“Food is all about exploration.”
That’s the motto of John Coleman, a man who has traversed the globe to sample some of the most coveted wine and cheese on the planet as a merchant for Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market.
“We have to work harder to get this stuff and we have to educate the customer, because the ingredients aren’t cheap, and the labor to maintain it isn’t easy. It’s worth it for us, because this is what we do,” he says. “We’re not in the commodities business.”
The high-end chain of grocery stores opened one of its newest markets at Rye Ridge Shopping Center in Rye Brook earlier this year. More than a grocery store, the 18,000-square-foot Balducci’s offers the delicious delights of travel right in your backyard.
“Ethnicity is cool,” says Jason Miller, corporate executive chef at Balducci’s. “People want to try stuff from France. They want to try stuff from Italy. They want to try stuff from wherever.”
For Balducci’s, which Louis Balducci opened as a farm stand in 1916, the goal is to offer its customers the highest-quality food available.
“There are cheaper ways to do this, but those aren’t the right ways,” Coleman says.
He adds that traveling to visit the purveyors, farms and vineyards that produce the store’s offerings is an important step in Balducci’s process.
“Learning the history behind each item is amazing,” he says. “The story behind them — how they evolved, how they grew up — and the fact that you can’t replicate that here. It’s not an industrial business. You literally cannot make a matching taste anywhere else in the world, and that’s what makes it special.”
Miller, who frequently dry-cures his own salami at home, takes a special pride in the store’s vast array of charcuterie offerings.
“We have dry cures from all over the planet,” Miller says, referencing Mangalica ham from Spain or Prosciutto di Parma from Italy.
There is also a curated assortment of more than 300 cheeses from across the globe, including Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy and Portugal.
“That’s for someone who doesn’t want to turn their oven on, who doesn’t want to cook. They just want something for a picnic or an outdoor festival,” Coleman says, though he adds, “Sometimes that’s all I’ll have for dinner.”
The store’s seafood selection features “top-of-the-catch” fish, a term coined to describe the freshest seafood offered from the final day of a fisherman’s catch.
“It means we buy the most expensive ones,” Coleman says with a laugh. “But you can see the difference. You can taste it.”
Along with traditional grocery offerings, the store features a variety of restaurant-quality prepared foods that are made in store daily by the shop’s chefs.
“We really try to focus on simple things done the right way,” Miller says, “so we’re not reinventing the wheel. That’s kind of my whole philosophy.”
Bordered by a large open kitchen, the shop gives customers a firsthand look at the preparation of each item offered at the store, from hot and cold sandwiches to veggie-filled salads and sushi plates.
“People say food is an art, but it’s a craft,” Miller says. “Just like a carpenter, just like a bricklayer. We’re taking raw ingredients and we’re making something out of it.”
Among the prepared offerings, a plate of carrot risotto is delightfully creamy, with subtle hints of citrus, and beef tenderloin, which is perfectly roasted to medium-rare.
“We’re doing restaurant-style food but you can come in and customize it,” Miller says. “And it’s convenient.”
Those looking for a more hands-on customization for their lunch or dinner needs can head to the salad, ramen noodle or mezze bars.
“A lunch stop is quick and easy,” Coleman says, gesturing to customers who are doing just that as we tour the store. “You’re in, you’re out, or you can stay and eat it here.”
Café tables line the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the store, enticing patrons to enjoy their purchases in house.
The store can also offer meals for a larger gathering. Balducci’s full-service catering department can coordinate everything from food to floral arrangements.
“They’ll do anything,” Coleman says. “They’ll design your menu. They’ll staff your party. Whatever you need, they’ll take care of it.”
Those catering services can be customized for functions that include small office parties or large holiday dinners.
“We literally sell you a Thanksgiving dinner in a box,” Miller said. “You just need to go home and reheat it.”
For Balducci’s, the target customer is anyone who has a passion for food and makes that passion a priority.
“Are we the least expensive place to buy stuff? No. But it’s for a reason. It’s because we have to work harder,” Coleman says. “I drive a terrible old car, because I don’t care about my car. It gets me from A to B. But I will spend $300 on oysters in Grand Central Oyster Bar as a snack before dinner and not bat an eye.”
For more, visit balduccis.com.