You would think that a four-unit grocery chain, its flagship store a snug 18,000 square feet, might be nervous in the age of Amazon/Whole Foods, Lidl/Aldi, Walmart, fierce club and convenience store competition, etc.
But Straub’s, a fixture on the St. Louis metro retail scene since 1901, is thriving — in fact, it’s in the middle of a major facelift, says Sharon LaBerta, the company’s director of prepared foods. A scheduled 2018 remodel of its flagship store in Clayton, Missouri, a suburb just west of St. Louis, will include some much-needed upgrades to the building’s unique architecture, which mimics the sweep of Forsyth Boulevard as it arcs south and east from Maryland Avenue. Renovations at other Straub’s stores have already taken place.
“Over the years we’ve had to retrofit into nooks and crannies throughout the store,” LaBerta says of the Clayton store. “Having a curved building creates design issues. We struggle to squeeze in where we can.”
Struggle it may, but Straub’s has never let its size and funky shape get in the way of meeting shoppers’ needs. “In order to get the things our customers want, we make it fit,” LaBerta says.
As director of prepared foods, LaBerta might be as excited as anyone by the store facelift. Deli prepared accounts for an incredible 24 percent of the company’s sales, and the renovation will reflect the category’s importance. Even after 13 years at Straub’s, LaBerta, who cut her retail teeth at Kroger, is in awe of that number. “In my grocery life, 4 percent used to be the industry norm for traditional grocers. Now it’s maybe 7 or 8 percent.” Significant growth, in other words, but still just a third of Straub’s share.
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Deli prepared, front and center
You can see evidence of deli’s prominence at Straub’s in the vintage photographs that line the hallway outside the Clayton store’s corporate offices. One, from 1948, shows the store’s first cheese case (cases of St. Louis-brewed Budweiser are lined up in front of it, perhaps an early effort at cross-merchandising).
Sherri Valenti, Straub’s bakery director, is gracious enough to concede that, as great as her baked goods are, deli is boss at Straub’s. “Deli prepared foods is the business of Straub’s.” LaBerta looks forward to having some new toys to play with when the remodel is finished. There will be a pizza station, for starters. And a new grill, which will allow Straub’s to prepare hot homemade lunches, dinners and — for the first time ever — breakfasts.
All of Straub’s salads are made in-house, LaBerta says. Salads with a four- or five-day shelf life are made at the company’s central kitchen in its Webster Groves store. (Webster Groves was Straub’s first home. The Clayton store followed in 1933, Central West End in 1948 and Town and Country in 1966.) Salads with a two- or three-day life, like coleslaw, are made at the store they’re sold in.
Webster Groves is also home to Straub’s smoker, and all of the smoked meats sold at the chain’s four locations originate there. The company also parks its food truck there. “We love it anytime we can bring food to other people,” LaBerta says of the food truck. Straub’s full-time soup maker operates out of the Clayton store kitchen, making chicken noodle soup and chili every day and rounding out the menu from a repertoire of about 40 different varieties. Every month, even in summer, hot soup makes the list of Top 10 deli items sold at Straub’s. Straub’s employs about a half-dozen chefs full-time in deli prepared to make not only its soups but also salads, deli salads, dips and other prepared foods.
At any given time the department’s front case will feature at least 60 salads, LaBerta says, and thousands of unique SKUs rotate through deli/prepared on an annual basis. Customers who come to Straub’s for one of the chain’s signature prepared dishes — Salisbury steak, meatloaf, creamed spinach, broccoli salad, just to name a few — are as loyal as they come.
“They’ve been buying from us for years, and we don’t ever want them to go away,” LaBerta says. “People don’t like it when we get rid of comfort foods. We bring them back.”
As vital as its in-house products are to the success of its deli, top brand name offerings also feature prominently in Straub’s mix. Featured items include Busseto Foods salami, Volpi Foods Italian deli products, Fermin deli meats, Miller and Double G hams and cheeses from Vermont Creamery, Sartori and BelGioioso.
Deli appetizers sold at Straub’s include specialties like Bacon Cheddar Pecan Spread, Five Onion Quiche with Bacon and Fontina Cheese, Antipasto Skewers, Chicken Satay and Almond Encrusted Brie Bites. Party tray options include upscale variations on the usual fruit, vegetable and meat combinations as well as some novelties: Best of Italy Prosciutto Melon and A Taste of New Orleans, to name a few.
Straub’s also has special menus for eight holidays. Its full-course Thanksgiving dinners are legendary. One year, LaBerta says, a woman called to make sure Straub’s could cater her holiday bird and trimmings. Her son was coming to town, and he made a point of requesting it. Here’s guessing there weren’t many leftovers — for seven years, after all, James Laurinaitis was a starting linebacker for the St. Louis Rams.
With so many of its foods made instore — and so much of the store’s success riding on it — it’s essential that Straub’s use the best equipment, LaBerta says. Mettler Toledo scales, Globe slicers, a Henny Penny rotisserie oven, a Power Soak wash sink, an M&M Label label maker and Hussmann display cases make it easier for employees to do their jobs day in and day out.
The importance of deli prepared at Straub’s is also clear as soon as you pull up the retailer’s home page (straubs.com). Just below the site’s main image are two boxes, one linking to “Lunch at the Deli,” the other to “Dinner for Two.”
Lunch at the Deli entrees one week in August at the Clayton store included grilled salsiccia, a create-your-own nacho plate, chicken piccatta, smoked pulled chicken, fried pangasius and fried cod. Featured entrees change daily. Dinner for Two reheat-and-eat options for the same week included beef stroganoff, stuffed green peppers, grilled petite beef tenders, smokehouse half chicken and a “summer Thanksgiving” meal, all for $19.99.
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Iconic chicken salad
In the interest of saving the best for last, no discussion of Straub’s deli would be complete without an homage to its piece de resistance: chicken salad, made in the Clayton store kitchen, by hand, by the same two employees, every day. Chicken salad alone accounts for 15% of the stores’ deli sales, LaBerta says.
“We’ve sold 27 tons so far this year,” LaBerta said Aug. 10. “Hand-pulled chicken, all white meat, Hellman’s, fresh celery and special seasonings, very meticulously made.”
Sometime in the late 1960’s, LaBerta says, two Straub’s meat cutters, Bob Schierding and Sal Asaro, started making and selling chicken salad out of the meat case using a bone-in chicken breast. It sold well by the standards of the time — about 10 to 20 lbs. a week.
In the ‘80’s, Straub’s decided to sell it in all four stores. Production was moved to the kitchenin Schierding’s home and supervised by his wife, Joyce. Before long, Straub’s was selling 120 lbs. a week. By the ‘90’s, demand was so strong, it was being made in the commercial kitchen of the Clayton store. Joyce, who retired in 2009, trained the current chicken salad team — including backups, in case one of the two full-timers is out. “We don’t mess with the chicken salad,” LaBerta says.
|||READ MORE: In-house, local make the difference|||
Bakery: in-house, local make the difference
Bakery may never be as big as deli prepared at Straub’s, but LaBerta says the department has gotten a big boost under Valenti’s watch, with “oodles of new products” on shelves and in cases.
If you had to pick a bakery equivalent to deli’s chicken salad, it would definitely be Miss Hulling’s cakes. Miss Hulling’s was a beloved St. Louis cafeteria for decades. When it closed, Straub’s bought the rights to its famous split layer and German chocolate cakes. The layers of the cakes (some have five, others three) are baked daily at the Central West End store, then shipped to the Clayton store, where they’re filled and iced. (All of the in-house cakes and pastries sold at the four Straub’s come from Central West End, which also does custom cake decorating.
In a typical week, Miss Hulling’s cakes account for about 26 percent of all bakery sales, Valenti says. In the leadup to Thanksgiving, it jumps to 36 percent. German chocolate is the top seller. “The following they have is incredible,” she says.
Other top bakery sellers include Gooey Butter Cake (a St. Louis staple, and available at Straub’s in multiple flavors), Triple Play Brownie, My Grandma’s Cinnamon Walnut Coffee Cake and, on the catering end, a Mini Croissant Tray. Midtowne Market, a St. Charles, Missouri, retailer bought by Straub’s in 2015, makes fresh donuts and bread for all four Straub’s stores. “We’re baking more and more of our own products,” Valenti says. “It’s fresher and you have much better cost control. The response from customers has been great.”
Many of the items sold in Straub’s bakery that aren’t made in its own kitchens come from local bakeries like Companion, LaBonne Bouche, Ann & Allen, Laughing Bear, the Cup, the Cakery and Breadsmith. Some, like Companion, ship all over the country. Others are much smaller. “We’re a good fit for people who love what they do, and maybe they even own their own storefront, but they still aren’t quite well known yet,” Valenti says.
The 2018 renovation of the Clayton store should be a boon for the bakery department, Valenti says. Under current plans, an entrance will be built right at its doorstep. “It will make it so that when a customer enters, the first thing they see is bakery.”
The retail grocery world has always been marked by rapid change and fierce competition. But Valenti and LaBerta are confident that Straub’s place in that world is secured.
“It’s fun to come into a store like this,” LaBerta says. “There’s great food, great customer service and so many unique things. Maybe you’ve seen them on the Food Network, or maybe they haven’t even been on the Food Network yet. We’re ahead of the curve.”
Straub’s will have to evolve, as every other grocery retailer will. But the fundamentals will stay the same. “We started with the idea that we serve the customer, and we’ll never change that,” LaBerta says. “Our customers own their store.” And the fact that Straub’s has four stores, not 40 or 400, doesn’t really matter, she says. “We’re big in our minds, and we’re big in our customers’ eyes.”