Southern Season plans to ramp up message about gourmet offerings
As its one-year anniversary approaches on July 31, Aaron Brooks, general manager of Henrico County’s Southern Season, said the gourmet store needs to do a better job of explaining who it is and what it does.
The store’s opening last summer drew hordes of curious people to what was the third location for a Southern Season store in the country, and 2014 also saw a busy holiday shopping season. “We’re very happy with the reception that we have had here,” said Brooks.
Yet he and other store personnel continue to meet customers who tell them they are visiting the store or the store’s restaurant, Southerly, for the first time.
The 50,000 plus-square-foot store is located at Libbie Mill, an urban mixed-use development under construction off Staples Mill Road near its intersection with Broad Street.
“We still have folks coming up on a year now that haven’t come into the store,” said Brooks during a media tour Tuesday.
To help change that, Brooks says Southern Season plans special activities and new advertising as part of its one-year anniversary celebration. It seemed to be trying out some of its themes during the media tour, which included tastings of exotic offerings such as curried banana foam on a roasted beet salad.
Southern Season is not a grocery store, Brooks told the group. It does not stock fresh produce. It’s a gourmet marketplace, with a cooking school and restaurant where people can expect to find exclusive, one-of-kind items that they can’t find anywhere else.
“If you’re looking for that one dazzling item or ingredient, this is the place to come, “said Brooks. “We have more than 80,000 items in this store typically – many that you won’t find at any other grocery store.”
About 15 to 20 percent of the items are local or Virginia products, he adds.
For instance, the store stocks 32 linear feet of barbeque sauce, 1,000 bottles of wine, including a rare wine section, and cheeses from as close as Grayson County to the Sternschnappe alpine cheese from Germany. There also are taps for craft beers along with a large, prepared food section and tasting station where cooking demonstrations are typically held on Saturday.
Plus, there’s a coffee and tea bar, where customers can take home a growler of coffee. Throw in cooking classes, on everything from biscuits to advanced knife skills, and a special events coordinator, Naomi Conklin — who helps clients with corporate and social events — and it’s easy to understand why Southern doesn’t fall into the typical grocery store category.
Southern Season is based out of Chapel Hill, where it has a 60,000-square-foot flagship store. It also has a store in Charleston, and a smaller store in Raleigh. It plans to open a 5th store in the Buckhead area of Atlanta next year, said Brooks, as it looks to expand to a total of 10 stores. It’s also considering other locations, he added, such Northern Virginia, Nashville, Tenn., and Florida.
As Libbie Mill builds out, Brooks looks for new developments in the 80-acre project to bring more people to the store. A new public library is going up on a three-acre site nearby that was donated by developer Gumenick Properties.
Gumenick is located in an office/retail complex across from Southern Season, and work has begun on a second office/retail building. Also expected soon is activity on the first of the community’s 2,000 housing units.
Libbie Mill was recently named one of the top commercial real estate projects of the year for the Richmond region.
Meanwhile, there’s more upscale grocery store competition on the way. Wegmans plans to open two new stores in the region, one in Chesterfield County and the other in western Henrico. Whole Foods, Brooks’ previous employer, also has announced that it will locate a 40,000-square-foot store near Virginia Commonwealth University.
Asked how those openings might affect Southern Season, Brooks said, “Everyone takes a bite.” On the other hand, the more stores, the better it is for the community, he added.