Top Shelf

Premier Gourmet, an Amherst, N.Y. specialty food purveyor, has been a reliable resource for customers since1974. We caught up with Jerry Ciesielski who is hand-picking world class beers, fine foods and housewares to create an unrivaled in-store experience.

Fancy Food & Culinary Products Magazine: What's your favorite aspect about working in such a passionate industry?
Jerry Ciesielski: I've spent the past four years in the specialty food industry, and my entire professional career has been in retail development. Most of the people I meet in this industry are extremely enthusiastic about specialty food—how can it improve healthy eating habits; how can it bring people together in the kitchen and at the table; and how can it create bonds? Whether it's the difference between inexpensive and artisanal balsamic vinegar or introducing an ingredient they never knew existed, I absolutely love having the opportunity to share my food knowledge with customers.

FF: Why do you believe specialty food is doing so well right now, and are you seeing that same success at Premier Gourmet?
JC: Food Network, cooking magazines and blogs have all created awareness about cooking techniques, chefs, quality ingredients, and fancy food. At the same time, Millennials on social media are driving demand for new and exciting cooking and dining experiences. I think many small independent grocers who have been adversely affected by larger chains and big-box stores are now finding success with higher-end specialty foods to differentiate themselves from the competition.

FF: Which fine foods categories are doing best among your customers?
JC: We do very well with cocktail mixers, bitters and high-end sodas—items that are highly compatible to products at our three sister wine and spirit stores. Oils, especially extra virgin olive oils, are another strong category for us. I've sourced more than 100 varieties, mostly from small producers, and customers are impressed with the selection. Baking supplies, tea, cookies, and ethnic foods are increasingly profitable for us. I introduce new and unique items that no one has seen before—or are very difficult to find—making Premier Gourmet a destination for these categories.

FF: Many brick and mortars are still hesitant to transition to the online world. How does your e-commerce site affect sales at the store?
JC: We've had our best year yet. Buffalo, N.Y. and the rest of the Northeast suffered heavy snowstorms that definitely put a damper on in-store sales. Despite the brutal winter, our online sales were booming. E-commerce is a relatively new venture for us. We've been heavily involved for only the past two years, but we've been remarkably successful. Partnering with Amazon and eBay has been highly lucrative with our housewares products like small electrics and cutlery. Fancy food items will be our next focus. Online customers are price conscious, so it's worthwhile to do your research and focus your efforts on higher price points and niche products where you can be price-competitive with shipping. Once you have happy customers from those channels, they will seek you out on your own website. An easy-to-use website and shopping cart as well as modest search engine optimization is essential.

FF: Which new arrivals in fine food are you most looking forward to?
JC: As an adventurous eater and ethnic food lover, I'm really excited about Korean cuisine as the next Japanese. Even a decade ago, few Americans ate raw fish, but now look at how ubiquitous sushi is. Korean food has the perfect flavor profiles to fuel American consumers' new obsession for spicy and bold tastes. I can't wait to introduce customers to gochujang—a fermented hot pepper paste—and bulgoki sauces, which are sweet and savory marinades for grilled meat. I think food media will focus on American regional cuisine next. I envision lowcountry and Cajun and Creole flavors experiencing a resurgence. I think dairy-free will be the next gluten-free, and I'm actively searching for more of these allergy-driven and lifestyle-choice items. There are not enough products available in the marketplace.

FF: How do you separate Premier Gourmet from your competition?
JC: Our selection is what wows customers when they first visit us, and this type of variety distinguishes us from the rest. Our sizable store features more than 1,500 varieties of beer; we roast more than 75 blends and flavors of coffee beans right in the store; our cheese shop supplies hard-to-find cheeses from around the world, all of which are cut to order, and we have an in-house bakery and café. I frequently have tourists comment that they can't believe we have an item they've been searching for, for years. That is what makes me feel great.

If you would like to have your retail business featured here, please email Claire Johnson, cjohnson@talcott.com.