Providing the staples isn’t enough anymore for most Baton Rouge area grocers, which are increasingly adding specialized product lines and freshly prepared meals to their mix of offerings. Here, Raymond Aung prepares sushi plates at the former LeBlanc’s Frais Marche at the Drusilla Village Shopping Center. Photography by Tim Mueller
The supermarket industry has seen rapid growth in the 21st century, across the country and here in Baton Rouge, where competition among grocers is more fierce than ever as new food retailers of all formats—most recently, Rouses Supermarkets—enter the Capital Region.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Calandro’s. The family-owned supermarket has been a staple in Baton Rouge for three-quarters of a century. Calandro’s, which opened its first store on Government Street in 1941 and a second location on Perkins Road in 2000, has outlived many competitors over the years, but today’s market may prove to be the most challenging.
“Since 1941, we’ve seen the impact of food chains. We survived all that,” says Blaise Calandro, a second-generation co-owner along with his three brothers. “But since we opened the Perkins Road store 16 years ago, the market has changed drastically. Eight or nine different stores have opened since we’ve been here. The competition is much greater.”
Like many independent supermarkets, Calandro’s began to veer from the traditional grocery store model in the 1970s. It carved out a niche by offering gourmet foods, unique products and one of the best wine selections in town. Based on this upscale concept, the second location was built in 2000, but a few years later, national food retailers came into Baton Rouge with a similar idea.
“Ultimately, the customer is the winner when retailers are forced to up their game to prove their relevance in the marketplace.” —Jim Dudlicek, editor-in-chief, Progressive Grocer
Whole Foods arrived in 2005, followed by The Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s and Costco. These outside chains joined Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Target and a host of independent grocers including Calandro’s, Matherne’s, Hi Nabor, LeBlanc’s, Bet-R and Calvin’s Bocage. In 2015, Rouses became the largest independent grocer to enter the Capital Region market. With so many new grocery options, longtime locals are starting to feel the pressure but still standing their ground.
“Everyone could always do better,” Calandro says. “We’re still surviving from a standpoint of meeting the challenge of competition. Calandro’s knows Baton Rouge. It is changing. We have to stay on top of it, but we know the trends in Baton Rouge.”
Industry experts say a challenge might be just what some grocers need. A competitive environment is obviously great for consumers, but it also provides an opportunity for grocery stores to get creative, diversify themselves and thrive.
“It’s a great time for innovation, and if anyone is going to be innovative, it’s going to be the independent,” says Greg Ferrara, senior vice president of public affairs at the National Grocers Association, which represents the independent sector.
Ferrara says competition is at an all-time high, even cutthroat in some areas, during a difficult year due to price deflation in grocery stores, which typically operate on 1% to 2% net profits. And competition isn’t exclusive to supermarkets. Drugstores, dollar stores, specialty markets and more are vying for grocery shoppers as well.
To keep up, local stores are finding innovative ways to attract customers, often by offering products they can’t find elsewhere. Ferrara, a New Orleans native who is familiar with the local market, points to Calandro’s recent fifth annual Rare Whiskey Raffle, where customers had a chance to win whiskey, with proceeds going to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
“The line was out the door,” Ferrara says. “It’s a great way to get people to come in.”
While Calandro’s has cultivated a focus on gourmet, hard-to-find products, other local grocery stores have taken different approaches to find their niche—be it a specialty meat department, exclusive local products or simply having quality service.
Take Bet-R, which has operated as a neighborhood grocery store at the Perkins Road overpass since 1961. The small store focuses on friendly, convenient service. It offers basic grocery items and has a loyal customer base in surrounding neighborhoods. Besides an expansion in 2011, Bet-R hasn’t changed much since it opened 56 years ago, and it hasn’t had to.
“Bet-R is kind of different. We win with customer service,” says owner Cliff Boulden. “The people around here are so good to us. Even when Trader Joe’s opened down the road, we didn’t miss a beat.”
Hi Nabor Supermarkets have also been a fixture in Baton Rouge since 1963. Jim Crifasi, president of Hi Nabor, which has three locations, says they’ve updated the stores over time to keep up with new trends, like prepared meals. The deli now serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and two of the stores offer sushi.
But these new fads are not what the business banks on. Hi Nabor’s focus has always been low prices and good service. Its bread and butter is fresh local produce and a quality meat department, where they still cut and grind meat in store, Crifasi says. That’s just what customers have come to know and expect of Hi Nabor, he says.
Local grocers like Crifasi are in touch with the communities they serve, says Emile Breaux, president and CEO of Baton Rouge-based Associated Grocers. They don’t try to be all things, like Wal-Mart. Instead, they succeed by being on the forefront of new and innovative local products and focusing on suppliers and growers in their region.
“It’s important to reinforce: The industry is changing, but independent businesses are strong and will survive just fine,” Breaux says. “We’re familiar with new formats. We’re going to do what we’re good at and know.”
In addition, independent grocers tend to thrive in smaller markets like Baton Rouge, says Jim Dudlicek, editor-in-chief of trade publication Progressive Grocer. Baton Rouge may not beckon grocery giants like Florida-based Publix or HEB in Texas, but it’s able to foster a wealth of local grocers, many with multiple locations. According to NGA, Louisiana is home to 381 independent stores that generate $1.66 billion in annual sales and 16,260 jobs.
And Dudlicek believes there is room for all grocery formats if they can find a following among shoppers. Those who enjoy a full, culinary-focused shopping experience will go to stores like Rouses or Whole Foods, while customers who want to stretch their dollars will go to discount stores or Wal-Mart.
“Meanwhile, independent operators like small chains and one-offs can serve niche markets by specializing in things like full-service meat departments with custom cuts, organic produce, etc.,” Dudlicek says. “Ultimately, the customer is the winner when retailers are forced to up their game to prove their relevance in the marketplace.”