ST. LOUIS â National chains, including Wal-Mart, continue to make inroads in the St. Louis market, but the city and its suburbs are still heavy with independent, regional chains.
Schnuck Markets operates more than 70 stores in St. Louis, the majority share of its 106 stores in seven states. The chain opened two concept stores last year, one of which is a specialty store in the heart of downtown called Culinaria.
âJust like most downtowns, thereâs been a resurgence,â said Mike OâBrien, vice president of produce.
âThere are a lot of lofts, a lot of retirees. We saw it as a void.â
The storeâs target customers are loft residents and downtown workers. It prepares more food in-store than the typical Schnuckâs, and is doing very well, OâBrien said.
âWe call it Culinaria, but everyone calls it Schnuckâs downtown,â OâBrien said.
The second concept store for Schnuckâs is a larger footprint store, at about 75,000 square feet, compared with no more than 65,000 for a typical store. That location has the chainâs first cooking school, with a goal of educating consumers directly.
OâBrien said Trader Joeâs entered the market a few years ago, but Schnuckâs has not seen a downturn in business. Aldi, Shop ân Save and Dierbergâs are also strong players in the market.
After closing its Ellisville store in October, Straubâs Markets is operating with the four stores itâs had for years.
âIt was a beautiful store, itâs just the timing was off,â said Greg Lehr, produce buyer for the chain. âIt was the economy.â
The chain focuses on local and specialty produce â anything it can do to be different, Lehr said. Customers are willing to pay a little more for higher-quality product, he said.
âOf course we try to be competitive on the price standpoint, but we try to have that (quality) advantage,â Lehr said.
One of the ways Straubâs tries to set itself apart is by processing fresh-cut items in-house. Lehr said everything except its salad mixes is done at the stores, including carrot and celery sticks, fruit salads, stir-fry and shish kebab packs and fresh squeezed juices.
Lehr said he is considering putting in a cut fruit bar.
The chain also brings in peaches from Goldbud Farms, Placerville, Calif., that sell for $9.99 a pound, and are a staple item for the stores. Straubâs is the exclusive retailer of the peaches in St. Louis.
Schnuckâs does a similar thing with Colorado corn.
âWeâre looking forward to Coloradoâs corn season again this year,â OâBrien said. âThey have really good corn, and our customers ask for it.â
Schnuck Markets is also doing grill-ready mixes, with vegetables and fruits like pineapple packaged in aluminum, ready for the fire.
Straubâs sources its produce directly from growers and wholesalers on Produce Row, wherever itâs finding better deals on quality products.
âWe use every avenue we can,â Lehr said. âBeing a small store, weâve got that little bit of advantage.â
Although the company is land-locked near the middle of the country, Schnuck Markets is going global with its training and education systems. The chain is doing more Web seminars with suppliers, and is passing the knowledge along through instore cooking classes and Web seminars for consumers.
âWeâre here and our suppliers are all over the country,â OâBrien said. âAnd we believe in category management, so we starting doing these webinars.â