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Area stores work hard to get local products on the shelves

Buffalonian Christopher Scott imagined how magical it would be if kids could wake up on Christmas morning to find Santa’s snowy footprints left behind on their living room floors, showing where the big guy had emerged from the chimney to fill stockings and put presents under the tree. So Scott came up with a locally made product – fake snow particles, a boot-print-shaped stencil, and a hard-cover, illustrated storybook – and set out to sell the magic for $19.99.

After getting the product made and packaged, he met with a toy buyer for Wegmans who loved it, bought his entire inventory and put Santa’s Magic Snow on shelves at 33 stores in November.

Today, the book’s publisher, Mascot Books in Washington, D.C., and the snow makers at Polyester Fiber LLC in Lancaster are trying to sell the product to national retailers for a much bigger rollout next Christmas.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but they think they’ll be able to pull something off,” Scott said. “You don’t realize it, but if there are 1,000 Jo-Ann Fabrics locations, and you sell two cases to each one, it doesn’t take a significant order to start getting into large quantities.”

Like Scott, many local vendors have taken their products to the next level by getting them placed in local grocery stores: Charlie the Butcher’s roast beef, Vin-Chet Pastry Shop’s gluten-free baked goods, Bubble’s Q Sauce barbecue sauce, Elmwood Taco & Subs’ frozen burritos, just to name a few. But the first challenge is taking that first step from independent distribution into several grocery store locations and hopefully scale to statewide or national sales. But the good news is most local grocers, including Tops, Wegmans, Dash’s and Budwey’s, are committed to making room on their shelves for local products.

“We really do fight to have local products on our shelves,” said Kevin Darrington, Tops Markets’ chief operating officer. “It’s one of the mainstays of what we do.”

So how do small vendors make that leap to the next level?

“The most important decision for us is, does it meet Wegmans’ standard?” said Michele Mehaffy, a Wegmans spokeswoman. “We have to make sure we feel absolutely sure of the product, enough to stand behind it and put it on store shelves.”

Local products usually get an introduction in one of three ways: a vendor walks into a store and talks to a store manager, contacts a store’s headquarters for a meeting, or someone from a grocery store hears word-of-mouth buzz about a product or samples it for themselves out in the community.

For Sweet Melody’s gelato, two of those things happened simultaneously. Darrington and his daughter tasted and loved the company’s gelato at its Boulevard Mall stand. At the same time, the company’s owner was having a casual chat with a manager at the Tops-owned Orchard Fresh store in Orchard Park. Soon after, Sweet Melody’s gelato was for sale at Orchard Fresh’s gelato bar.

Once an introduction is made, the next step is usually a meeting between the vendor and the category manager of whatever category suits their product – a dairy manager will meet with a yogurt vendor, an ice cream vendor will meet with the head of the frozen department. Sometimes that meeting consists of a vendor giving a slick PowerPoint presentation, sometimes it’s just the vendor and the category manager sitting down to a conversation over samples of the product. Other times, vendors bring a professional food broker to help them make their case.

But in between the pitch and the product’s arrival on store shelves, there are dozens of questions that need to be answered and lots of details to be hammered out. Is there an ingredient statement for food products? Does it taste good? Does it meet food safety guidelines? What does the packaging look like and how will it appeal compared to other products in the same category? How will the product be distributed? Does the vendor have a marketing plan to create demand for the product? Can the vendor produce enough volume to meet that demand?

Then there’s price. There’s the cost to make a product and how much profit the vendor and grocer would like to make on each one. Both the store and vendor figure out what retail price point makes sense in competition with other products in the same category.

Managers are assessing the quality of the food, yes, but they’re also figuring out whether the product has a story to tell, what its local connection is and how that connection can be made stronger. The goal is to figure out whether a product can be stoked into something with mass appeal.

“We’re not going to start a product in 160 stores, but we would like to think that if we start it, it’s going to get there at some point,” Darrington said.

A store’s decision about whether or not to carry a product can take several weeks or even months. But once it’s in, a product usually starts at a few stores in the market area where it was born. It can be added to more stores depending on how well it does, and how well it does can depend on how much the vendor invests in supporting, promoting and advertising its product.

In Western New York, Chef’s and Ilio DiPaolo’s pasta sauce are household names, but fewer people have heard of it in markets elsewhere in New York or outside the state. That’s why it’s important for smaller vendors with hyperlocal reputations – say, Nowinski Pierogi in Chautauqua County – or one that is brand new, like Santa’s Magic Snow, to support their product with outside advertising, in-store sampling events, promotional price cuts and other ways to get the word out.

“If the vendor can actually go pitch to completion and deliver on all the specifications, we’ll probably try it. There’s a high percentage of people who make it through if they can get to that point,” Darrington said. “But if you’re tripped up in one of the first couple of steps or you can’t provide a certain quality, I can’t even put them on the list.”