Grocerant Operator Profile: Gary Zickel

January 28, 2016

The Great Grocerant sat down with Gary Zickel, Manager of Foodservice Operations, Mariano’s, 34 stores in and around Chicago, to chat about the growing grocerant business.

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The Great Grocerant sat down with Gary Zickel, Manager of Foodservice Operations, Mariano’s, 34 stores in and around Chicago, to chat about the growing grocerant business. 

The Great Grocerant:  What inspires you to pursue the grocerant opportunity today?

Gary Zickel, Mariano’s:  Our customers want more healthful, freshly made solutions they can now find only in restaurants. They seek more variety during one-stop shops. They want to grab something good to eat at the start or middle of their shopping experiences. Bob and Nina Mariano drew strong customer response when they introduced restaurant-quality sushi five years ago. This contrasted with other grocers that brought in frozen, slapped a label on it, and stuck in grab-and-go cases.

Sushi is now in all of our stores. It is one of our restaurant-quality concepts that succeeded in new stores, and that we’ve slowly added to older stores. Among our popular concepts: Todd’s BBQ, a smokehouse we began three years ago that is now in 11 stores; pizza; sandwiches; oysters; hot bars with 28 half-pan choices; gelatos; wine bars; Veg/d, raw vegan and vegetarian bars; and Squeez’d, smoothies bars that use fresh fruits from our produce department.

TGG:  Which three words come to mind when you think of your grocerants.  Why?

Zickel:  Seasonal. Well rounded. Value. And a fourth, Social.

Why seasonal? Mariano’s emphasizes seasonal ingredients in pizza, sandwiches and other foods. Signage lets people know. Proximity to the fresh produce department makes it easy for shoppers to buy the same peak-season ingredients for home that they just enjoyed here. We use seasonal to rotate new, fresh tastes into our menus.

Why well rounded? Diversified offerings.

Why value? Our grocery stores have significant buying power vs. restaurants, so we can pass savings along to customers.

Why social too? Each store has a grand piano – as often as possible, it’s near the grocerant. The music entices singles, and couples and friends shopping together, to relax with a glass of wine or beer. Many browse longer too and talk about the foods. Others like to grab-and-go with music.

TGG:  What sets your efforts apart to win meal share vs. many kinds of eateries and food retailers? 

Zickel:  Quality, value and comfort. Our sushi bars have about 16 seats, Todd’s from 6 to 12 seats, an open dining area from 30 to 70 seats. These are peaceful atrium settings with windows and foliage. Wifi too. And better value than Starbucks. We draw lunch and dinner crowds from offices. Parents feel confident their kids can come here and make smart eating choices. For example, all veggies in our hot bar are fresh. The more varieties we show, and the fresher they are, the more people buy them.

Though we don’t post recipes, we do verbally share ingredients from our store with shoppers who want to replicate the same dishes at home.

TGG:  Describe the importance of the grocerant to the rest of the store.

Zickel:  Shoppers can mix and match their storewide purchases with what they find at the grocerant – both ingredients to replicate, and items to complement. They can develop fuller, robust meal plans for home, and buy bigger baskets as a result.  Our own study of grocerant sushi customers shows significant lift in basket size. 

Our grocerants are destinations that generate trips. Each concept can attract specific customer segments; for instance, Veg/d appeals to yoga enthusiasts in certain neighborhoods. Grocerants also lengthen trips and make people feel less pressured about finishing trips.  They enhance the stores’ fresh, healthful image. Students inundate our stores near schools at lunch and after classes, so we’re training the next generation of shoppers to come to Mariano’s. 

TGG:  In your experience, can a grocerant change how shoppers view a store?

Zickel:  Yes, and the results just described - more trips, longer trips and larger transactions - bear this out. Whenever we open a store in a new community for us, people have already heard of us. I can’t tell you how many people stop Bob Mariano at the grand openings to say how we’ve changed the whole supermarket experience for them. They mention the beauty of the store, the music, their ability to enjoy a smoothie, beer, wine or more, and how good they feel about sending their kids here for dinner.

TGG:  Share with us your own food background, and how you see the role of grocerant chef enhancing a store’s success.

Zickel:  I’m not a chef, but chefs inspire me. I’ve always had a passion for food. I began in foodservice washing dishes to put myself through college, then managed a small restaurant chain in Michigan and helped them open new sites. Business degree in hand, I moved to Chicago, met my partner and starting helping him. Now it seems I know everyone in the restaurant world.

I started with Mariano’s as a sushi consultant five years ago, and joined full-time nearly three years ago to develop grocerant concepts and run operations. I still remain a passive partner in two restaurants: The Salero menu focuses on the Basque region of Spain. Wood, a contemporary American restaurant, has earned the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand designation in each of the past four years.

My continued involvement in the restaurant community keeps me on point for Mariano’s. I always ask questions like, can I do this in a grocery store, how would it work operationally, can I pull it off?   

From my restaurant experience, I brought to Mariano’s the importance of freshness and quality. As I continuously train and develop chefs in 34 stores, I instill in them that people want fresh food that looks good, is healthful and prepared properly – that we all need to stick to these quality standards everyday.

TGG:  What can NRA Show 2016 do to help your grocerant be more successful?

Zickel:  Keep bringing in diverse vendors, including equipment makers from abroad, because I’m designing kitchens now for stores that won’t open until 2017 or 2018. My concept ideas sometimes start from the equipment I see – perhaps a crepe maker from France, or gelato packaging that allows better shrink control.

To read more about retail foodservice sign up for our monthly enewsletter The Great Grocerant.