Perhaps it is fitting that the earliest iteration of Gourmet Boutique was a small, locally-owned shop that catered to its surrounding market. Twenty years later, the company has grown into a nation-spanning provider of upscale foods. It’s no longer a neighborhood shop, but it still claims a niche market and offers products the company says carry the taste, appearance and quality found at a local upscale food market.
“We determined there was a market for upscale, freshly prepared foods to satisfy the consumer’s needs,” said Jere L. Dudley, who has been with Gourmet Boutique since its inception and now serves as its vice-president of sales. “We offer that and we think we do it very well and it has turned into a good business.”
As it has grown, Gourmet Boutique has retained the processes and techniques it developed in its humble beginnings to now provide major retailers across the country.
Family-owned to nationwide
Gourmet Boutique celebrated its 20th anniversary last September, recalling its start as Ernie’s Mini mart, a Queens-based maker of small-batch meatballs and pasta dishes. After the name change, the company began servicing New York delis that lacked kitchen space and labor to prepare foods in-house.
“It was a very small footprint,” Dudley said. “The original owner produced fresh entrees and specialty salads and some side dishes out of a storefront. He took it over from his father and they served local retailers in the New York metropolitan area.”
Gourmet Boutique began expanding its customer base and experiencing growth. After gauging its success ratio, the company began to move into new markets.
“It literally created a niche for us and it expanded our business nationwide,” Dudley said.
The company now does business in all 50 states and neighboring countries. Dudley said Gourmet Boutique sells to “every major retailer in the US in some capacity,” with the company’s main focus being retail supermarkets. It has recently expanded into club stores and the world of c-stores and also sells to some quick-serve restaurants in New York and the surrounding area.
Gourmet Boutique’s main facility — an 80,000-sq-ft building — and headquarters are in Jamaica, Queens. That facility’s coverage area expands into the Midwest. A second facility — a 60,000-sq-ft plant in Phoenix — covers the rest of the Midwest, the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest.
“The two facilities are very similar,” Dudley said. “One is a little smaller, but they have the same footprint, contain the same basic equipment and produce the same type of foods.”
Both facilities, and the company’s production in general, are still impacted by the early days.
The small scope of Gourmet Boutique’s beginnings — the original space was just 2,000 sq ft — forced it to utilize what it calls “micro manufacturing.” Techniques like hand-cutting vegetables and proteins were a necessity that also helped replicate classic culinary preparation.
Today’s foods are still produced by hand — with some minimal automated help — in small batches. Dudley said that has helped carry over the same feel and quality from the small-shop days to today.
“We use small-batch production,” he said. “We use today’s technology to help us make all of our products in small batches and that allows us to keep the products homemade. When we’re done with the product, it’s as if the end user has made it themselves.”
Small-batch production is one part of Gourmet Boutique’s claim of producing authentic upscale, no-preservatives-added food. All products are made-to-order “That’s a selling point for us. There’s nothing left behind that we’re selling from inventory,” Dudley said.
The process has helped the company become a national leader in high-quality specialty foods while still offering clean, no-MSG products. In a way, it’s local service on a national level. In fact, everything that ships out of a Gourmet Boutique facility is hand-packed and designed to create a homemade look.
“You could almost say we’re a niche manufacturer,” Dudley said. “We’re artisan manufacturers. We make small-batch products. Nothing is machine-packed so you don’t get anything that’s broken into pieces.”
A fitting example of Gourmet Boutique’s claims of authenticity can be found on its proteins — the simple grill marks on its pre-cooked chicken. Those lines of char are anything but artificial. They’re the result of time spent on an actual grill.
“We grill product better than anybody out there because our product is grilled over an open flame,” Dudley said. “Whereas a lot of people do the smoke-and-mirror routine where the product is fully cooked, poached or steamed and then it is run under a branding iron for the effect. It’s grill-marked as opposed to authentically grilled.”
After marinating, the raw chicken goes onto an open-flame gas grill and stays there until it is fully cooked. Dudley said that allows the customer, and thus the consumer, to get a fresh, outdoor grilling experience.
“Many people are doing that grill-marked as opposed to authentically grilling,” he said. “There are some others out there doing authentic grilling, but not quite the job that we are. If you ask me, our consistency is far better than what is available on the market today.”
Outside of the center-of-plate entrees, with an emphasis on grilling, Gourmet Boutique’s other offerings include specialty salads (containing protein, vegetables or pasta), assorted side dishes, premade wrap sandwiches and premade meals to go.
All of the products are made without added preservatives in attempt to keep the food as clean as possible.
“People are looking and they want to know what they’re eating,” Dudley said. “They don’t want things that are chemically enhanced, like the use of preservatives. People have a real, major concern for what they’re eating. They want to know where its’ from and how it’s prepared.”
Gourmet Boutique prides itself on food safety. Both facilities are Level 3 certified by the NSF Global Food Safety Initiative Safe Quality Food program and have been since 2009.
“Food safety is paramount for our company,” Dudley said. “That Level 3 certification differentiates us amongst our competition. It’s the highest standard for the retail world”
Dudley said he expects, in the near future, for many retailers to require their manufacturers and suppliers be SQF certified. That Gourmet Boutique has been for six years, he said, sends a message.
“It’s a very diligent, time-involved and finance-involved process,” he said. “You have to be committed. You have to know where your product is from and how it’s processed. All products our checked from the time the enter our door until the time it leaves when it’s fully prepared.”
What’s In Store
Gourmet Boutique is set to launch a line of fully assembled meals in the first half of 2016. Dudley said new products as such are important in reaching new customers and consumers.
A big part of that is offering a number of ethnic foods that can appeal to consumers in numerous regions. Simply looking at what restaurants are serving, what consumers are watching on television and what is happening at the neighborhood level can lead to new, innovative pre-prepared foods.
“We keep our fingers on the pulse of what is trending,” Dudley said. “Some time ago, the food truck business was extremely popular and that allowed consumers to experience a lot of ethnic foods they weren’t getting anywhere else. Now that has expanded into the world of retail supermarkets.
“We’re going to continue to move forward with our same philosophy of high-quality product line looking to fill the need trend-setting products, whether it be ethnic-based, healthy eating, or anything else that would be taken into consideration.”