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Building An Appetite

Putting professional setbacks and personal tragedy behind him, grocery guru Michael Szathmary is on a quest to create the perfect supermarket - and sharing some of his secrets.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lisa Prevost
January 20, 2008

IT'S YET ANOTHER PICTURE-PERFECT DAY AT THE PINEHILLS in Plymouth, and here in the community's Summerhouse, nine happy residents are chatting over crudites and pita chips. The Summerhouse is actually the sales and administrative center, the place where prospective home buyers begin scoping out neighborhoods in this nearly 3,200-acre planned development. As with everything else here, however, its faintly nostalgic facade - white clapboard with porch and cupola - melts into a landscape painstakingly fashioned as a designer version of classic old New England.

The residents nestled on sofas in the lodgelike great room this fall afternoon are part of a focus group put together by the Pinehills marketing staff. Mainly women zooming through their retirement (one says she just returned from Amalfi, another announces a Vineyard cycling trip), they are here to let loose on the topic of food shopping: what they like about supermarkets, what really drives them crazy, and, most important, what they expect from The Market at Pinehills when it opens this spring. Its arrival is a relief because, although their six-year-old community has its own bank, Post Office, wine shop, community center, and health club, residents still have to drive at least 6 miles up Route 3 to reach the nearest supermarket. That the new market (Pinehills was considering a name change at press time) will be more convenient is a given - but this group, a mix of casual cooks and connoisseurs, is expecting a whole lot more.

The residents cut up magazines and paste together collages that illustrate their food-shopping ideal. There are the predictable expectations for freshness and selection, as depicted in cutouts of dewy produce, tantalizing baked goods, and prime cuts of meat. "I basically feel that when you walk into a market, it should always feel like Thanksgiving," says Sandi Blanda, a professional artist accustomed to New York City butcher shops and specialty stores. "It's about variety and freshness." Other pickier preferences include attractive (or at least well-groomed) employees, a demonstration kitchen, and e-mail alerts telling customers about weekly specials.

"Price" does not appear high up on anyone's priority list - this is definitely not a Wal-Mart demographic. (The average sale price for homes and condos at The Pinehills tops $500,000.) Rather, what emerges as a theme throughout their discussion is a shared sense that somehow, food shopping used to be better, even pleasurable, and should be again. You hear it most loudly in the group's repeated flogging of mega stores like Super Stop & Shop for endless grocery aisles, backed-up register lines, and mediocre-to-bad service. "I don't like service people who don't pay attention to you because they're busy chatting with each other," says one resident, Candee Stillerman. The supersizing of food shopping has left this group fatigued and frustrated; they long for familiar, attentive faces behind the counters, a real butcher, baker, and sushi-roll maker.

The group's energetic facilitator, Sandra Kulli, will later interpret their comments as an expression of a communal yearning for "authenticity," a "craving for moments of slowness when we choose them." That's sort of a fancy way of saying that what these shoppers want is what relatively affluent US consumers have been conditioned to expect: the best of all worlds, old and new, natural and man-made. They want to feel like they're shopping at their friendly neighborhood grocer, but they want quality and selection more akin to a specialty market like Balducci's in New York. Their desire for a melding of old-fashioned simplicity with modern-day comforts is, after all, what brought them to The Pinehills, an experiment in extreme pleasantness touted as the largest mixed-use development in New England.

Here, a quaint village green and miles of tree-lined walking trails coexist with two championship golf courses, million-dollar custom homes, and luxury apartments. The Post Office lobby resembles an old telegraph office, but the dry cleaner is an automated kiosk. The surroundings are so unwaveringly civilized (even speed-limit signs have been upgraded to granite) that the uninitiated might find them a bit comical or, perhaps, a bit dull. But predictability sells: The Pinehills has about 1,200 households (with an estimated population of 2,400) and could eventually reach close to 3,000 households.

Thus, well before this and other focus groups, Pinehills' principal developers - Stephen Karp and Steven Fischman of New England Development; Tony Green, formerly of the Newton-based Green Company; and Tom Wallace of Wallace Associates - had already decided to apply The Pinehills concept to food shopping. If the appeal proves universal enough to draw shoppers from outside The Pinehills' pristine borders, The Market could serve as a prototype for other select Massachusetts locations.

A look at The Market's design, from the building to the interior finishes to the layout to merchandising, shows how they plan to combine references to small-town New England with high-quality products and selection. The plan also provides more than a few clues as to why the items on your shopping list inevitably multiply whenever you walk through the supermarket doors.

FOR MANY OF US, FOOD SHOPPING IS SO RUSHED AND FREQUENT THAT it's just another form of necessary drudgery. The Pinehills demographic skews toward couples without kids or with kids who are grown, which means shoppers can take their time browsing the aisles. Leisurely food shopping has long been a favorite indulgence for Michael Szathmary, the certified foodie selected by Karp to help shape and operate the new Pinehills market. A Boston native, Szathmary's fascination with food began in the delis where he worked as a teenager. In the 1970s, he took a detour into the home-stereo business, but during business trips to New York, he says, "I'd get bored shopping stereo stores, so I'd shop the food stores." He switched retail specialties in the '80s, first going to work for Legal Sea Foods, where he expanded their fish markets to include prepared foods and specialty products, and then, in the 1990s, helping launch the Nature's Heartland natural-food stores.

In 2000, after Whole Foods Market bought out Nature's Heartland, Szathmary opened two specialty food stores modeled after the ones he frequented in Manhattan. Called Zathmary's, the stores, in Needham Heights and Brookline's Coolidge Corner, were known for their gourmet takeout, deli, sushi, and elaborate pastries. Zathmary's wasn't an everyday grocer, but the kind of place you shopped when you were having company for dinner or felt the urge to indulge on a lazy Sunday morning. Karp, as it happened, was a regular customer.

But the markets struggled, and Szathmary shut them both down early in 2006. That professional disappointment was quickly followed by personal tragedy: the death of his 51-year-old wife, Melissa, who had battled lymphoma for 17 years. Szathmary was devastated, and he dropped out of sight for a while, but by August 2006 felt ready to make a major change - he would move to San Diego and work with a hotel chain. That's when Karp called, he says. "Steve asked me, 'So, what are you going to do?' I told him I was headed to California for this job. And he said, 'Oh, you're running away.'" Recalling the moment, Szathmary laughs and shakes his head. "I said, 'Ya, I guess I am.'"

Karp's offer of a job running The Market gave Szathmary, now 57, a new stage on which to show off all he's learned. Though he has the gray hair and droopy eyes that come with the industry's brutally long hours, Szathmary still lights up when the topic is food. During lunch at Martha's Stone Soup, a new Pinehills restaurant located in a (real) historic tavern, he chats contentedly about his weakness for homemade soups (creamy potato leek, in this case), the difficulties of cooking goose, and why coffee is best made with a French press. Likewise, during an instructive stroll through the Whole Foods in Hingham, Szathmary points out display strategies like sights on a tour. His tutorial doesn't go unnoticed by the cross-looking manager, who briefly halts the tour and declares, "You're the guy from Zathmary's."

Szathmary firmly believes that "food is passion to most people" but that an inundation of superstores has deprived us of a pleasant shopping experience. The Market concept aims to slide into this widening niche by prioritizing quality and service, as Whole Foods has, but in a smaller, more mainstream package. First, The Market will not be like a Stop & Shop - at roughly 14,000 square feet, it will measure about a quarter of the size of the typical superstore. Second, it will stock conventional groceries at competitive prices. Customers are willing to pay for high-quality products at the perishable end (meat and produce), Szathmary says, but nobody wants to pay a premium for Cheerios or Heinz ketchup (or to have to go elsewhere to find them).

With substantially less shelf space, The Market will offer customers fewer choices in each grocery category. That's not a negative, Szathmary says, because most customers will welcome not having to pick among, say, 15 types of tuna. He's narrowing the choices for them by poring over regional sales reports from wholesalers and selecting top sellers in each category. "We'll offer a good, better, and best - you'll pick up the one that's at the price point you're looking for," he says.

That's the big-picture concept. But not everyone is convinced grocery stores set in developments like The Pinehills can succeed. Smaller markets have been tried before in so-called lifestyle residential communities, says David J. Livingston, managing partner of DJL Research, a supermarket research firm based in Wisconsin. "But for the most part," he says, "I've seen them not do so well." One reason is that housing developers aren't necessarily savvy retailers, and so their stores may not be run effectively. He adds that such markets are often predicated on the false assumption that everybody in the development will shop there.

"There's always room in the market for this type of 'experience' store," Livingston says. "The question is whether or not they have the capital to pull it off and enough population to support it." Because a supermarket typically needs a population of at least 10,000 to keep it going, he noted, the Pinehills market will likely need to draw as many shoppers from outside the development as from within to stay afloat.

Crowd appeal is what Szathmary, Green, Frank Giacomazzi, retired CEO of Purity Supreme supermarkets, and Pinehills president John Judge have been working on for the past year, carefully plotting out store details with guidance from Design Services Group, a market designer based in Minnesota. The six focus groups they convened confirmed that they were on the right track. The kinds of things you, the shopper, don't really notice on your supermarket excursions are the kinds of things management has spent months finessing, because, in combination, they will determine whether you keep coming back for more. The techniques used aren't new, but fashioned to fit The Pinehills ethos. Nothing is happenstance, and it all starts at the entrance. Let's go shopping.

INSTEAD OF A BIG CINDER-BLOCK BOX OF A BUILDING, THE MARKET will look like a friendly white barn - it's your first hint that the pace here is a little slower. Beneath a porchlike overhang at the entry doors, you will find a seasonal display artfully arrayed to get you thinking misty thoughts about current happenings and habits. In fall, for instance, the pumpkins and multicolored squashes spilling out of crates will suggest heartiness and chilly weather ahead. You may not realize you're thinking that way, however, until you walk through the store and confront a display of cider and fresh doughnuts or soups stacked next to oyster crackers. "This is impulse at its best," Szathmary says.

The old New England theme carries through the store's layout. Around the perimeter, each department is segmented to resemble individual vendors. Look up, and you will see wooden signs designating the Butcher Shoppe, Seafood Co., Chef's Alcove, and Farmer's Market. (Frozen foods and dairy are the last departments in line - you've got to get by the more tempting stuff first.) Behind each counter, employees wait to answer your questions and offer suggestions; even the prep kitchens are open to view. The seafood and meat cases are packed full, suggesting abundance, but nothing is prepackaged, suggesting freshness. In the center of the store, the grocery aisles are shorter and diagonal, making them more manageable.

The layout adheres to a supermarket fundamental, however, in that the produce section is closest to the entrance. Produce must be first, Szathmary says, because really fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables make you feel more confident about the overall quality of the market. The displays nearest the front will highlight local produce - a feel-good purchase on your part - or something seasonal and enticing, like a variety of peppers arranged from mild to fiery. You won't find a selection of lettuce out front, because Szathmary knows you will look for the lettuce on your own. Lettuce needs no hype.

The rest of the produce section will also have to keep your interest if you aren't to glide right past it on your way to the greens. The technique perfected by Whole Foods and other high-end grocers (and admired by Szathmary) is to tightly pack the produce to create blocks of similar hues, broken up here and there by bright bands of color, like with radishes or carrots. "It makes you want to look at everything," Szathmary says. And the more you look, of course, the more you buy.

What he does not want you to look at is the decor - food must be the focal point throughout the store. That's why the walls and floors are neutral earth tones. True, the black-and-white subway tile in meat and seafood will be a little more daring, but only because it's meant to evoke the spick-and-span butcher shop from the old neighborhood.

The visual draws continue in the bordering bakery area with a tempting pastry case. "It's the adult candy store," Szathmary says. "I love to watch their expressions - they sometimes look around to see if anyone's looking." The bakery will bake bread daily (using products that arrive ready to pop in the oven), in part because, in Szathmary's experience, the power of that aroma to evoke pleasant thoughts and get mouths watering is second only to that of sizzling garlic.

Shelving and lighting elsewhere in the store also maximize eye appeal. In the prepared-foods section, which will include a carving station and sushi bar, the entrees and side dishes will be splayed before you in cases with a slight angle in the glass. That angle brings you directly into the food, and "if you're hungry," Szathmary says, "you're in serious trouble." Likewise, in the grocery aisles, he'll go a step beyond the typical super-store by using black shelving to accentuate the colorful labels on bottles and cans and by employing lights that will wash the entire shelf, including what's below your knees. "You'll see products for the first time that you would otherwise walk right by," he says.

The displays at the end of the aisles are often assumed to be sale items, and sometimes they are. But because you'll be looking there for sales, Szathmary will also use those spots for some clever cross-merchandising. Maybe he'll pair a new type of cracker with unusual dipping sauces. Or he may go for the "gawk" factor: say, thick bars of expensive chocolate broken into decadent hunks.

At the cheese case, perhaps you'll recognize the featured variety offered for sampling from this month's issue of Bon Appetit. Over in prepared foods, you may be surprised to find your gaze resting upon roasted Brussels sprouts with shallots, a dish you wouldn't typically consider. You may not recall that you saw the same dish pictured in the food section of last week's newspaper. (Szathmary saw it, too.) Brussels sprouts in hand, you head to the antipasto section of the salad bar. You really want only a little, but the single-size plastic container available has six sections. It seems wasteful to fill only one or two, so you obligingly spoon them all full of marinated this and roasted that.

What The Market aims to provide is a total sensory smorgasbord, an indulgence for your eyes, your nose, your taste buds, even your ears, which will be treated to jazz and classical standards rather than canned pop tunes. The pinched New Englanders of old probably wouldn't have approved of such lavishness, but who cares? That was then - and this is The Pinehills.

Lisa Prevost, a freelance writer in Connecticut, last wrote about an alternative medicine clinic for the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at lprevost@prodigy.net.

The new supermarket is giving food-store veteran Michael Szathmary a chance to showcase everything he's learned about the industry. The new supermarket is giving food-store veteran Michael Szathmary a chance to showcase everything he's learned about the industry. (Photo by Tim Llewellyn)

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