At ROI-NJ summit, talk focused on N.J.’s great food culture — and how to make it even better

By Meg Fry
Whippany | Oct 21, 2019 at 5:00 am

Linda Doherty, president of New Jersey Food Council, tried to put the dramatic growth of the industry in perspective.

“You don’t need to be a foodie to recognize the changing landscape of food around us,” she said. “People are talking about healthier diets, food packaging, ugly produce, food insecurity, gluten-free, food recalls, specialty foods, the adulteration of food with cannabidiol, plant-based foods, single-use shopping bags, food waste, the expansion of grocery stores in New Jersey and the insurgence of home delivery platforms and in-store pickup.

“Food is always on our minds.”

Stew Leonard Jr. said he couldn’t agree more. Especially in New Jersey,

Leonard, CEO and president of Stew Leonard’s, a family-owned and -operated farm fresh grocery store celebrating its 50th year in business, expressed his feelings during the keynote address of ROI-NJ’s inaugural Food & Beverage Innovation Summit, held Wednesday at the Birchwood Manor in Whippany.

“New Jersey is a food mecca,” he said. “We buy a lot of Jersey products already.”

Stew Leonard’s invested nearly $25 million to build its seventh food and wine location in Paramus a month ago.

“What we’ve found is that New Jersey customers’ tastes are more sophisticated,” Leonard said.

At Paramus in the past month, customers have enjoyed nearly 100,000 fresh apple cider doughnuts, 50,000 containers of organic milk, 10,000 Maine lobster rolls and more cauliflower pizza and fine wine than Leonard said the store can keep up with.

“We can’t make those cauliflower pizzas fast enough,” he said. “And we’ve noticed that all of our $50-plus wines have sold twice as fast here than in any of our other stores.”

Local products also have remained key.

ROI-NJ honored the members of its Top 10 ROI Influencers: Food & Beverage list for 2019.

“Our customers would rather have us buy from a local farm more so than even buying organic, because they trust their local family-owned farms,” Leonard said. “They want to support the businesses in their community.”

However, prepared foods also have proved to be popular.

“We sold two tons of prepared food in the first week of being open,” Leonard said.

Leonard added that his team interviewed more than 4,000 for the 400 available jobs at its Paramus location, but labor can still be an issue in such a tight market.

“However, more than 80% of our management team has been promoted from within,” he said.

Finally, Leonard said that Stew’s Tank, a new business initiative kicked off at the grocer’s East Meadow location on Long Island, New York, will soon be implanted at Paramus.

“We had 132 entries from small businesses who wanted to introduce their product at the store,” he said. “We paired it down to 12 who we thought would do well and told them they needed to demo for the whole month in East Meadow.

“The four winners hustled — it’s tough, it’s not easy. You need to really work at earning everyone’s business.”

The event drew hundreds of members of New Jersey’s food and beverage business community, with retailers, distributors, wholesalers, manufacturers, restaurateurs and more gaining insightful perspectives from multiple panels.

Eugene Gross, co-founder of Altru Brands, said he knows the feeling, as the co-creator of a new exotic plant-based flavored water and the first and only beverage to include glutathione, the “master antioxidant.”

“Brand awareness is a challenge,” Gross said. “It’s been eight months since we launched and, while we worked really hard on developing a great product and packaging, to get people to try us, we have to work to demo and educate our consumers on the exotic fruits and health benefits involved.”

Food as medicine is also a focus for Estee Smoler, a registered dietitian nutritionist and co-developer of the Nutrition Centers at Saker ShopRites.

“Today’s consumer can’t be helped with just fruits, vegetables and whole grains — they’re actively looking for free-from and anti-inflammatory foods,” she said. “So, while space is always a challenge, we created and dedicated an entire space to house all of these products.

“The Nutrition Center is nearly 5,000 square feet dedicated to sports nutrition, vitamins and supplements, herbal remedies and foods that are free from certain ingredients such as gluten and dairy.”

Still, while the consumers’ desire for health and wellness has trended upwards, convenience remains top-of-mind, too, Richard McArdle, executive director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, said.

“Convenience created 90% of the business that we all talk about,” he said. “How we get things to be where we want them, when we want them and how we want them has always driven our business.

“Even though we feel guilty about it, convenience is going to be a continuing trend, so, if you can figure out how to get farm-to-fork in a customized way, that’s huge.”

Clara Park of Chelten House was a panelist at the event.

Clara Park, corporate chef at Chelten House in Swedesboro, said people want to be able to buy restaurant-quality products in the supermarket to make high-quality meals for their loved ones in under half an hour for less than $10 a portion.

“My challenge is, how do you make a high-quality dish that a consumer can buy for $4.99 with clean ingredients?” she said. “It’s about authenticity, but also speed, convenience and affordability.”

Josh Dunaway, director of corporate development at AeroFarms, the indoor vertical farm and technology company in Newark, said cost — and how to properly finance one’s business — is as important to the business as its mission.

“AeroFarms has done a great job of being smart about when and who to raise capital from,” he said. “Ours is a capital-intensive manufacturing and production process. So, who are the right investors who are going to see that long-term horizon, who can partner with us to help us understand the tradeoffs between debt and equity?”

Howard Dorman, partner and food and beverage practice leader at Mazars USA, said it is important for businesses to consider these questions sooner rather than later.

“Even if you’re starting up, I know legal firms are expensive, but you need the right advice coming in,” he said. “It’s very difficult during the process to have to rewrite your operating agreement or when you’ve negotiated some stock grants with your employees, but it hasn’t yet been documented.

‘You have to spend some time and some money up front to develop a good foundation.”

Money can come from several sources.

Timothy Rankins Sr., a manager with EiserAmper, said tax credits are available to more members of the sector than many realize.

“Six or seven years ago, the larger food companies started to claim this benefit,” he said. “It’s now the smaller companies realizing they are also now eligible.”

Food and beverage companies are also beginning to heavily invest in advanced technologies, but Jenna Ciesielski, regional director for New York City metro at Vonage, said sometimes less is more.

“Something as simple as SMS (texting) has a 97% read rate — you just don’t get that same return with email or paper,” she said. “Then you can get a 20% return on a coupon, which leads to a 10% increase in traffic.”

Lastly, Zak Romanoff, president of Omni Food Sales, said that, while we may begin to start seeing the introduction of deliveries by drones and self-driving trucks, technology and data will continue to be used to help people connect.

“We want to have in-depth conversations about what we are feeding our families and what the differences are between brands because we’re making split-second decisions at the shelf — so, if we could hit a button for a customer service representative to answer these questions, that would be great.”

Read more from ROI-NJ:

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3