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Frozen Foods Vendor to Open Retail Stores, DCs Across U.S.

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- White Toque, Inc. here, an importer of frozen specialty foods from Europe for the foodservice industry, said yesterday it plans to establish a network of retail stores and distribution centers throughout the country, starting with the Northeastern region.

Calling itself the first company in the United States to open a freestanding frozen food store, White Toque already operates three stores, through its White Toque Retail, LLC division, in Berkley Heights, Secaucus, and Westwood, N.J., opened between Oct. 2003 and November 2004. The stores range between 1,200 and 1,500 square feet, and sell more than 300 products; another 150 are in development to be released over the next two years, the company said.

White Toque's immediate aim is to open 20 to 25 "neighborhood stores" in the New York metropolitan area, according to Didier Amiel, owner. White Toque eventually plans to be "the leader and standard-setter in the specialty frozen food sector," offering the biggest selection of frozen gourmet products, expanding to more locations in the tri-state area, and launching at least 10 new products monthly.

Retail manager Anne-Dominique Funkleder told Progressive Grocer the company is eager to replicate the "success story" of similar retail initiatives in Europe, where retail frozen foods stores are much more common. White Toque also wants to boost brand recognition for its products, she added, and is exploring technology to improve flavor, freshness, safety, and shelf life of its products. Amiel explained that the company is particularly focused in bringing foodservice technology into the retail sector, where frozen foods technology is "quite basic."

Amiel added that the company is also concentrating on recipes, both to create finished dishes that customers can warm up at home, and to provide tips so they can prepare meals with more confidence. While many supermarkets offer no advice on how to cook, "We try to put together a meal for you, so you're going to be looking more like a chef," he said. To assist with this process of helping customers, added Amiel, the company will release a new line of frozen sauces.

Amiel also said he is after economies of scale in order to better position itself to negotiate on prices of certain products that White Toque needs, such as meat, which, as an import business, the company can't bring into the United States.

"Economy of scale is very important for us," he said. He added that the company already knows exactly where its next locations will be: "You have to make sure you have distribution covered."

When asked how the existing stores were performing, Amiel replied that they were seeing "a 55 percent return, which is good."

On a marketing level, White Toque plans to grow its consumer base through targeted promotions and loyalty vouchers.

To implement its expansion and improvement project, White Toque is seeking capital for its retail operations. Investment partners have financed the startup costs, but future needs for capital will be met through sales and new investors.

Currently, White Toque imports 10,000 tons of frozen specialty food annually, with 15 years of experience in the foodservice business and direct sales to more than 250 distributors in the United States. It operates six satellites sales offices, two distribution centers, and 12 contracted warehouses across the country.

--Bridget Goldschmidt
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