Gelson’s Markets finds and nurtures local brands

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On a sunny Thursday in June, Gelson’s Markets held the first of what is turning out to be a series of pitch events for local product creators at its distribution center in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Billed as “Gelson’s Local Discoveries,” the event was open to vendors within 50 miles of a Gelson’s store, which in practice means more or less anywhere between San Diego and Santa Barbara that isn’t a desert.

Each contender was given 25 minutes to demonstrate their wares to senior Gelson’s buyers, explaining what distinguishes the product from its competitors, including attributes like organic, gluten free or vegan. In addition to giving winners shelf space in its stores, Gelson’s committed to actively promote them in-store, online and through local media.

Rich Gillmore, senior director of center store category management, oversees the program. “It’s really nothing different than what we’ve done in the past,” Gillmore says. “The truth is, you can call us, and the category manager will probably pick up. But people don’t realize this. When we started hearing complaints from local manufacturers late last year, we thought we really needed to step up the awareness.”

The event was not in any way an empty gesture aimed at bettering community relations. One winner, a startup called Casa de Comer, was offered a contract at the June 6 event and had product on the shelves in all 27 Gelson’s stores by August 12.

“I was actually in another room — we had people doing pitches all over the place — when I got a text that said, ‘Rich, you need to come here,’” Gillmore says. “I went there, and the person who sent me the text was right. We were so impressed with the product and the presentation that we offered them a contract on the spot.”

“BEST IN THE WEST”

Gelson’s is a chain of moderately upscale groceries that include wine and gourmet departments with an interesting range of products. It’s been around a long time: After a couple of smaller practice stores, brothers Eugene and Bernie Gelson opened their first supermarket in Burbank in 1951. If it hadn’t been torn down years ago, the original Gelson’s would serve as a great example of forward-thinking, midcentury modernism: glassed-in front, heavy-duty air conditioning and a meat department with stainless steel and enamel cases running the length of the store.

The company was acquired in 1966 by what is now the Arden Group, which has run businesses as diverse as dairies, grocery stores, confections, printers, fax machine sales and swimming pool supplies. The Arden Group itself was acquired by private investment firm TPG Capital in 2014; Gelson’s operates as a self-contained company within TPG. It was recently ranked by Consumer Reports at No. 4 among 96 grocery brands across the country, and No. 1 in the West.

“We’re entirely California contained, so we have a good footprint to be local, and with just 27 stores we’re a good size for small startup companies to launch with.” — Rich Gillmore, Gelson’s Markets

One reason for this, Gillmore says, is the company’s rootedness in its area, as reflected by the Gelson’s Local Discoveries program. “About a year and a half ago, we noticed that with the centralizing of some of our competitors, they seemed to have dropped the ball when it came to connecting at the local level,” he says. “For a lot of them, headquarters has moved to other states, and they’d put some restraints on small startup companies actually walking in and talking to buyers at the store level.

“We saw that as an opportunity to kind of reestablish ourselves as the local retailer for Southern California. We’re entirely California contained, so we have a good footprint to be local, and with just 27 stores we’re a good size for small startup companies to launch with. They’re able to supply enough product, which could be very difficult if they were to try to launch in 500 stores.”

Local brands Gelson’s has helped launch over the years include BJ’s Brewhouse Beer, Califia Farms, Chicas Chips, Coolhaus Ice Cream, Groundwork Coffee Co. and Health-Ade Kombucha.

‘SMOKIN’ GOOD SALSA’

As noted, one of the standouts of the June “Local Discoveries” pitching event was from Casa de Comer, which is headquartered in Santa Barbara. The name — “comer” means “to eat” in Spanish — was a lucky accident: The company was founded, and is run, by Sean Comer and his wife, Casa de Comer’s principal, Silvia Franco Comer.

Silvia Comer grew up with homemade Mexican cooking and bonding with family and friends over it. When she grew up and went to college, she didn’t have that anymore, and she missed it.

“Sean saw that I was missing it,” she says, “and when we would go back to have meals with my mom, we learned how to make her salsa recipe.” Sean made his living from a food truck, one of whose specialties was tri-tip sandwiches, which he began garnishing with a variant of Silvia’s mother’s salsa. People liked the sandwiches all right, but they loved the salsa and demanded more of it.

And the salsa — three versions of it, actually — is what they sold to Gelson’s at the Local Discoveries event in June. Which worked out well, because it’s their only product: Two years ago, they got out of the food truck to focus on the salsa business. Other products are in the works; meanwhile, Silvia is taking a business course at City College in Santa Barbara to prepare for a new pitch competition — this time for investors.

Peter Johnston is a freelance writer and editor based in the New York City area.

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