Testing New Products in the Market
January 15, 2010
Last fall, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. — best known for its artisan blue cheese — branched out. At their farmers’ market stand, the company introduced a fresh mozzarella, followed shortly by a young farmhouse gouda.*
“We’re experimenting, and trying lots of different recipes,” says Lynn Giacomini-Stray, one of four sisters who run the small cheese company with their father. Every experiment yields a 20-pound wheel of cheese, so Point Reyes Cheese Co. brings it to the market, where shoppers expect a constantly shifting, seasonal array of options. Loyal customers can then act as a ready-made focus group. As Lynne put it, “the farmers’ market is really important to us as a venue for feedback.” When the weather began cooling off, for instance, the fresh mozzarella stopped selling as quickly. “We realized that it’s a warm weather cheese,” says Lynn, “so we’ll be bringing it back in late spring.”
Point Reyes Cheese Co. is one of a number of farms and artisan ventures that have used the market as a testing ground. Cowgirl Creamery is also currently testing out a new cheese; they have a name, “Wagon Wheel,” picked out, but they’re not officially calling it that yet. Instead, they send it home with shoppers using batch numbers, so they can get feedback on slightly different versions of the recipe.
How sweet is too sweet?
When John Driver first brought his “CandyCot” apricots to the market a few years back he had just started raising a number of single-tree varieties he’d brought back from Central Asia. John wasn’t sure what would sell, or how eaters would take to the fruit, so he tried them out on Ferry Plaza customers.
“[Farmers’ Market feedback] really changed or mind about what we thought would work,” says John. “We knew we had intensely flavored fruit and we thought they’d be too far outside the apricot mainstream.” Of the many varieties they brought, two, named Anya and Yuliya, were especially popular; now they’re the backbone of the business. “We chose the varieties we planted commercially based on what the customers told us,” John adds. “So we’re very grateful to have had that opportunity.”
The accidental brand
When Joe Hargrave applied to start a stand at the Thursday market last July, he planned to base it on the Spanish fare he served in his restaurant, Laïola. Then one day a lightbulb went on.
Since 2008, Joe and his wife Sara Deseran had been scheming about ways to open a taco truck that used sustainable ingredients, but they set the idea aside when the recession hit. A weekly gig at the Ferry Plaza — and the loyal audience that came with it — promised a way to try out the concept without a lot of overhead. And the rest, as they say, is taco history.
The couple launched Tacolicious and the discerning Thursday lunch audience responded positively. “Thursdays became the highlight of my week,” says Joe. And for good reason. “The crowd is there for the flavors. So I was inspired to work with different chiles, and to get creative with the tacos, working in things like a chorizo-potato and tongue.”
Soon tacos infiltrated Laïola, where Joe and Sara instituted a special taco night every Tuesday. It was such a success that the pair decided to transform the whole restaurant, closing down for a few weeks near the end of the year to re-shape the interior and finalize the menu. “Californians just really dig Mexican food. And the tacolicious menu has a more playful tone,” says Joe. “I can take the food seriously, but in a less formal context.”
The new bricks and mortar Tacolicious opened earlier this week, with a name Joe acknowledges wouldn’t have been his first choice (it came about spontaneously when a friend heard they were starting a taco stand and exclaimed, “tacolicious!”). “We wanted to change the name,” says Joe. “But so many people have seen it at the farmers’ market and they remember it; so the brand just kind of stuck.”
*Both of Pt. Reyes’ cheeses will be back for another round of customer feedback later this spring.