VIDEO TOUR: AJ's Fine Foods Strengthens Community Ties
There’s been a grocery store at Central Avenue and Camelback Road in central Phoenix since 1955. It’s a destination for businesspeople, students and everyday shoppers alike.
AJ's Fine Foods
5017 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Original grand-opening date
Total square footage
Selling area square feet
6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
So when Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas’ Family of Stores finally earmarked this AJ’s Fine Foods location for a remodel, it had to be special.
The result, which included a 5,000-square-foot addition, retains the store’s classic heritage while taking a great leap forward in freshness.
“Our goal was to enhance our already expansive offerings, update the overall look and feel to match the store exterior and center upgrades, and add unique features that reaffirm a sense of community and connection for our customers,” says Jayson Mead, the banner’s director of operations.
The remodel gave AJ’s a chance to play catch-up on a few things. “This location has some of our longest and most loyal customers,” Mead notes. “They didn’t have certain things, and they felt left out.”
For example, a sushi bar — there’s finally space for one. Of course, made-to-order sushi is nothing new for grocery stores, so AJ’s had to take it up a notch by adding an assortment of beers on tap, along with wine and sake, for patrons to enjoy while watching the expert sushi chefs hand-roll their orders.
“Our sales are up hundreds of percent — it’s just crazy,” remarks Danny Hosler, the meat, produce, floral and seafood specialist for AJ’s. The sushi bar is enhanced by an 8-foot grab-and-go case for folks who don’t have time to linger. “It sells out daily,” Hosler says. “One of our biggest issues is trying to keep up with it.”
Being special is a must, especially for a store located at what was recently named the “hottest intersection” in metro Phoenix by Urban Land Institute Arizona, a nonprofit land-use organization. Plus it’s the anchor of historic Uptown Plaza, which has been undergoing a center-wide revitalization, taking it back to its mid-century modern roots.
The store is in an urban setting with historic neighborhoods and family homes around the corner, high schools across the street, high-rise office and residential buildings within walking distance, and easy access to light-rail transportation. “Each of these [new store] features brings an element of support to the immediate area,” Mead says, “which enhances our connection to the neighborhood and solidifies the store as a community hub.”
A Culinary Journey
The Central and Camelback store emerged from its refresh a unique location among the 11 locations operating under the AJ’s banner. “The décor and color palette of this location are unlike anything in the rest of the division, and make a visual impact as soon as you walk into the store,” Mead says.
But beyond the appearance, it’s the amenities that set this location apart, starting with the aforementioned sushi bar. “It’s our first store with a wine bar, which features eight wines on tap that change every four to six weeks,” Mead says. “This location is also the first to offer nitro coffee and to have kombucha on tap.”
As at other AJ’s stores, there’s an outdoor patio (here with seating for up to 80), but the remodel added a walk-up coffee window. “Guests can grab a quick cup of coffee, tea or a sweet treat from the Boulangerie,” Mead explains. “We also added bar seating directly inside the main area that looks out onto the patio, which not only adds additional seating, but provides charging stations for guests.”
As for the bakery, Tim Blackburn, AJ’s Bistro/Boulangerie specialist, notes: “Much of what we do is scratch. We’re known for our pastries.” And also for a ridiculous decadence called Ooey Gooey Chocolate Chip Cookies, crafted from Belgian chocolate, toasted walnuts and sea salt. There are also cookies from Curly Top Bakery, a Las Vegas venture that started as a charity for the homeless. “It’s a great story, and they’ve done well for us,” Blackburn says.
“We try to do as much local as we can,” he adds, pointing out cupcakes from My Dad’s Favorite and rustic European-style bread from Mediterra. He further notes that AJ’s sells more doughnuts here than at its other stores because of its downtown location. Also popular, especially on hot Arizona days, is China Mist iced tea. “We sell more iced tea out of this bakery than anything else.”
The store’s downtown location allows for a robust prepared food business during all three regular mealtimes, serving hot breakfast, lunch and dinner selections daily. “Our team strives to take shoppers on a culinary journey,” Mead asserts.
“We’re unique in doing breakfast burritos to order,” Blackburn says of the wraps that include a choice of eggs, meats and hash browns. “They’re wildly popular. The downtown folks love them.”
Further leveraging opportunities for grocers in the breakfast daypart, AJ’s offers a yogurt bar as part of its salad bar. “We started it for breakfast,” Blackburn explains. “So many people requested it, now it goes all day long.”
A wood-fired pizza oven is the centerpiece of the store’s Italian kitchen, which also turns out dishes like lasagna and eggplant parmesan.
Of the hot bar, Blackburn says, “We always have a fish, a chicken and a beef protein.” What about plant-based options? Despite current growth in the category, Blackburn says that there hasn’t been significant local demand for such options.
But AJ’s does have a very successful soup program, which started with three kettles per store and has grown to eight, with 26 rotating varieties. Hot soup in the desert? “You wouldn’t think here you’d sell much hot soup in the summertime, but we actually sell more,” Blackburn observes. A “Gourmet-To-Go” case near the front of the store features sandwiches, soups and salads for folks in a hurry.
The deli case features meats by Hormel’s Columbus brand (“We’re the only ones in the valley with their meats,” Blackburn boasts) and salads made fresh in-house, an offering that Blackburn says “is becoming a dying breed.”
Cheese and Wine
The store expansion allowed AJ’s to grow its specialty cheese selection, which Blackburn calls “second to none.” Domestic and international varieties are complemented by an olive and antipasto bar that also features crackers, jams and crostini. AJ’s used to hand-cut random-weight cheeses in store, but new regulations require cheese to be cut and wrapped off-site in a controlled space, Mead explains.
Many grocery stores have wine bars, but AJ’s version is truly a serious operation, as well as a labor of love.
“The consumer is very educated and does engage and ask questions,” says Alice Itsell, wine cellar specialist, noting that many special requests come from seasonal residents and tourists. Wine Steward Nick Atonna adds, “We have a clientele that walks around with gourmet magazines, looking for wine pairings.”
As part of its response to this heightened interest, AJ’s hosts events focusing on wines from different regions, rotates in-store tasting selections frequently and serves mimosas on weekend mornings. “We freshly squeeze the orange juice for an hour and a half every morning and test it for sweetness,” Itsell says. The store also partners with Arizona Distilling Co., in nearby Tempe, on an exclusive-recipe bourbon that’s aged in cabernet casks.
Wine team members are chosen for their expertise. “Most of our employees have been in the industry 20-plus years, restaurant or retail,” Itsell explains. “The biggest thing is a passion for the category.”
The individual AJ’s locations compare notes on demands in their respective areas to stay on top of trends. “Our neighborhood skews more toward a younger, more cosmopolitan crowd,” Atonna notes, “plus some who have been with us for generations.”
The wine team is always on the lookout for new items to help educate consumers, like products from lesser-known wine regions such as Greece, South Africa, Portugal and Mexico. “I think we’ve driven the consumer to want to come in and look for things,” Itsell says.
That process extends to craft and local beers as well. “We promote local and craft selections on a monthly basis,” Itsell says. “Each year, we review the categories, see what the trends are, and how we can meet the needs of the customer and the education of the consumers.”
Grass-fed beef, house-smoked meats, gourmet burgers, and seafood flown in daily are all highlights of AJ’s protein department. But there’s something practically invisible that makes it all look better.
The brand-new meat cases — all 72 feet of them — feature high-definition glass, notes Hosler, AJ’s meat, produce, floral and seafood specialist. “It accentuates all the colors, the reds in beef, pinks in pork, whites in poultry,” he explains.
New cases provide room for the store’s grass-fed beef program, which includes steaks and grinds. “We display our grass-fed meat on actual grass,” Hosler points out. He adds that installing a smoker “allowed us to quadruple sales of smoked items,” which include pork and ribs as well as salmon. Value-added items include a delicious parmesan-crusted chicken breast.
Twice a year, in spring and fall, AJ’s puts all Prime and Choice steaks on sale for half off, and crowds gather to take advantage of the deal. “It’s a customer service ‘thank you’ for shopping with us all year,” Hosler says.
As for seafood, AJ’s offers “the biggest variety in our marketplace,” he boasts, including king salmon, sea bass, snow crab claws, Blue Point oysters, mussels, clams, and four sizes of lobster tails ranging from 8 to 24 ounces. Additionally, AJ’s last year launched an all-wild shrimp program.
Taking a cue from the meat side, AJ’s holds sales called “Seafood Extravaganzas” three times a year, timed with wild salmon season. Additionally, the store will steam lobsters and other seafood for shoppers, free of charge.
The produce department also got all-new cases with the remodel, allowing expansion of bagged salads and fresh-cut fruit and vegetables. “We’re seeing huge successes with that,” Hosler says. The new double-decked wet rack yields “smaller displays but more items,” he notes. Plus, since the store boosted its organic set by 12 feet, “we’re seeing double-digit sales increases in organics,” Hosler observes.
Island cases in the produce section are all low profile, so “you can see the whole department,” he says, noting with pride that the store displays 25 varieties of apples, along with AJ’s recipe for caramel apple dip.
Further, the remodel allows for a more open floral department with bouquet displays and a kiosk for engaging with shoppers. “It gave us a talking point to talk with customers about what’s in season and to discuss their needs,” Hosler says.
More Than a Market
The remodel of the Central and Camelback AJ’s is a recent step in a remodeling initiative at Bashas’ over the past three years. For its part, the community has responded with rave reviews.
“The most rewarding part of the remodel is seeing how our customers react to the changes. It’s been gratifying to hear how much everyone’s been enjoying the expanded grab-and-go area, salad bar, sushi bar, and wine and beer bar, in addition to the expanded Bistro and Boulangerie departments,” Director of Operations Mead says. “We truly are part of the community, so to have their support and see their positive feedback to the changes made it all worth it. They never stopped shopping with us.”
Still, the age and size of the location presented challenges. “We wanted to bring all of the features that can be found in our newer, built-from-the-ground-up AJ’s locations to this historic Central Phoenix store, while at the same time maintain the charm and character of this location,” Mead explains. That challenge met, the success of the relaunch brought a new one: parking, due to increased patronage, especially on weekends. “We’re thankful to have a lot of support from the residential area directly behind and next to the store,” he notes.
Also, suppliers appreciate AJ’s speed to shelf for launching new products, according to Mead: “Suppliers also know that our members [employees] will do a great job representing their products. We invest in education for our members, and that culinary expertise gives a new product its very best chance at success.”
The retailer also provides a stage for local suppliers to sample their products directly to shoppers. During Progressive Grocer’s visit, Carolina’s Chocolate, a local maker of fine Mexican heritage chocolates spiked with spices, offered a taste of its wares.
AJ’s has a distinct and important role within Bashas’ Family of Stores, Mead explains: to cover a segment of the grocery market that isn’t being fully addressed by anyone else. “There are also some things AJ’s does that translate well to our other stores, namely, being hyper-local,” he adds. “AJ’s ... does a great job supporting and representing local brands, but this location takes it to new heights. There are certainly some key learnings we share with all of our stores.”
With such attention to detail at all levels, the folks at Bashas’ have taken to referring to AJ’s as “more than a market,” especially for what it means to local consumers.
“It’s common at all AJ’s stores to see regular customers dropping in for coffee, tea, a bagel, or to grab lunch or dinner,” Mead observes. “This store has become a community gathering place. There are friends, family and social groups that come to the store every day or every weekend, and they stay for hours, just relaxing and catching up. ‘I’ll meet you at AJ’s’ has become a common saying in this store’s neighborhood, not only because of its convenient location, but also because of the sense of community it has, and our commitment to ensuring everyone has an enjoyable experience here.”