Most gourmet food stores view bakery as secondary, but AJ's Fine Foods positions its boulangeries as the first step of a customer's shopping trip.
AJ's is part of the reputable Bashas' chain of supermarkets, based in Chandler, Ariz. Bashas' has more than 160 stores under three banners, which also include Food City, geared towards the Hispanic market.
As Bashas' gourmet format, AJ's is experiencing a growth spurt with three new stores opening during the past 18 months in Scottsdale and Chandler, and the company has one more scheduled to open in downtown Phoenix next year. With 14 locations now in metro Phoenix and Tucson, AJ's is fulfilling its stated mission of delivering “an upscale gourmet market experience.”
Even in a tough economy, AJ's has a couple of key advantages: location and quality foods. Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and is home to an increasing number of retired Baby Boomers.
This growing customer base appreciates good food and has the discretionary income to spend on it. While shoppers' dollars may not be going as far these days, customers are still just as busy and seeking shortcuts for meal preparation.
“A downturn in the economy may affect the restaurant business, but it can help businesses like ours,” says Chef Mario Martinez, AJ's director of bistros and boulangeries. “Why not get food that is of the same quality, if not better, and enjoy it in an entertainment setting in the home?”
AJ's Fine Foods' perimeter departments are designed to help its customers entertain groups and provide families home meal solutions. Each store features an in-store bakery, bistro, deli, cheese department, sushi bar, hot foods line, salad bar and olive bar.
“Our format has been to create a point of differentiation on the perimeter area of our stores,” Martinez says.
Its in-store bakery, which the company calls Boulangerie for its French-style format, is the first department customers see as they enter the door. Sleek European-style showcases display a full array of mousse cakes and delectable single-serve desserts, such as lemon bars and rocky road brownies. The bakery showcases, granite countertops and light fixtures provide a high-end feel. But, the bakery's high-quality product line imparts the “wow” factor that has customers thinking about desserts and bread as they shop the rest of the store.
Focus on gourmet cakes
AJ's Boulangeries focus on specialty desserts, a Signature Cake Collection and artisan breads. The department also incorporates a gelato program, chocolate confections, espresso coffee service and fruit smoothies.
AJ's Signature Cake Collection includes twelve cakes that are available at all AJ's locations. With an eye towards simple, elegant designs, decorators cover cakes in the collection with ganache, fresh fruit and decorative chocolates. Sacher torte, white chocolate marble rum, strawberry mousse, peaches ‘n cream and tiramisu are varieties included in the collection. The strawberry mousse cake, for example, features layers of vanilla cake and strawberry mousse, iced with whipped cream and garnished with strawberry fans and chocolate twirls.
“We try to incorporate different techniques in our cake decorations, but the cakes aren't over done,” Martinez says.
AJ's also introduced a designer cupcake line this month, which debuted just in time for Halloween. The bakeries plan to offer a core line of cupcakes along with seasonally decorated cupcakes throughout the year. The single-serve treats easily complement the rest of the bakeries' dessert assortment, offered in small portion sizes to encourage sales of dessert platters and other multi-product assortments.
Freshness is key
Fruit tarts are among AJ's Boulangerie's best-selling items, and they exemplify its in-store bakeries' penchant for freshness. “To get the best quality, products like these can't be made too far in advance,” Martinez says. Pastry chefs use frozen tart shells, prepare pastry cream from scratch and artfully arrange fresh fruit and glaze on the 4-in. and 8-in. tarts.
Simply Bread, a Phoenix-area specialty wholesale bakery, produces the bakery's extensive line of artisan breads, which are delivered fresh daily. The breads are branded under the Simply Bread name, and the vendor works with AJ's to develop breads that may have a more seasonal or ethnic appeal for different stores. Along with challah bread, for example, AJ's offers mandel bread, a twice-baked hard bread similar to Italian biscotti, for the Jewish high holidays.
“We surround ourselves with vendors and suppliers that share our core values and culinary sensibilities,” Martinez says. “Simply Bread is very dedicated to quality ingredients, and that's the type of vendor partner we like to align ourselves with.”
With its artisan breads produced from the local vendor, AJ's can focus on desserts and pastries produced in-house. Each bakery has a head pastry chef who oversees production and a bakery manager who handles the sales and merchandising area. About eight to 10 other boulangerie staff members are dedicated either to sales, cake decorating or production.
While each member has specific duties in the bakery, all are expected to provide customer service if needed. “Our production members recognize that when there is a need, it's all hands on deck,” Martinez says. “That's the culture of our company. Customer service is a very important part of what the AJ's brand is.”
Martinez has been with the company three months, but he is a 37-year veteran of the food and beverage industry and is a certified executive chef and certified advanced sommelier. He oversees the bistros and boulangeries for the entire chain and visits every location at least once a week. The team of 56 bakery and bistro managers from all stores (two from the bistro and two from the boulangerie) meet every other month to discuss ideas and direction for the departments.
These regular meetings are important and manageable with most stores in the Phoenix area, Martinez says; managers from Tucson, about two hours away, travel the furthest. The company may expand outside the Phoenix area, but it is currently focusing on its newest stores with one more set to open in downtown Phoenix in 2010. Martinez is concentrating on improvements among the bistros and boulangeries and coordinating both departments to complement one another to best serve AJ's customers.
“A big function of a gourmet market is to enable and empower clientele to be creative without necessarily needing a depth of culinary expertise,” Martinez says.
AJ's Boulangaries and Bistros have set the customer service bar high and have come a long way to establishing the store as the place for gourmet foods in the Phoenix area.
AJ's FINE FOODS
at a glance
Headquarters: Chandler, Ariz.
Parent company: Bashas' Famly of Stores
Founded: 1985 by AJ Bayless; In 1993, Bashas' acquired two-unit AJ's Fine Foods
Web site: www.ajsfinefoods.comv
Number of stores/in-store bakeries: 14/14
Management: Paul Chapman, bakery director, Bashas'; Mario Martinez, corporate executive chef and director of bistros and boulangeries, AJ's; Susan Neil, AJ's bakery manager (Pima Rd., Scottsdale)
Average store size: 18,000 sq. ft., petite size; 25,000, regular size
Market served: Phoenix metro area and Tucson
Product line: gourmet cakes/tortes, brownies/bars, breakfast pastries, cookies and artisan breads
Primary production methods: pastries, tortes, sweetgoods: scratch/mix; artisan breads: DSD fresh daily
Major bakery equipment: vertical mixer, rack oven, bread slicer, freezer
Plans: open new store in downtown Phoenix in 2010, establish more consistency in the bakery product lines among the 14 stores
AJ's FINE FOODS
sampling of prices
|Fruit tart, medium, 4 ins.||$5.99|
|Snicker Blitz cheesecake, slice||$3.99|
|Chocolate mousse cake, 8 ins.||$30.00|
|Lemon bar, 4 ins..||$2.99|
|Tuxedo dipped strawberries||$2.49|
|Strawberry mousse cake, 8 ins.||$30|
|Decorated cake, double layer, 8 ins||$30|