It took Earth Fare 42 years to open its 42nd store. Based on current growth projections, the North Carolina-based natural foods grocer will add its next 42 in less than three years.
But even with business booming and so many new stores in the pipeline, Earth Fare, whose decades-long commitment to healthy eating is legendary, acted like the opening of that 42nd store, in the Mandarin section of Jacksonville, Florida, was its first.
“We are trying to put all our energy into this building, put in everything that Earth Fare is,” Paul Cassara, Earth Fare’s director of prepared foods, said on the eve of the store's opening, as he and the chain’s other executives and managers rushed to put the finishing touches on Mandarin. (Many company officials spend up to a week at a new store before and after its opening.)
The Mandarin store is 28,000 square feet, bigger than the typical Earth Fare, which averages 23,000 or 24,000 square feet, says Laurie Aker, the chain’s spokeswoman. About 130 people work there, and perks for customers include free WiFi and an 81-seat café (16 are outdoors).
Company-wide, Earth Fare is committed to sourcing from local suppliers whenever possible, Aker says. At the Mandarin store, products from 30 local vendors can be found — including instore baked goods from Boutique Du Pain, Shakti Life Kitchen and Vegan Heavenly Delights and prepared meals from Eat Fresco.
And the store’s 15-member Community Advisory Board, made up of local residents, helps make sure the Mandarin community is being served. The board met four times before the store’s opening, and will continue to meet quarterly, Aker says. The input is invariably helpful, Aker says. Without the Mandarin board’s input, for instance, Earth Fare may not have realized how many Jewish customers it would have in its new store. As a result, the company made the decision to offer freshly baked challah daily and to beef up its kosher offerings in general.
Earth Fare is a natural and organic foods store, but it wants to dispel the myth that food that is good for you and made according to strict standards has to be expensive. “Our goal is to meet everyone’s dietary and budgetary goals,” Aker says.
HEALTHY — AND AFFORDABLE — PREPARED FOODS
Earth Fare’s deli prepared department, with its simultaneous focus on premium, healthy ingredients and affordability, is nothing short of unprecedented in the industry, says Frank Scorpiniti, the company’s president and CEO. “No one else is doing this. We have absolutely the most amazing prepared foods in North America.”
The opening of the Mandarin store turned out to be the stage for Earth Fare’s launch of a major initiative in prepared foods. The goal of the Clean Food Security program, as it’s called, is to provide complete meals, made in house, for a family of four, seven days a week, for just $2.50 per person per meal.
All meals meet the chain’s strict Food Philosophy, which guarantees that all products it sells are free of high fructose corn syrup, artificial fats and trans-fats, artificial colors, artificial preservatives, artificial sweeteners and bleached or bromated flour; and that they are never administered antibiotics or growth hormones.
At the heart of Clean Food Security is the ready-to-go Daily Deal, which highlights different meal packages priced below national brand prices. A meal planner highlighting the various offerings can be viewed at earthfare.com/cleanfood.
“It allows moms and dads, no matter what their socio-economic background, to feed a family of four for $70 for a whole week,” Scorpiniti says. “We believe healthy food needs to be democratized. It’s a myth that eating clean costs more.”
Different entrées are featured every day, Aker says. Tuesdays, for instance, are pasta nights (free baguette included). Wednesdays are barbecue ribs. Thursday’s spotlight is chicken pot pies and Friday’s, organic crust take-and-bake pizzas. Meatloaf is another popular item. “Our customers feel like they can come back and not see the same thing,” Scorpiniti says.
The launch of Clean Food Security comes on the heels of Earth Fare’s unveiling, in January, of its Live Longer With Earth Fare campaign, which encourages Americans to improve their health by making better food choices.
In addition to its daily meal-for-four lineup, the Mandarin Earth Fare, like all Earth Fares, offers take-and-bake pizzas, made throughout the day in a Blodgett deck impinge oven at 500 to 600 degrees. Pizza is a signature item for the chain, Cassara says. And he doesn’t use “signature” lightly.
“I think ‘signature’ is a word that gets tossed around too much, but we spent months creating our program, trying out tons of doughs, a whole room full of sauces, different cheeses.” For the dough, Earth Fare finally settled on an organic dough that has a thin, crisp crust but is chewy once bitten. The sauce comes from a tomato grower in California who harvests his entire crop in just one six-week period of the year.
With all of that attention to detail and to using only the best products, you’d think Earth Fare’s price would be in premium range. But slices are just two for $4 (and they’re big), and an 18-inch pie is just $9.99. On Fridays, grab-and-go pizzas are $6. On weekends, they’re $7. Varieties available every day include cheese, pepperoni and veggie. Others are rotated into the mix occasionally. The pizza station in the Mandarin store also offers make-your-own kits.
When it comes to deli meats, one way in which Earth Fare ensures their quality, Aker says, is by using the same suppliers for deli as it does for its meat department. Chickens from the meat counter are used to make the company’s deli rotisserie chickens, and that rotisserie chicken meat is hand-pulled to make Earth Fare’s signature chicken salad. “It’s a higher standard of chicken than anybody else’s,” Cassara says. At any given time, Earth Fare has five versions of its chicken salad for sale. In addition to the original recipe, cranberry pecan is a customer favorite, he says.
Earth Fare’s deli case in Mandarin also features Dietz & Watson meats and specialty meat products from suppliers including Principe, Olli and Volpi. Also featured in the deli are fresh sushi packs, which sell for $5 daily. Product is made in-house by Hissho Sushi.
Many of Earth Fare’s other deli salads are made in-house. In addition to chicken salad, favorites include cranberry broccoli salad and Carolina coleslaw. In all, the store’s case will have about 30 SKUs at any given time.
As for sandwiches, the $4.99 in-house roast beef on a baguette is another signature item, Cassara says. It starts with medium-rare meat cooked to perfection, with a little olive oil the only dressing needed. “What we do is a little more expensive, but we want to flip it on its head and make it a value for our customers.”
At the new Mandarin store, Earth Fare is expanding its sandwich repertoire, Cassara says. Look for specialty sandwiches including banh mi; prociutto caprese; and a chicken sandwich featuring cilantro, pickles, jalapenos and other vegetables. There’s also has a full-service deli station for custom-made sandwiches.
Many products found in Earth Fare bakeries are baked fresh in-house daily. In-house scratch bread is kneaded and stretched by hand. The Mandarin store features eight European-style varieties that are baked throughout the day and sold daily. Demonstrating its joint commitment to health, artisanship and value, Earth Fare offers an organic baguette, made three times daily, for 98 cents.
Five years ago, Cassara visited a Portland-based company to get ideas for how to run an organic scratch instore bakery, Cassara says. Sourdough is the company’s signature bread. The sourdough starter at each new store is taken from a batch that dates back at least 15 years. “I think it’s probably older,” he says. “We just started tracking it 15 years ago.”
Cassara says Earth Fare is in the process of bringing the same level of success it’s had with bread to other instore baked goods. “Bread is who we are. Cakes are what we want to be to be competitive.” No artificial colors are used in Earth Fare’s cakes and pastries. Instead, they are made with beet juice and other natural ingredients for coloring.
While Earth Fare prides itself on its in-house baking, the company is not shy about turning to outside producers when needed. Earth Fare’s macaroons, for example, are made by a French couple that immigrated to California and started a small-batch bakery there. “The easiest thing would be to go out and find the cheapest product, but that’s not who we are,” Cassara says. “My goal is to have the best-tasting product.” That said, Earth Fare’s macaroons are priced competitively, he says.
Equipment plays a big role in the success of Earth Fare’s deli and bakery departments, Cassara says. In addition to the Blodgett pizza oven, the Mandarin store features Electrolux ovens, which he says do a masterful job of controlling both heat and humidity at various stages of the cooking process. The store also uses Mettler Toledo scales, Hussmann cases and Hobart mixers.
CHEESE: A COMMITMENT TO ARTISAN
Earth Fare’s Mandarin store offers about 300 SKUs of imported and local and other domestically sourced cheeses, says Jeff DiMeo, the chain’s senior director of merchandising execution. All cheeses are individually selected by Earth Fare for quality, and many are chosen by DiMeo himself, who worked as a general manager at two cheese companies before joining Earth Fare in 2016.
A prime example of Earth Fare’s commitment to artisanal cheesemakers is its Parmigiano Reggiano, which is aged for 24 to 30 months in the Modena province of Italy before being sold. The cheesemaker turns out just six wheels a day. DiMeo heard about it, went to Italy, tried it, loved it, and signed a deal to buy every last wheel exported. The cheese is an Earth Fare exclusive and has its own standalone display in Mandarin.
“It’s one of the smallest artisanal cheesemakers out there,” DiMeo says. “Our sourcing starts with the relationships we have with the people who actually make the cheese. We go to the source first.”
Scanning the cheese case, DiMeo says he or another Earth Fare buyer has visited “just about every” producer featured. “We take cheese very seriously at Earth Fare,” he says.
Brands in the cheese case on opening day at the Mandarin store included Rumiano, Tillamook, Finlandia, Babybel, Naturally Good Kosher, Deer Creek, Alpha Tolman, Vivaldi, Germain, Beehive, Van Kaas, Old Croc, Montchevre, Sun-Ni, Sierra Nevada, Heini’s, Beecher’s Flagship, Snow Camp, Drunken Goat, Naked Goat, Sheep Trick, Maple Leaf, Cypress Grove, La Bonne Vie, Frommages d’Affinois, Saint Agur, Saint Anadre, Kerrygold and Vermont Creamery.
Crackers on display near the cheese case included products by Kii Organic and Firehook.
A NATURAL COMMITMENT
Earth Fare’s brand has always been defined by its commitment to offering its customers the cleanest foods. The company’s “Boot List,” accessible through its website, provides a more exhaustive list of all of the unacceptable ingredients you’ll never find in an Earth Fare product. If you do find one, the company will remove the product from the shelf and give the shopper a $50 gift card. Aker said a grand total of one customer has cashed in. “And it was dog food,” she says.
All private label brand foods sold at Earth Fare are GMO-free, thousands are gluten-free and 70 percent of the fresh produce is organic. Over a decade ago, long before most retailers did, Earth Fare made the decision to source only cage-free eggs.
In January, Earth Fare launched its “Live Longer with Earth Fare” campaign, which seeks to help consumers make better food choices as part of a broader commitment to good health. In 2015, for the first time ever, Scorpiniti says, the lifespan of Americans actually went down. Earth Fare wants to do what it can to reverse that trend. Another slogan on display at the new Mandarin store is, “Everything we don’t add to our foods can add years to your life.”
What Earth Fare offers, Aker says, is a store where everything sold is guaranteed to meet certain healthy standards, so customers didn’t have to spend time interrogating every product they considered buying. “Dinner for the Earth” was the store’s original name.
Earth Fare has no plans to abandon its high standards, despite its rapid growth, Scorpiniti says. And grow it will. A decade ago, the company had just 12 stores. By 2020, its goal is to have 100. “We foresee 25% annual unit growth for the foreseeable future,” Scorpiniti says.
With a store in Roanoke, Virginia, also opening this year, Earth Fare will be operating in ten states, he says. The company will also beef up its presence in existing markets including Tampa and Orlando in Florida and Charlotte in North Carolina, and expand its reach into Ohio and other newer markets, Scorpiniti says. To make it all happen, Earth Fare will need to hire about 1,000 new employees a year.
“We’re excited that everything’s coming together,” Scorpiniti says. “Americans are looking for healthier choices. And eating clean is preventive maintenance — a lower-cost way of approaching good health. Our goal is to create a healthier country with our food philosophy.”