Can Family-Owned Restaurants Get In On The Restaurant-To-Retail Trend?


An Interview with Van Woods of Sylvia’s, Harlem, New York

Retailers are eating up restaurant-branded foods because today’s shoppers want to bring the restaurant experience home. Products from chains like P.F. Chang’s and California Pizza Kitchen can be found in supermarkets everywhere. Not so much for independent, family-owned restaurants.

Says Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President of food industry research firm, Technomic, “our findings show a strong customer demand for restaurant-inspired food products at retail. As long as the quality is there, customers are willing to pay for it.”

“However, restaurateurs should proceed with caution,” notes Scott McCutcheon, Executive Director of the Restaurant Marketing Association. “It’s a great way for a restaurant to continue branding themselves, but for smaller owners, going retail can be beyond their expertise. “

If you are an undeterred Metro New York restaurateur thinking of taking your brand for a walk down the aisle, read this now because transitioning from table to shelf takes know-how and diligent prep. Below is an interview with Van Woods of Sylvia’s in Harlem, New York.

What made you believe your brand would succeed at retail?

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Van Woods: My mother was known as the “Queen of Soul Food.” For years, her customers would bring containers to take her rib sauce home. The Woods family believed that Sylvia’s Cookin’ Dippin’ & Moppin’ Sauce would sell, even at a premium, because it already had a loyal following and Sylvia’s restaurant is a Harlem institution.

When did you first begin?

Sales of the sauce began in 1992, 30 years after the restaurant was founded. We learned early on that getting on the shelf was the easy part. The hard part was getting our products off the shelf and into the cart.

What were some of the other hard parts?

First we had to get stores to believe in our brand. Then we had to show them that we were prepared to actively support it with marketing and promotion. Once they were on board, we had to negotiate well. Slotting fees can take a big chunk of change. We also needed to get food brokers and distributors to make our brand a priority, and finally, we needed to build the infrastructure to manage manufacturing operations – very different from operating a restaurant.

What would you say are the three most important requirements to succeed at retail?

1. Eye-level shelf presence and multiple facings is the recipe for success. The more the product is seen, the better the chance of getting customers to stop and shop.
2. If the pricing doesn’t resonate with the consumer, no go. We offer “suggested retail pricing” but the retailer is not obligated to go along with our suggestions. Incentives like a “sale tag” for $1.00 off or 3/$5.00 catches a shopper’s attention and encourages multiple unit sales.
3. Package design is crucial for an independent entrepreneur. Shoppers need to instantly notice your products and recognize your brand image without spending large amounts on advertising.

Explain the difference between selling through national chains vs. independent food stores and groceries?

The independents know our products intimately and are more likely to recommend them to their customers. Supermarket chains are more volume driven. However, we found that it pays to support our independent partners the same way we do the chains.

How do food brokers and distributors factor into your sales efforts?

You can’t rely strictly on brokers and distributors to pioneer a new product line. We also have internal representatives who call on supermarkets and independents as well as manage our brokers and distributors, but our family will always retain control of Sylvia’s brands.

What are some other promotions you’ve created to help drive sales?

We launched our first “Sylvia’s Soul Tour” in Washington DC in 2004. Today it attracts hundreds of attendees wherever we go. It is an outdoor event incorporating food, music, entertainment and education to give the consumer an all-day experience and encourage local retailers to stock their shelves. We also support not-for-profits such as The American Cancer Society.

Have the restaurant and the food product line supported each other?

Because my mother was so well known in the community, we enjoyed tremendous awareness for her restaurant and food products. She believed that if soul-foodies enjoyed Sylvia’s at home, they would also be inclined to visit the restaurant and vice versa. The restaurant also hosts retail buyers, distributors and supermarket executives regularly. People tend to relax over a platter of Sylvia’s crispy fried chicken.