Q&A with Harps Food Stores' Mike Roberts About Hatch Chile Program
SPRINGDALE, AR - Authentic Hatch Chiles prompt a kind of enthusiasm that is rarely seen in produce. With an extremely short season and an exceptional flavor all its own, these New Mexico-grown grilling staples are pitch-perfect for the end of a hot summer and the beginning of a temperate autumn.
So, how does one go about selling Hatch chile? How does the enthusiasm catch at the store-level? I spoke with Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations at Harps Food Stores to find out more on how this forward-thinking retailer preps, reps, and relishes Hatch chiles. With its iconic Harps Hatch Chile Roasting Events rolling out this month and extending throughout September, Harps locations can look forward to classic fare like salsas, rellenos, and tamales—and innovative new dishes like Hatch mac’n cheese, cookies, and rye bread.
Q: Tell me a little bit about how Harps prepares for Hatch chile season: How does Harps prep a produce item with such a short promotional window?
Mike Roberts: We actually start planning this event in the spring; we have to have everything ready to go well in advance with an event with this short of a window. If you miss something you might not get it by the time the season is over. Having six roasters is really beneficial to our sales, and that is where we start; we have to make sure that all the roasters have been cleaned, serviced, and are in good working order for the next year’s events.
After that, we continue with a review of last season’s roasting events results to help determine where we need to have them for the upcoming season, what events worked the best—were they one or two day events, etc.
Once we have determined where we are going to have our events, we start putting the schedule together. We try to roast four days out of the week, having one-day events at stores on Mondays and Wednesdays and two-day events on Friday and Saturday. We have stores pretty spread out, so Sunday and Thursday are usually travel days for the roaster and supplies. After the schedule has been finalized, then we really get going—with the planning of chile needs per store to start and then on to the ordering of POS materials, planning items to tie in with the events both in the produce and our other perimeter departments, and meeting with the marketing department to start the planning of this year’s campaign.
Q: How does Harps work to most effectively promote Hatch chile purchases?
MR: We start advertising them in the store with event dates, pre-order forms, and an estimated arrival date in July—as well as put some of this information in our circular. We also do not advertise a per-pound or case price, just the availability of them in our stores; this allows us to be the low price leader in our market and react to competition. We also post event dates, recipes, and a Hatch essentials giveaway on social media and our web-site.
Q: How does the company hope to drive sales with both enthusiasts and those who are new to Hatch chiles?
MR: We sample at every event—from quesadillas to Hatch salsa—and have several recipes available to get customers to try them and become repeat customers. The enthusiasts, well that’s easy; just make sure they know that you have them and where the roasters are going to be each week. These customers alone have helped us grow the sales via word of mouth. In short, we just keep them happy and get the chiles as soon as we can and as long as we can.
Q: Are there any particular promotional or merchandising strategies the company employs?
We start with announcing the events weeks in advance with posters on easel boards and taking pre-orders. Once we get to the day of the roast, the outside event is the catalyst, and we put a lot into that using fresh chiles, corn, corn shucks, baking potatoes, and sweet onions to really get a market feel to the event. Using empty boxes that our partner supplies us, we really make it look like we have a truckload of product outside.
Inside the store, we will have a nice display of fresh chiles, bagged chiles, and all the incremental items—plus a pallet of fresh chiles available to purchase by the case and then roasted on the customers way out. This way we can capture not only the walk-up business outside but also every day customers who might not know about them. The bagged Hatch chiles for stores that do not have roasting events or smaller stores really work well, keep the shrink down, and get rung up correctly at the register.
Q: Does Harps partner with particular growers/shippers/distributors to provide Hatch Chiles?
We partner with Melissa’s World Variety Produce for our Hatch chiles. Melissa’s does a great job of providing us with POS materials from banners, T-Shirts, Iron Man signage announcing the events, recipes, cookbooks, and other Hatch essentials, like salsa, tamale kits, Hatch flavored Clean Snax®, and dried Hatch chiles.
Q: What are some of the challenges associated with such a short season and a sought-after category?
Timing is always the biggest challenge; while they are usually ready the same week each year, a week early or late can be challenging once your schedule is set. The other challenge is just making sure that the merchandisers and managers are ready as soon as the chiles are! When they are ready, it is go-time, and it doesn’t stop until the chiles do!
Q: Does the company have any plans to integrate Hatch Chiles into its prepared foods/Deli department offerings?
We are working on a few items: Hatch mac n cheese, cookies, and rye bread, and this year we added some Hatch-flavored cheese, and our meat department added Johnsonville-flavored Hatch brats. Still a work in progress but we get better every year!
Q: Is there anything else you would like to get in front of our readership?
What a great item and event to offer your customers! Offering them something that is unique, tastes great, has a million uses, and is good for them all at once! It is items like this that make the produce industry fun and sets it apart from the rest!
Need your Hatch fix? Consumers can head to your nearest Harps Food Stores location while supply lasts—and check out this list for the dates of upcoming Hatch chile roasts.