Ed Southern and Stephen Robertson Photo by Jay Paul
It all started with pimento cheese. Doesn't everything? Kroger store manager Ed Southern was so impressed with Bonnie Adelman's pimento cheese, he helped her through the process of packaging it and getting it into the cheese case. Miss Bonnie's Pimento Cheese Spread started off in one store but was soon a product in every Kroger in the Richmond area — and finally, in five states up and down the East Coast.
"I remember where one single week [in one store], we sold 1,500 jars of that cheese," says Southern. "It was the damnedest thing." Adelman has since retired from the business, but Southern hasn't lost his enthusiasm for locally made products.
Southern is a tall man with glasses, a graying beard and a distinct Richmond accent. He's all over the store, moving quickly, and he carries a wireless microphone in his pocket to make announcements over the P.A. system. And if he thinks of something to announce while talking to you, he will. He started out in high school bagging groceries at Safeway International at 3507 W. Cary St., the same building as the present-day Kroger. He opened Hannaford as store manager in the same spot when Safeway closed. Now he manages the Carytown Kroger. "This is my third time back," he says. "I kind of go with the parking lot." He smiles.
He's not sure why customers love local items so much. He hazards a guess. "It's the trust factor; it's the ‘Hey, it's my neighbor that does this' … [I don't know] how all that plays out, but it's just something very special."
And Southern can match his customers' excitement for local products. One of the first hurdles small producers face is obtaining a Universal Product Code (UPC). Without it, a product can't be sold in a large store — it's a requirement. There's paperwork involved in obtaining a UPC, so Southern shepherds producers through the process. And by creating space with unique shelving for each product (you'll see a lot of freestanding shelving in the produce department in the Carytown store) or sticking to end caps, pricey slotting fees can be avoided.
All of this streamlines a process that might be overwhelming to a producer just starting out. "Billy Bread — this is the first time [owner Billy Fallen] tried to move into a [big retail] store … he has a rubber stamp he puts his UPC on with," Southern says. "And let's face it, that's as basic as you can get."
It's paid off for both Billy Bread and Kroger. "We've sold $18,500 worth of Billy Bread in just a four-month [period]," Southern says. That's a lot of bread at $4.99, nearly 4,000 loaves. "When they bring this stuff in hot," Southern says, "I like to make an announcement, and customers flood over here."
"I saw that Blanchard's [Coffee] was here doing the local thing," says Fallen, "and Ed was very, very responsive." Fallen recently moved into a 6,000-square-foot space in Williamsburg and upped his wholesale production, which now includes pastries.
Blanchard's Coffee is in 25 stores. "I started them in Kroger two years ago," says Southern. "I really liked his product— I went down to see his business, and I liked the little, small, ground-level [way of] roasting." He put the coffee in his store and sold a lot of it.
Southern left for a job at another Kroger in Charlottesville, and the coffee stopped selling. "They didn't support them," he says. "I came back here, and I decided then and there I'd get [Blanchard's] in all of the Kroger stores." It was another resounding success. Southern's store sells about 300 bags weekly, "and that's a lot, at $10 a pop." He recently asked Blanchard's Stephen Robertson to bring in a larger shelving display.
"We couldn't keep the shelves stocked," says Robertson.
Southern recently added SausageCraft products. "I told them to stick to clear packaging — let the customer see what's in there, and oh my God, did it work." SausageCraft has been at Kroger for the past three months or so and sells 10 different products, according to co-owner Brad Hemp, from traditional Italian sausage to a variety made with Sriracha and local beer. "It's crazy-stupid how much of this we sell," says Southern.
Kroger, as a company, is supportive of local products. "Big time," he says. They don't throw up a lot of roadblocks. But it isn't as easy as the store manager saying "yes" to a new product and loading it up on the shelves. "I have to get approval on everything I do. It has to go through the merchandising department; everyone has their own forms that need to be filled out, they have insurance requirements that have to be met; if [a company] claims [their products are] organic, they have to prove it."
"People look at local items totally differently than they do Delmonte or other things of that nature," says Southern. And he's proved that local also can turn a tidy profit. Ultimately, though, "we've got to know what we're selling. We've got to be good with it in our heart."