Sam’s Club operates unique lab in Bentonville store to test fresh sushi, seafood and other offerings

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,088 views 

Sushi chefs with FujiSan make fresh sushi rolls in Sam’s Club in Bentonville on Thursday (July 14). The club began selling freshly made sushi in mid-May and it’s one of the best selling food items in the club today. There are 10 chefs who make the rolls daily in that club.

A one-of-a-kind lab at the Sam’s Club in Bentonville is testing the prep and sale of sushi and other seafood, with results potentially driving changes in some or all of the 653 club stores in U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Sam’s Club continues efforts to change the way it’s perceived by consumers and shopped by members, especially in delivering fresh foods in hopes of driving more traffic and lifting top line revenue.

“Over the past 12 to 18 months our CEO Roz Brewer has talked a lot about elevating the assortment and driving trips into the building. The best place to do that is with fresh produce and meats. They drive the most trips today. As we sought to elevate our assortment in fresh we wanted to create an atmosphere that let us test and learn, to go out and try and find the limits,” said Bryant Harris, general merchandise manager of fresh at Sam’s Club.

THE ‘LEARNING LAB’
“We essentially have developed a learning lab with no limits. It’s run by culinary experts but there (will) be mistakes as we try new things,” he added.

The lab is an expansive three sided fresh meat and cheese display with a working kitchen that has been pulled out – somewhat like a floating island in the sea of produce near the back of the club. Front and center is a large sushi bar that makes fresh sushi through the day and sold in the Bentonville club. Harris said Sam’s Club outsourced the sushi production which is done inside the Bentonville club by FujiSan, a local sushi company.

“We knew that sushi preparation is a specialty skill and we didn’t want to try and tackle that ourselves. We offer sushi in about 75 clubs and all of that is provided by a third party. None of the other clubs have this large sushi bar and protracted fresh meat and seafood island,” Harris said.

Early results are promising, with demand immediately forcing expansion.

Casey Higgins, a trained chef was recently hired by Sam’s Club in Bentonville to manage the fresh meat and seafood lab in that club.
Casey Higgins, a trained chef was recently hired by Sam’s Club in Bentonville to manage the fresh meat and seafood lab in that club.

“The demand for sushi in the Bentonville Club was so great that they started with two rice cookers and had to increase that to five in the first couple of weeks of opening in late May,” Harris said.

He said FuiiSan employs 10 sushi chefs inside the Bentonville Club and that business is the best opening FujiSan has ever had with its entrepreneurial ventures. Any given day or night there are people eating sushi inside Sam’s Club in Bentonville. If they just want to pick up some fresh California rolls or 10 other varieties they can order and pay via a tablet at the Sam’s Club cafe located at the front of the club. If the product is not already in a cooler at the cafe someone will bring it up from the sushi bar in the back.

BECOMING A RESTAURANT OPTION
Harris said he recently saw family of five pick up two large sushi trays at the bar and take them to the cafe at the front of the club, buy five sodas and have a sushi dinner at a bargain price. He said working professionals typically stop by the Bentonville Club for sushi lunches or one of the other freshly made entrees offered through the cafe, such as seafood salad or deli sandwiches made from the specialty deli meat and cheeses in the fresh meat lab at the back of the club.

He said a local vendor executive recently told him that expense reports for his working staff shows Sam’s Club receipts more than any other local restaurant when they are working in Bentonville.

“He first thought it was a joke, or fluke with all the lunch receipts for Sam’s Club sushi, but now it’s a common occurrence,” Harris said.

While Harris wouldn’t provide sales numbers for the sushi business, he did say management is pleased with the demand. And while it’s too early to say if the large sushi bar will be replicated in other clubs he said there are lab elements around the overall fresh meat market that will be shared.

FRESH MEALS
Sam’s Club in May recruited Casey Higgins to the Bentonville Club to run the new fresh meats lab and be the events manager. Higgins, a La Cordon Bleu trained chef originally from Fayetteville, was working at five star resorts in the Caribbean, most recently St. John’s when he got the call from Sam’s Club. Higgins is also nationally certified in culinary administration.

Harris said Higgins oversee a staff of 12 culinary personnel in the Bentonville Sam’s Club. He is still a bit understaffed for demand the club sees and plans to add about five more workers before school resumes. Aside from management Higgins is also tasked with developing products that make meal time easier for the novice cook.

For instance the Daily Chef fish dinner allows a member to chose from fresh salmon or tilapia, chose a vegetable from the case as well as the flavored butters that cooks into the meal. Those items are placed in a brown, temperature safe bag and sold as a meal solution. The member simply has to take it home put the entire bag in the oven for 20 minutes and they have a fresh made dinner.

A single serving bag with a salmon filet, asparagus with peppered butter and garlic butter rang up for $6.02 on Thursday (July 14) at the Bentonville Club. Harris said the Daily Chef and other meal solutions provide added valued to the members. A main obstacle with consumers cooking fish is intimidation and improper handling. The Daily Chef meal solutions take care of both concerns, he said.

Higgins oversees a large seafood counter and meat and cheese display at the fresh market in the back of the Bentonville club. He said the fresh seafood is typically available in club within 48 hours of catch. He said the best selling fresh seafoods in the club are tiger shrimp and sea bass, and Sockeye Salmon does well when in season. On the meat side of the counter he said prime ribeye is the top seller. The cowboy steak is also a big seller.

RESTAURANT QUALITY
He is also there to educate the members of the quality of the fresh product offerings as well as cultivate relationships with area restaurants that the club supplies fish and meats to on a regular basis.

“I am selling whole cases of Kobe steaks at $35 pound to local restaurants, out of this fresh meat island. They are also buying our seafood,” Higgins said.

Harris said with Higgins professional training as a chef he easily speaks the language restaurant owners. At Higgins request, Harris said the club has added to its wine offerings and now the culinary staff in the fresh food market can make pairing suggestions to members who are shopping for fresh fish or meat.

“This club’s wine sales have also gone up since we opened the fresh meat counter and sushi bar. The sushi has been the most surprising in terms of volume.” Harris said.

Carol Spieckerman, CEO of Spieckerman Retail, believes the lab will help drive “incremental sales” at the store.

“Sam’s is to be lauded for its approach to fresh on two fronts. First of all, the sushi station serves as a great example of Sam’s looking at ‘fresh’ from a broad, inclusive and innovative perspective, rather than taking a traditional ‘category’ approach to the opportunity. Secondly, Sam’s is broadening its proposition beyond bulk selling and stock-up trips to include take-and-go and sit-down meal occasions. The sushi stations and Sam’s focus on making its front-of-store cafes more inviting and compelling exemplify this,” said Carol Spieckerman, CEO of Spieckerman Retail.

Continuing, she noted: “Sam’s is veering from the traditional warehouse club premise and, as awareness catches on, its fresh focus can increase overall visit frequency and drive incremental sales. After all, shoppers have to walk past electronics, jewelry, apparel and other categories to get to Sam’s renovated world of fresh.”

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