When you sell specialty foods, you have to know the territory

March 15, 1998|By Rob Kasper

WHEN HENRY Naviasky walks through a grocery store he doesn't see just cans, bottles and packages. He sees the eating patterns of the Baltimore area.

Take those British crackers, he said, pointing to a package of Carr's Hob-nobs on the shelf of the Eddie's grocery store on Roland Avenue. North Baltimore seems to have a taste for British crackers, he said, and even for something called "digestive biscuits." But, he said, out in Columbia, British crackers don't draw much attention at Bun Penny Food & Wine. Instead, the flavored couscous is where the action is.

The couscous eaters of Columbia, unlike those in Baltimore, seem willing to experiment, trying many different flavors of the grain, he said.

Thai hot sauce, he said, also elicits differing responses in stores. The Graul's in West Annapolis sells a lot of the fiery sauce, he said. But at the Graul's in Ruxton, Thai sauce sales are sedate.

In East Baltimore, the boxes of Panni potato dumplings move off the shelves of the Bi-Rite and Santoni's markets every winter. But in summer, dumpling sales slow and dip down to the level found in stores in other, less-Teutonic neighborhoods, he said.

Naviasky knows this stuff because it is his job. He is a broker for specialty foods, one of those guys in a shirt and tie you sometimes see walking into the office at the grocery store or staring at a shelf display, making sure his products are there. He is 37 years old and has done this kind of work for 13 years. First he worked for Durkee-French, an outfit best known for its spices and mustards. Then he worked for Haddon House, a specialty food operation that handles everything from capers to ginseng. Recently, along with three partners, he formed Food Associates Inc. Operating out of an office in Hunt Valley, he runs what seems to me a kind of dating service for food, uniting promising morsels with interested parties in grocery stores.

Naviasky estimates that he has been in about 80 per cent of the independent grocery stores in Maryland. His prime turf is not the big chains, the Giant, Safeway or Super Fresh stores. He works the smaller, independent operations, the Eddie's, the Graul's, the Santoni's.

I talked to Naviasky because I have an avid interest in groceries. There are reams of statistics on food sales. But rather than read sheets of numbers, I wanted a personal opinion about our buying habits. Rather than a broad, objective overview, I wanted a narrow, subjective underview. So I spent a morning with Naviasky as he walked through Eddie's on Roland Avenue and talked in generalities and specifics about grocery-buying habits.

Take, for instance, the matter of how often we go to the grocery store. In the Baltimore area, it is common for folks to go to the store two or three times a week, he said. But in Cumberland, where folks can live a long way from the store, it is more common to find customers going to the grocery store once a week or once every two weeks, he said. So, he said, the shopping carts in Cumberland are about twice the size of the ones found in Baltimore city markets.

Then there is the coffee aisle. In urban stores, the amount of space devoted to canned coffee products is shrinking. That is because urban customers are buying their coffee in beans, either at coffee stores or a bean dispensary elsewhere in the grocery store. But in rural areas, there is not a coffee store on every corner. There, if you want a cup of something caffeinated and frothy, chances are good you will buy a box of a coffee product in the grocery store and make the drink yourself. So, in the hinterlands, boxes of powdered Swiss mocha are holding their ground.

Geographic loyalty also plays a part in sales, Naviasky said. Marylanders tend to buy food made by their own kind, he said. He said the fact that a new candy is from Switzerland is likely to cause less commotion among most Marylanders than the fact that a grocery store chocolate is made by a local candy maker. And he said a big selling point of both Toto's Salsa and Bobeetza's vegetable dip is that they are made within the borders of Maryland, in Baltimore and Deale, he said.

Naviasky said when he worked for Durkee-French, a competitor of McCormick & Co. Inc., the Sparks-based spice company, he ran up against this loyalty.

"Selling spices in this town is really hard," he said. "It seems like half of the town works at McCormick, and the other half knows somebody who works there."

Naviasky grew up in the Baltimore area. He is a graduate of Pikesville High School and Towson University. He, like many locals, still calls it Towson State.

Being from the Baltimore area, Naviasky knows that many locals don't like to be stampeded into trying "the latest." They will try it when they are ready, and if they like it, they will stick to it.

One sure-fire way to cool interest in a new food, he said, is to tout it as "the rage" in some other city, especially Washington.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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