Homegrown Grocers Thrive
New Orleans’ independent markets are standing strong against national chains.
When it comes to grocery stores, New Orleans is what Langenstein’s President H.D. Lanaux calls “an odd duck.”
Unlike other major cities, which tend to be dominated by national or regional chains, New Orleans has long remained a staunchly independent grocery market. “You see the Langenstein’s, the Zuppardo’s, the Robért’s, the Rouses — New Orleans has been very good to the grocers of New Orleans in that they support the local guys,” Lanaux says.
But as outside players like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Fresh Market expand their presence in the area, local stalwarts are raising their game to stay competitive.
“After Katrina, we were definitely an undersaturated market, and we were not a target for out-of-state competition because of the uncertainty of New Orleans coming back,” says Marc Robért III, general manager of Robért Fresh Market. Now we are on the radar of national companies like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s… so the way we differentiate ourselves in the market matters.”
Rouses’ expansion fueled by a ‘local’ orientation
For many businesses, emphasizing local products from local producers is a somewhat recent trend. That’s not the case for Rouses, however, says Managing Partner Donny Rouse.
“We’ve been selling local produce and local seafood forever, since day one,” he says. “My grandfather was a farmer, so we were selling his produce. But nobody advertised it, nobody talked about it. Now people want to know where their food comes from. They want to know how it’s handled. The consumer is getting more educated.”
Offering local products doesn’t just satisfy customers; Rouse says it also gives Rouses a competitive advantage. “We know the local fisherman, farmers and grocery manufacturers. That gives us an edge in getting those products before the national companies do.”
Competing against national chains is nothing new for Rouses. Their first stores in Houmta and Thibodaux went head-to-head with chains like Delchamps and National. The secret to the company’s success, the family believes, is not only the selection of local products but also a deep understanding of local markets.
“We know what people like to cook,” says Rouse. “We know what people like to eat, and we know what people like to buy around certain holidays. We’ve been on the Gulf Coast for over 55 years, so we’ve learned this market, and we know it better than anyone.”
As a family-owned business, Rouses also has the ability to be nimble in terms of strategy and decision making, something that comes in handy when operating a network of more than 50 stores — and counting — across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. “We can make decisions and change things immediately,” notes Rouse. “We don’t have a big corporate process or a board of directors to go through.”
“I think over the next five years we’ll probably lose one of the national grocery stores…and I think it will probably be down to us, Walmart, some independents and maybe a couple of specialty grocery stores,” says Rouses Managing Partner Donny Rouse. Pictured here are views of the Rouses at 701 Baronne Street, including its rooftop garden.
Some of the company’s biggest strategic decisions involve opening new locations, an area where Rouses has been aggressive in recent years, with no signs of slowing. “I’m excited about expanding everywhere,” says Rouse. “I get excited every time I find a location, whether it’s right here at home or somewhere else along the Gulf Coast.” The company is currently preparing to start construction on a new location in Baton Rouge, one of many areas where Rouse sees room for additional growth. “In every market, I have a half-dozen locations where I can put a supermarket. But I can’t build 50 stores in one year. It’s which location do I like more than the others? Which ones project better for the long term?”
With its store network continuing to expand, the company has invested heavily in technology to help maximize operating efficiency. According to Managing Partner Ali Rouse Royster, “We’ve always been pretty forward on technology. A lot of that was due to my dad. We have programming staff here, and we can adapt and create systems and software that do exactly what we want them to do. We’ve tried to stay at the forefront of that to be more efficient, which is huge in grocery because of your low, low profit margins.”
With their continued record of success, Rouse feels confident that the family business will remain a dominant player in the New Orleans market, despite the increasingly competitive landscape. His prediction: “I think over the next five years we’ll probably lose one of the national grocery stores… and I think it will probably be down to us, Walmart, some independents and maybe a couple of specialty grocery stores.”
What advice would the Rouses offer other New Orleans-area business owners? “To stay long term, you have to enjoy what you’re doing, and you have to continually learn about your industry — what’s next, what’s new and what other people are doing around the country, not just here,” says Rouse Royster.
“You’ve got to be involved yourself – no one can do it better than you can,” adds Rouse.
Robért Fresh Market carves out its niche
When Robért Fresh Market opened 20 years ago in Metairie, owners Darlene and Marc Robért positioned the store as a specialty service provider. According to their daughter, Marcelle Robért Connick, the store’s marketing manager, they offered “prime meats, organic produce and specialty hard-to-find items because at the time, all there was specialty-wise was the little Whole Foods on Esplanade Avenue… Our mission, although it’s become increasingly competitive, is still the same.”
“The key factors for us are customer service and understanding ‘local’ — and every facet of that,” adds her brother, Marc Robért III. What products do people want in New Orleans? Costco opened without carrying Camellia Red Beans, and they were publicly shamed. It’s about understanding that local component and having those things available.”
According to Robért, he often hears the following from customers: “‘I can get 90 percent of what I want from you, but I do have to go to Whole Foods to get this other 10 percent.’ So we’re trying to serve that niche. What do you need? Let me get it in for you. We’re trying to be that one-stop shop for everybody in our neighborhoods.”
“Costco opened without carrying Camellia Red Beans, and they were publicly shamed,” says Marc Robért, co-owner of Robért Fresh Market. “It’s about understanding that local component and having those things available.”
Robért’s prides itself on being a destination for ‘foodies,’ stemming from the family’s own passion for eating and drinking. At its Robert E. Lee location, Robért’s has just unveiled one of the state’s largest selections of craft beer, a development spurred by the family’s personal tastes. Says Connick, “It kind of started because Marc and my husband kept saying, ‘You’ve got to get this beer in!’ and before you knew it, we didn’t have enough space for all these beers.”
They chose the Lakeview location as the site of this venture based on local customer demand for higher-end items. “This is definitely a neighborhood that is willing to spend a little more money on nicer things that they appreciate, whether fair-trade certified coffee or organic produce,” says Robért. But if this sounds like a local version of Whole Foods, Robért is quick to correct that notion. “They still need value somewhere, and we can offer that. We will always carry Coca-Cola, Lay’s potato chips… but we are not going to let those vendors be what we’re all about.”
The business is poised to expand within the New Orleans market, with a new location planned for St. Claude Avenue and Elysian Fields, slated to begin construction in 2016. The company has also made major infrastructure investments across its three locations over the past 18 months, and is supplementing the family’s expertise with outside talent, including former executives of Whole Foods and other stores.
For the family, operating a grocery store in New Orleans is a unique experience. “You can’t open a store in any other city, I don’t think, and get the same passion about the tradition of cooking and eating,” says Connick. “Eating is just fun here.”
Dorignac’s Food Center puts on a fresh face
In an effort to refresh its image, Dorignac’s Food Center’s 55-year old building is undergoing a major facelift. The storefront boasts a new façade, with glass replacing large sections of brick to bring in natural light and greet shoppers with a view of the bakery department. The renovation extends inside the store as well, with new flooring, lighting, deli and cafeteria, as well as an expanded produce department. But they were careful to maintain the Metairie landmark’s distinctive character, including its iconic sign.
Says President Ronnie Dawson, “We didn’t want to change our philosophy, customer service — everything Dorignac’s is known for — but we needed to make the building more attractive to people who are new to the marketplace, and to our very solid customer base who have grown up in the store.” That also meant erecting a screen to illuminate the building at night with colors commemorating LSU, the Saints, or Mardi Gras, depending on the occasion.
Dorignac’s Food Center is currently undergoing a large renovation aimed at improving the aesthetics of the 55-year-old building at 710 Veterans Boulevard.
To meet the demands of new shoppers, Dorignac’s, like many of its peers, has increased its organic and prepared food offerings, adding to its already broad selection of products. “We try to make sure we have everything,” says Dawson. That desire is reflected in the advertising slogan: “Yeah, We Got Dat,” which touts the store’s reputation for stocking hard-to-find items.
Dorignac’s is also using technology to modernize its approach, developing a social media advertising presence and offering shoppers the ability to use mobile devices to get discounts in the store or check out with Apple Pay. But while Dawson pushes the store to be “on the cutting edge of that piece,” he acknowledges the importance of excelling in the more personal aspects of customer service. “Our stockers know where products are, we have a bagger for every cashier,” he says. “We try to keep that environment as friendly as possible for our customers.”
Most importantly, Dawson believes the city’s independent grocers bring an asset that no national chain can offer. “We are here. The money stays in the community. Most of us are homegrown. The ownership is in the store on a daily basis, and people appreciate it — we have a face and a voice. That’s what our customers want.”
Langenstein’s maintains its long tradition of service
Owner and President, H.D. Lanaux, credits a strong customer orientation for Langenstein’s continued success – the business is now in its 95th year. “We take it to heart to do our best for our customers, and I believe they see that,” he says. “It’s trying your best to keep meat well stocked, maintaining stores, and meeting [customers’] needs as far as food requirements. That’s one of the backbones of our business. We were all brought up to think like that.”
Now in its 95th year, Langenstein’s has stood the test of time. Most recently, Owner and President H.D. Lanaux says the store has adapted to the demand for organic food and ready-to-eat meals, and has incorporated a lot more technology into the store.
While the service remains consistent, there are some changes evident in the stores. In addition to a move toward organic and ready-to-eat meals, Lanaux also notes the shift to incorporate technology into store operations. “It’s a lot more technical and computer driven – numbers analysis, space management, all of those things. Space management has always been a concern of grocers, that’s part of the business. The Uptown store – there’s not an inch up there that’s not used. When I first started, there wasn’t a computer. Everything was done hands-on — from payroll to pricing with old sticker guns and labels. Now I’m sitting in my desk and my store manager has a computer with three screens. It has gotten very analytical, but I leave that part to them. I like the downstairs, meeting with salesmen and talking to customers.”
Looking ahead, Langenstein’s plans to open its third location in early November, in River Ridge. Once that location is up and “running like a clock,” additional expansion remains a possibility. “There’s nothing in the works whatsoever,” says Lanaux, “but we might turn around and start looking for other opportunities if they present themselves.”
Local Grocery Standouts:
Beginnings – first store opened in Houma, Louisiana in 1960 by Anthony J. Rouse Sr.
Current leadership – Third generation of the Rouse family: Managing Partners Donny Rouse and Ali Rouse Royster.
Number of locations – 45 stores in 3 states (Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama)
Beginnings – The small Uptown corner grocer was started by Michael Langenstein and his two sons, George and Richard, in 1922. It is the oldest full-service grocery store in New Orleans.
Current leadership – H.D. and Trey Lanaux.
Number of locations – 2, one Uptown and one in Old Metairie.
Robért Fresh Market
Beginnings – Marc and Darlene Robért opened the first location on the corner of West Esplanade and Transcontinental in May 1994.
Current leadership – Marc and Darlene Robért
Number of locations – 3: one Uptown, one in Metairie and one in Lakeview
Dorignac’s Food Center
Beginnings – Joe Dorignac opened the first store in the Lower Garden District in 1947.
Current leadership – Ronnie Dawson, president, and Becky Fillinger, operations manager
Number of locations – 1 (currently undergoing renovations) on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie