We’re always first to market with interesting new items and new organic, specialty and local products.
When pushing your cart up and down the aisles, you have likely noticed Rouses-branded products — everything from coconut water to olive oil. The man responsible for them is Jason Martinolich, the vice president of natural & specialty foods for Rouses Markets, and Donald Rouse’s son-in-law.
“When we look at our brand, we make sure it’s as good as or better than a national brand,” says Jason. He says Rouses looks for unique items, and the goal is not only to bring local products to a larger community, but also to find the best products in other communities and introduce them to ours. “We’re willing to go anywhere in the world where we feel that the products are the best,” he says. For example, in the case of olive oil, Jason and a contingent from Rouses traveled to Sicily. “We sourced our olive oil from a Sicilian supplier that works with local farmers to get the needed olives. The oil is then bottled within 24 hours, and those bottles are on our store shelves within 30 days.
“On the flip side,” he says, “if it’s a product that we’re good at, we work with local vendors. Jambalaya, for example, and gumbo and fish fries — local companies know how to season their products for the Gulf Coast.” Among those local, Louisiana-made products being produced now are also some with the Rouses label: a jambalaya mix, a gumbo mix and different fries for chicken, fish and shrimp. “The fish fry has got heavy cornmeal and it’s really crunchy, the way we like it here,” Jason says, holding a box proudly. “The chicken fry is more like a seasoned flour mix. The shrimp has a yellow corn flour — a great texture and seasoning.”
It all feeds back into the community. “When you’re working with local suppliers, you’re helping local companies, you’re helping create jobs in the local community, helping boost the local economy. And food is big for our local economy. It’s what drives our culture.”
The strength of the Rouses brand, built over 60 years through the company’s spirit of entrepreneurship and attention to local suppliers, means that shoppers know what they’re getting if they see the Rouses name on a product. “Now that we’ve expanded along the Gulf Coast, our customers really follow us,” says Jason. “They love our magazine. They love our smokehouse. They love our seafood department. The Rouses brand means something, and it makes my job easier to create a Rouses private label. People buy things with the Rouses name on it because they trust it. And we make sure that our quality is just as good, if not better, than the national brand, but at a better price.”
Unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of work to earn that Rouses seal of approval. Before a product is given serious consideration for a Rouses private brand label, it has to survive endless tastings by company management and workers — quite the gauntlet, as Rouses knows food.
It’s all they talk about all day long. Once a product gets by the company gatekeepers, outside committees are formed. Their job: to try the product in what is called a “blind cutting.” Jason’s team takes the national brand and the potential private label item, and lets people try them both and decide which they like better. If they don’t like the potential private label better than the national one, the team drops it and goes off in search of a better product.
In recent years, Rouses private label items have pushed hard into organic foods. “We have a lot of customers that shop for natural and organic products, and they shop with us because of that,” says Jason. “Whenever we put out a new conventional item, we try to do an organic product alongside it as well.”
The products include things like bread, milk and other grocery store staples, but Rouses casts its net wide in search of products no other store would ever consider bringing into a private label line. “We brought in some seasonal gelatos this year from Italy,” Jason says proudly. “We did a candy cane, an eggnog and a pumpkin pie, which was really cool. For the holidays, too — but we’re also going to start carrying it year-round — we have a homemade tiramisu for the Rouses label. It comes frozen, and you set it out for a few hours.” When it’s ready, he says, “It’s like eating a homemade tiramisu from Italy. It’s really, really good.” He is particularly excited about the treats headed to Rouses Markets later in the year. “This summer, instead of an ice cream sandwich, we’re going to do a gelato sandwich. Instead of a sundae cone, it’s going to be a gelato cone, which is lighter and fluffier.”
And he doesn’t mince words on what store guests can expect when they add those boxes to their baskets. “It’s better than an ice cream sandwich. It’s the best you’ve ever had.”