our retail stores and our warehouse."

Indeed, the warehouse is key: It's a thriving full-service dry grocery, frozen food, fresh meat, and fresh produce distribution center, which in addition to supplying the retailer's own FoodFair units, also services about 10 family-owned grocers operating in an approximate 80-mile radius of the facility. (Forth's Foods uses Supervalu as a secondary supplier and primary retail support services provider.)

With this additional business, Forth's Foods has forged an ad group of more than 20 stores that "buys direct from national organizations," explains Mazzone. The wholesale business provides steady growth, and Mazzone also credits it with "keeping us strong. We can bring groceries to the back door as cheaply as some of the big retailers can.

"Even though we're a small independent, we offer big advantages over larger chains," he continues. "We pride ourselves on the fact that a customer can go into any one of our stores and know they can get the same high-quality meat products in one store that they can in another."

The underpinnings of Forth's Foods' efficient meat procurement and marketing operations are "a very sophisticated ordering and inventory program," adds Mazzone. "We're online with all of our stores, which have constant access to [product movement and demand] information, which has also really helped us stay strong and competitive."
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