Breaking Into New York’s Food Shops

by Anne Kadet, The Wall Street Journal, July 4, 2014.

What It Takes to Get Artisan Products on the Shelves of Murray’s Cheese, Peck’s and the City’s Other Specialty Stores

Saetta Collection by Heirloom Studio

Saetta Collection by Heirloom Studio

Brooklynite Nate Meshberg just spent a year developing his Fort Greene Farms line of artisanal condiments, sweating over details ranging from the label on his charred sriracha hot sauce to the formation of his LLC.

But now he’s dealing with the real challenge—getting his small-batch spreads and relishes into New York stores.

True, he enjoyed quick success in Northampton, Mass., and Falls Church, Va.—gourmet shopkeepers across the nation, it seems, are hot to stock anything Brooklyn.

“They eat it up,” said Mr. Meshberg.

But locally? It’s a lot tougher.

Mr. Meshberg would love to see his pickled mustard seeds and red-pepper relish displayed on the shelves of a high-profile store such as Murray’s Cheese, in Greenwich Village, or even a neighborhood shop like Peck’s in Fort Greene. He has had promising conversations with several local shopkeepers. But so far, no orders.

“It’s saturated,” he said.

It may be easier to get yourself into Harvard than get your chutney stocked in New York’s gourmet food shops.

Gaia DiLoreto, owner of By Brooklyn in Cobble Hill, estimates that perhaps one in 10 applicants make it over her counter. Eric Demby, co-founder of Smorgasburg, the weekly open-air foodie fairs in Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridge Park, said the odds are even worse at his markets.

Last week, at the Murray’s Cheese headquarters in Long Island City, I sat in on a tasting of five cheeses fresh off the boat from Europe.

Steve Millard, Murray’s director of merchandising, had already sampled the goods on a recent trip abroad but wanted a second take before placing an order. After all, a cheese that wowed him in Paris might not taste so great in a Queens conference room.

“It’s the honeymoon effect,” he said.

Indeed, a wheel of bleu proves disappointing—acrid and bitter.

“I tried this in Spain and thought it was amazing,” said Mr. Millard. “It could have been Barcelona, the wine, the Spanish women.…”

Everyone goes crazy for a gooey sheep’s milk cheese from Portugal, which Jason Donnelly, Murray’s vice president of sales and food service, refers to as “instant fondue.”

It is insanely delicious, with a decided thistle-rennet tang. When no one’s looking, I briefly consider dumping the entire wheel in my purse.

“A no-brainer!” said Mr. Donnelly. Mr. Millard agreed: “It’s got an amazing wow factor.”

But nothing prepares the tasters for a powerful cow’s milk cheese, also from Spain. It coats the mouth like cement; the flavor magically evolves from mildly unpleasant to utterly repulsive. Brian Ralph, who manages the store’s four cheese caves, nearly chokes.

“It tastes like someone threw up smoke in my mouth,” he said.

Food makers shower Murray’s with more than 300 samples every month, and a surprising percentage just don’t taste good—especially baked products, said Mr. Millard.

But taste and quality are just the first consideration.

Local shopkeepers said they scrutinize everything from the manufacturer’s business acumen to product packaging. Customers paying $18 for a jar of maple cream, after all, expect it to look great on the table.

And those are just the obvious factors.

At the Murray’s store on Bleecker Street, Mr. Millard points out a display of preserves. Local brands like Brooklyn’s Anarchy in a Jar get preference, as do novelties that lend variety, like the ice-wine jelly, and products offering extraordinary presentation, like the $19 Saporina Balsamic Jelly, packaged in a heavy glass cube.

“It’s amazing! Like a weapon!” said Mr. Millard.

The selection is carefully orchestrated to include both affordable and high-end options, of course, but Mr. Millard said he probably wouldn’t offer a jam priced under $6: “It wouldn’t sell.”

It also helps if a product has a story.

These days, foodies demand an earnest, feel-good narrative to share at the table. For example, the tart $13 cherry-apricot jam is “made from endangered Blenheim apricots harvested from one of the last orchards in California’s Santa Clara Valley.”

Murray’s also stocks fettuccine from an upstate duck-egg pasta maker raising his own flock and chocolate made from wild-harvested cacao shipped via canoe by indigenous peoples along the Amazon.

At the coffee display, Mr. Millard reveals a little psychological trick. There is no special reason to carry Intelligentsia or Stumptown coffees—they’re available all over town.

But the presence of these well-known snob-appeal brands serves as a signal, lending credibility to the more obscure brands displayed alongside. If you like Intelligentsia or Stumptown, you might be persuaded to risk $15 on a bag of hand-roasted De La Paz, a brand from San Francisco.

And that’s a big deal. Like talent scouts on the hunt for the next big performer, food scouts want to be known for discovering the next big gourmet sensation, whether it’s fig jam or Pittsburgh charcuterie.

“We want to be ahead of the trend,” said Mr. Millard.

Could that mean there’s space at Murray’s for Nate Meshberg’s pickled mustard seeds?

The Brooklynite said he hasn’t made contact, but Murray’s tops his short list.

Meanwhile, he’s glad to have new stores lined up in Austin, Texas, and Burlington, Vt., eager for a taste of Brooklyn.

“They want to be hip,” he said, “and I’m happy to provide that service.”

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