Like grocers around the country, when the pandemic struck, Alfalfa’s Market was forced to close its in-store cafes, as well as its salad and hot bars. But the Boulder, Colo.-based grocer with two locations and a third on the way wasn’t about to sit tight and wait out COVID-19. It took action—shutting down its in-store Boulder kitchen, hiring a celebrated Colorado restaurant chef to serve as culinary director, reviewing its deli data and financials, remodeling and upgrading its foodservice equipment, and revamping its menu.
“The silver lining of the pandemic, if you can call it that, was that grocery stores were considered essential when the pandemic hit. But while sales in produce, meat, seafood and dry goods were up, sales of prepared foods almost came to a halt,” says John Gengel, Alfalfa’s director of store performance.
Alfalfa’s seized the slow down as an opportunity to accelerate the reinvention of its prepared foods department. “Bringing in chef James allowed us to beef up our infrastructure and up the level and quality of our food, while maintaining our ingredients standards. The result is food that tastes great—like a four-star restaurant,” Gengel affirms. “And when demand for grab-and-go came back, we were ready for it with a new kitchen and recipes.”
Alfalfa’s has remerchandised its salad bar and hot bar, filling the wells with drink boxes and an array of grab-and-go offerings for everyday consumption. During holidays, such as Labor Day weekend, the set can be reimagined once again. This September, Alfalfa’s filled the bars with over-wrapped uncooked burgers and meats, as well as packaged potato salads and more.
The Market’s new culinary director, chef James Mazzio, is well-known in Colorado, especially for his work in Aspen and Boulder. While helming the kitchen at Boulder’s then famed 15 Degrees restaurant, he nabbed Food + Wine’s 1999 Best New Chef award. He is also a former alum of Aspen’s Mezzaluna and Renaissance restaurants.
Driven by a new culinary vision, Alfalfa’s has been emboldened to try new things in prepared foods. It recently rolled out a new Roman pizza program and made-to-order burgers.
Roman-style pizza has a single-slice price of $2.75 or two slices for $5.25. Margarita; Rossa (red sauce, pepperoni, mozzarella, provolone and Parmesan); Bolo (grandma’s braised meat sauce, ricotta and Parmesan); Veggie; Mediterranean; and Mushroom are also on the menu. As are a variety of mixed greens, superfood and Caesar salads.
House Ground Steak Burgers for $7.99 are available with a variety of customizable add-ons, from hand-cut fries ($1.99) to crispy bacon, housemade guacamole, a fried egg or extra patty for 99 cents each. Hothouse tomato, butter lettuce, jalapeno aioli, caramelized onions, American cheese and a toasted brioche bun are included. Other burger and sandwich options include a Black Bean Burger ($7.99); Roasted Vegetable Grilled Cheese ($7.50); Crispy Chicken ($7.99); Hot Pastrami made from house-smoked brisket ($7.99); and Barbecue Pork in a honey bourbon barbecue sauce ($7.50).
“Most people are taking the made-to-order food to go,” says Gengel. While Alfalfa’s offers some outdoor seating, its in-store cafes remained closed as of press time. “When it comes to in-store dining, a lot of people are still freaked out regardless of what the science says,” he adds.
There are also a plethora of cleaning and social distancing protocols that make reopening in-store dining venues difficult. “It’s hard to have all of the moving parts of a normal grocery store, and also manage foodservice. I think the way we sell prepared foods in grocery may have changed forever,” Gengel adds.
That said, Gengel sees shoppers regaining confidence with in-store shopping, and more specifically the prepared foods department, every day. “The trend is definitely that people are more comfortable in the store. Given our Boulder store’s layout, at one point, people weren’t even venturing on the prepared foods’ side of the store. Now they’re checking out our new merchandising. We have regulars and business is slowly growing.”
With Chef Mazzio overseeing all culinary operations and bringing his creativity and expertise to the development of recipes, as well as the functionality of the kitchen, and presentation of the dishes in the case, Alfalfa’s has elevated its food experience with high-quality organic and all-natural, healthful options. And as the nation’s economic challenges related to the pandemic persist, the grocer is equally mindful of putting value on its prepared foods menu.
“Part of being a good retailer is being nimble and reacting quickly,” says Gengel. “We’re very sensitive to that. As we move into the next phase of consumerism, we’re very focused on preserving everyday value.”