DENVER -- Founder and CEO Mike Fogarty describes Choice Market as a hybrid fast-casual restaurant/natural grocery/convenience store. That’s a lot to choose from.
The approximately 2,600-square-foot c-store, which opened in Denver in October 2017, offers omnichannel options such as online and app ordering, delivery, traditional checkout and self-checkout, so customers have multiple ways to interact with the brand.
“Our goal with Choice is to create a great user experience, whether it’s online or in store,” Fogarty told CSP.
Fogarty grew up working in restaurants in Philadelphia and has also worked in procurement and supply-chain management, most recently at WhiteWave Foods and Danone Group North America, experiences that “helped shape Choice’s product selection and the concept itself.”
- CSP named Fogarty one of its 2018 “indie innovators.” Click here for more and to see who else made the list.
Here is a Q&A with Choice Market founder and CEO Fogarty. …
Moving the needle
Q: What inspired you to create this retail concept?
A: I was a loyal Wawa customer. Wawa was certainly an influence. It has a cult following.
But even more so was the six months I spent in Barcelona, studying abroad. We would frequent these small grocery stores that are on every corner. We went five times a week, sometimes every day. You get in, you get out in less than 10 or 15 minutes. They’re about 5,000 to 10,000 square feet, with a highly curated product selection and high-quality groceries. They have one or two items within each category, not 50. That type of shopping experience was missing in the U.S. market.
Also, at WhiteWave, we were working on a ready-to-go, on-trend chocolate milk in a bottle that was targeted to c-stores, and for whatever reason, they wouldn’t take it. They just weren’t interested. It was shocking. It was clear to me these c-stores weren’t moving the needle in terms of adapting to healthy trends in eating. If they weren’t going to do it, I thought maybe we should give it a shot and see if we could create something unique, different and that aligns with consumers’ preferences for fresh, local, organic, plant-based products.
Convenience is an adjective
Q: What interests you about convenience-store retailing?
A: Convenience is an adjective. You can make convenient good food. We’re basically the same size as a convenience store, we have the same transaction times as a convenience store, it’s just that our product selection includes more natural and organic and better-for-you food options. But it’s still convenient. If we can make it accessible and convenient to get prepared food and organic produce and even raw proteins, that’s really appealing to me. It seemed to me like a really great opportunity to redefine what a convenience store can and should be.
Q: What does Choice Market offer?
A: We want to make sure Choice has really good, high-quality prepared foods, but also groceries and daily essentials that customers need to pick up for dinner or for a snack.
In terms of the merchandising mix, I would say this store is 80% natural or organic or on the better-for-you spectrum, 20% more traditional c-store fare. We have everything from kombucha on tap to a full coffee program of lattes to beer and wine on tap, a bread section with bagels and freshly baked goods coming from local bakeries.
We carry Coke, Sprite, M&M’s, Skittles, Lay’s, Pringles, Starburst. Especially for categories like candy, soda, chips, snacks—we have the familiar, fast-moving, low-dollar items. We carry Heinz ketchup, French’s mustard, Hellman’s mayonnaise. Our two top-selling items are organic bananas and Coca-Cola. We have a local soda company, Rocky Mountain Soda, which does our fountain, and Corvis, a local coffee roaster, which does our self-serve drip coffee area. We also have a custom latte program at the prepared-food counter.
The name of the game
Q: What is the significance of the store’s name?
A: We had many different iterations of names. Initially, “Craft” was one. “Bodega” was another. But we landed on “Choice,” and I think it’s the perfect name for our concept because it has a double meaning—higher-quality, premium, especially as it relates to food, but also choice in terms of multiple options.
You can choose to check out on the self-checkouts, go through a normal point-of-sale transaction with an employee, you can order ahead, order on the app. But it also offers choice in terms of what you eat and how it’s prepared—you can choose gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo or options for any dietary restrictions.
“Choice” is one word; it’s really clean, really simple. Given our concept, it’s a really perfect name for what we’re doing.
Denver after midnight
Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with Choice Market?
A: We cook everything from scratch, so consistency and execution can be a challenge. But as we move into multiple locations, we’re also setting up a production kitchen to centralize production of our side salads, grab-and-go items, pasta salads, meatballs and all the stuff we’re making so that we can control that consistency and make sure the stores focus less on prep and more on execution.
Staffing is also a challenge. Being in Denver, unemployment is 2%, so staffing operations with high-quality individuals who have foodservice experience can be difficult.
Being 24/7 can present some challenges. We do a significant business between midnight and 5 a.m., mostly through delivery. It’s a big revenue driver for us, especially on the weekends. But we’ve done really well with hiring folks that really prefer to work that shift.
SKU the ‘feng shui’
Q: What changes, if any, have you made to Choice Market since its launch?
A: We have roughly 1,500 SKUs. We’ve changed about 30% or 40% of those based on what people are buying. There’s always adjustment to the product mix. We’ll get to the point where we have 90% to 95% of what we’re going to carry, and the rest we’ll “feng shui” in terms of seasonality and what is available and what new items we want to bring in. We now have a really strong idea of what people are buying. It’s fun to bring in a new item and see it sell out.
That’s the fun part of the job—going to food shows and meeting with farmers’ markets and people doing innovative, sustainable food, bringing in products that are coming from small brands that are disrupting large CPG companies and taking market share almost overnight.
Also, we’re refining our internal processes, making sure we’re putting out the same food every day, that it’s getting delivered to the right person, that it includes their whole order. We’re making sure that not only this store, but future stores have a good road map of how we should be operating.
Not Amazon Go
Q: Given your omnichannel approach, what do you think of Amazon Go?
A: I get asked that a lot. The technology still needs to be proven out. My sentiment is that it feels like a big vending machine. It feels pretty cold and empty, with not much human interaction, which obviously is the point. Food is very personal and sensual—you smell it, you see it, you taste it. People still like to ask questions about food. Regardless of what technology we have in stores, we will always have that personal component and the ability to check out normally with a cashier.
To me, what about the low-income customer that may or may not have a smartphone? For Choice, we want to be a store that anyone from any income level can come to and feel welcome and buy an apple for 50 cents with cash.
For stores like this to be successful, you have to have much more than the technology. It’s a holistic approach.
Q: What are your growth plans for Choice Market?
A: We have a second location that’s opening in first-quarter 2019, and then I’m currently scouting locations. We’re looking in other markets outside of Denver—California, some cities in the Southeast. The goal is to expand quickly over the next few years and get into at least three new markets within about two years, while continuing to grow in the Denver market. We’re scouting locations in both Denver and Boulder.