When See's Candies closed its shop in The Galleria in the mid-1990s, Edna Levy, the wife of one of the founders of Rice Epicurean Markets, realized she would have no place in Houston to buy her favorite chocolates. So her son, Joel, quickly contacted the candy maker asking to be the first retailer in the nation to sell See's Candies in a custom-built shop inside a grocery store and they struck a deal.
In Houston's brutally competitive supermarket world, the leading contenders have to constantly come up with new ways to keep customers coming in. For more than 73 years, the owners of Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston’s oldest family-owned specialty grocery store chain, have sought to stay in the fray by remaining close to their roots — providing great service, knowing their customers, and finding the best products for shoppers.
The importance of family
Family is a large part of the Rice experience. Not only do members of the founding family still run the business, attend food shows, and explore growth opportunities, but employees have worked there for decades, and many of the food brands that are sold in the stores are produced by small family businesses from around the world.
Being a small family business also makes it easier for many companies to get their products into the five Rice stores in the Houston area. If, while on vacation, vice president and director of specialty foods Scott Silverman sees something at a food show or at a restaurant that he thinks his customers would eat up, he can order it on the spot and have it shipped directly to the stores without working with distributors or having months of paperwork and shelf space approval. It might even make it to the shelves before he makes it back to Houston.
“Because we are small, it is to our benefit and theirs that we can get their product in fast,” Silverman said. “When we hear of something that our customers read about or tried out of town, we react quickly. No company is too small for us, when it could take them up to a year to get into Whole Foods.”
Because Rice has everyday products and specialty ones as well, it competes with everyone.
“Our competitors are Walgreens, Central Market, Williams-Sonoma and Specs, among others,” Silverman said. “What makes us different is our ease of shopping for our customers and our variety of products.”
Executives realize that many grandparents come into the store, so they place holiday greeting cards and children’s related gifts with the home décor holiday gifts. They know their shoppers are well traveled, so they carry products from all over the world, like butter biscuits from England, gingersnaps from Sweden, and peanuts from Virginia.
“You can find Christmas around the world in our store,” Silverman said.
And instead of doing all of their shopping at Rice during the holiday season, many shoppers only visit the store for certain products like Amish Wedding Spiced Peaches or New England Cran Pepper Jelly. Rice executives anticipate what will be hot this holiday season, like Linda’s Gourmet Latkes and baking emulsions instead of extracts, and prepare their shelves accordingly.
To stand out, Rice provides some touches other stores don't. They offer private charge accounts for personal or corporate use, with monthly billing, and stocks hard-to-find ingredients like Hammons Black Walnuts (for baking, not eating raw), which are the walnuts that Blue Bell uses in its ice creams. They were selling POM Pomegranate Juice before it exploded in popularity, and they added Greek yogurts to their dairy shelves and tart yogurts to their yogurt bar before the fad took hold.
Rice rewards customers with coupons for future grocery visits and gift cards to restaurants around town. And the chain supports local and Texas-based vendors. It recently started carrying Logan Farms Hams instead of Honey Baked Hams because Logan is local and Silverman believes customers appreciate that.
He realizes his customers aren’t baking Duncan Hines cakes — they want a more upscale brand — so Rice offers many varieties of the more exclusive Stonewall Kitchen cake mixes. In the end, for Silverman and the Rice team, it comes back to family.
“For every 12 boxes that we sell of this cake mix, I know that there are at least 24 memories of a grandmother and her grandchild who will bake this cake together for (the holidays),” Silverman said. “We love that and that’s why we want people to buy.”