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BY MICHELE HERMAN | In an ideal world, among your many mutually satisfying relationships, you get along with your local supermarket. You know it. It knows you. There’s some respect running in both directions.
In my real world here in the West Village, my local D’Agostino and I have never quite gotten each other. I am a grudging customer, but then it’s not as if the store is doing such a great job of meeting my needs. My trips to D’Ag, on Bethune St., are all business — I’ve run out of an ingredient in a recipe already in progress, or I need a staple that I can’t get cheaper or faster elsewhere. As much as I disdain the place, its layout is carved deep in my brain, as it is in the brains of everyone who lives in a half-mile radius.
Imagine my surprise when I ran in a few weeks ago, fresh from vacation, to find a frozen-yogurt station where the carrots are supposed to live, and a “café” (some wood-laminate tables and hotel conference-room chairs) in place of the manager’s booth. There was more: The frosty old open ice-cream freezer was replaced by upright freezers with glass doors. In one of the displays in the front, the sort reserved for Halloween candy or Passover matzoh, they’d put some small appliances, chain drugstore-style. A homeless-looking guy was wandering the aisles muttering about how he couldn’t find a f—— thing. I knew how he felt.
I was already feeling uneasy about the yogurt, but the toasters tipped me toward alarm; they seemed to signal something very bad in the culture at large, although it took me a while to pinpoint it: the convenience-ification of America, an insistence that everything must be readily available to consumers at all times under the same roof.
The following Saturday night, my husband, son and I happened to be out and talked about doing an ice cream run. As we approached D’Ag we thought, like actors in a commercial: Hey — why not check out the frozen yogurt?
Apparently, the station hadn’t yet officially opened. The spigots were unmarked and the bits of cheesecake and M&Ms were in bowls with no spoons. We had to keep calling a manager over to explain the operation. But we pulled on the spigots and out came yogurt into our huge cardboard cups, the sort designed for takeout wonton soup. They chose fruit bubble toppings (mango, blueberry and pomegranate), which looked a little too much like fish eggs for me, so I went with brownie bits.
We paid and sat down at the “café.” It was around 9:40. The store was practically empty. We looked at each other, with the fluorescent lights sapping our vacation tans, and burst out laughing. Who sits in the supermarket on a Saturday night in the heart of the West Village — the land that invented the cafe, or at least took the idea from Italy and perfected it? The vanilla yogurt struck me as a little on the sweet, bland side. The almost-black brownie bits were chewy but tasted more of brownie-mix chemicals rather than chocolate.
If D’Ag had asked my opinion about how it could serve me better, I would’ve gone in different directions: Bring down the price of milk and butter; or get good, freshly made bagels; or make an arrangement with local farmers for great corn in the summer and apples in the fall.
I got to wondering about how a supermarket actually does assess the desires of its patrons, so I called Robert Fonti, D’Ag’s vice president of operations and merchandising, and Danielle McIntyre, deli and bakery director.
Fonti told me that the Bethune St. store is D’Ag’s second yogurt test market, the first being the store on 91st and Columbus, across the street from a school that the store management thought might appreciate a healthy snack alternative (his phrase, not mine — the huge containers and candy toppings are certainly not encouraging healthy habits). We in the Village got the yogurt because it’s in an area with a lot of walk-in trade and “folks out strolling at night,” Fonti noted. Also, the nearest 16 Handles or Pinkberry is a long schlep away.
Fonti told me they went with ready-made market research from Taylor, the company that supplies the machinery.
“We took their research for the New York area and picked their top 10 items,” he explained.
McIntyre added that there will be a promotional calendar with lots of seasonal flavors, particularly as we get deeper into fall and the holiday season.
Then we talked yogurt. I asked about the lack of tartness in the vanilla. I was assured that the yogurt does come in a “Euro-tart” flavor and, of course, Greek, which is having its moment in the sun.
“But we started with basics just to get people’s eyes on it,” Fonti said. “We welcome customer feedback. We’ll struggle to please everybody.” This was an interesting statement, given my long-standing sense that D’Ag, in trying to straddle the neighborhood’s double population (one very wealthy and the other not at all), doesn’t really please anybody.
I’m not sure I’m at liberty to divulge the name of the company that supplies the yogurt. Let’s just say that you’ve heard of it and it starts with the fourth letter of the alphabet.
“It’s a very high-quality yogurt,” said Fonti, adding that it comes in mixes like any other similar product. Upon learning this, I fell prey either to a funny psychological phenomenon or to more interesting flavors. I went back to give the yogurt another chance and found four flavors: chocolate and cappuccino — both nonfat — premium peanut butter and low-fat dulce de leche. I tried the peanut butter and the dulce de leche, and sure enough, I liked both much more than the vanilla I had dismissed as just a no-name house brand. The peanut butter’s saltiness contrasted nicely with the sweetness, and I found the dulce de leche’s warm, buttery flavor a pleasing counterpoint to the cold.
I asked how D’Ag measures the success of the yogurt.
“We look at a five-year period and see what the return is,” Fonti replied. “We know already what the break-even point is. We already know that on 91st St., we’ve tremendously surpassed the break-even point. We feel we will easily pass that in the Village.”
While I had a V.P. on the phone, I asked if it was my imagination or had D’Ag actually been offering some deals lately. It turns out that this is a conscious strategy.
“We decided to become a lot more aggressive,” he said. “The plan is to increase sales enough to make up the loss margin. There’s a lot of competition and we need to hold onto market share.”
He wouldn’t say which stores are considered the competition. I mentioned the fact that the Gristedes on Sheridan Square was recently spiffed up — and this is a store that really needed some spiffing. All Fonti would say on the subject was this: “Remodeling tends to spread. You paint your house and your neighbor paints his.”