#49: Ed Cifu – Director of Market District Fresh at Giant Eagle
Ed Cifu Podcast Transcript
Neil Dudley: Everybody, we’re back again with the Pederson’s Farms Podcast. Hi, out there on YouTube and anybody listening. We’re just really appreciative of you spending your time with us. And I want to say thank you to all of the guests, especially today’s guest. His name is Ed Cifu, and I’ve known him probably my whole career. One of my favorite stories to tell has to do with Ed. And maybe we’ll get into that, but I don’t want to steal the show. Ed, tell everybody a little bit about who you are and what you do and in just a short five minutes because they can probably Google you or get on LinkedIn and see your career and all those things. I want to hear about what you know from the industry or from the seat you sit in as a business partner, maybe we’re not right now today, but we’re exploring the idea and we have been business partners in the past. That’s the stuff I want people to hear.
Ed Cifu: The abridged version is I started off in a family business. My family had a market in Manhattan for almost 70 years. Worked there as a kid, took over from my dad, kind of gave it up when my partner had an accident. He was hit by a car. And gave it up, went to work a little bit as a butcher. Then I threw my resume on Monster and wound up as a meat coordinator with Whole Foods in Atlanta for 10 years, 2002 to 2012, where we met. From there, knew a bunch of guys who were working up in Pittsburgh with Giant Eagle, went to Giant Eagle as the category manager for meat and innovation, did that for about two years. Giant Eagle has a second, well, Giant Eagle is a bunch of- 180 supermarkets, a couple of independents, 15 very large market district stores, and 250 convenience stores, kind of like the gas station. I got moved over to do meat, seafood, produce, and floral for the market district stores. And over the last seven years, I’ve just inherited everybody’s business parts as they have retired and moved on. So, my current title is Director of Fresh and Specialty. I do meat, seafood, produce, deli, bakery, cheese, candy, floral, prepared foods, our catering business, and our restaurants. So that’s kind of the short version.
Neil Dudley: Okay, good. Perfect. And for anybody that didn’t get that full list, I’ll get those in the show notes, all the different departments that Ed kind of oversees, and in this particular- Sorry about that. My phone fell down. Let me get that video started again, and we’ll go. That’s what’s great about a podcast. It is not live TV. You can have a little mess up.
Ed Cifu: All those years of media training at Whole Foods certainly-
Neil Dudley: Media training. There you go. That’d be a good thing to talk about. Okay, so we are back. Hey, everybody, the camera angle’s changed. My camera fell off of the little stand there. But Ed just got through kind of telling everybody about all the things he oversees. And I was about to get into the amount of fires that must have burning in your email, in your whatever communication y’all use internally on a daily basis has to be, especially right now with all the supply chain issues that seem to be a reality. How do you juggle all that?
Ed Cifu: Well, I oversee just the market district, which are much larger, probably a very large percentage of our company’s sales. I have a great team. And actually, the fun part about it is it is something different every five minutes. And for as many fires as there are, there is that many wins also. I’ll give you a quick example. One of the relationships that we’ve made recently in my seafood department, I would get a call from 200 miles out in the Atlantic, from the boat. The boat would say hey, we just caught a bluefin tuna. How much of it do you want? It’ll be landing tomorrow in Baltimore. It’ll be in processed in two days. And that kind of great stuff. I have my own certified angus beef cattle, you know what they grade. In Ohio, I have my own Berkshire hogs, to some degree, certainly not on a large enough scale to supply all of us, but I get to do all that. And then I get to go to a bakery tasting on donuts and on macaroni and cheese. We met with Nestle and 25 different macaroni and cheeses. So, it is something different every five minutes, and the wins still outweigh by 1% the fires. So, it’s always fun.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, that’s right. Isn’t that kind of the trick? I mean, it is the trick to enjoying what you do is making sure the wins outweigh the fires by 1%. That’s a great insight.
Ed Cifu: It’s just fun. And I’ve got the most experienced team in the company. I have three people who have been with the company for over 40 years. But they know where all the bodies are buried. They know how to get stuff done. We’re very nimble, we’re very quick, even though we’re very large stores. We’ll make a decision, we’ll monitor it, we’ll make another decision in a week if it isn’t going well. Usually it takes a few more weeks, but we’ll give a new item five or six weeks. But we’ll roll out a new- we’ll roll out three or four new recipes in the gourmet cases every week, everything from catering, plant-based stuff. We were at the plant-based show in New York in December, Fancy Food in Vegas, and then just recently where I saw you at Expo. So, in our stores, we’re looking for the next- we don’t want to be behind the charge; we want to be leading the next big rush. Today when I went to the store, when I go to my store, it’s like you’ve got to try this. We use our- I know I’m jumping around – I have 18 to 20 executive chefs in my fifteen stores, all with culinary training, just in prepared foods. So, we’ll bring them together. COVID is now relaxing a little bit. We just did one. We’ll bring them all to one of our cooking schools at one of our stores. And I’ll say, here’s the deal, you got a whole day. Everybody has to make one recipe for five or six or seven categories. This year we had salmon, crab, plant based with like an impossible burger or something, a couple other categories. They will each make recipe, so we’ll have 50 to 70 recipes. And we’ll bring the whole store in, which is about a hundred people at any given time. They’ll eat, vote, and whatever wins will be our spring and summer set that we roll out. So, we use our chefs’ creativity and talent to come up with all the latest stuff that their customers are asking for. And we tend to be a little more cutting edge than the people around us.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. And I like that idea just for the competitive nature of it. I bet those chefs, they’re there to win and have their recipe featured.
Ed Cifu: And Neil, it’s something that I think supermarkets have lost a little bit. When it’s their recipes, they’re more proud of it, they sell it more. I actually came up with this idea – we’ll put a little picture of Chef Tom’s or Chef Neil’s pick of the week and stuff. The more I can get input from the stores, the better we do. And it is actually better for our guests.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. Now, so I’m just curious, what percentage of the offering in your stores also finds its way or do you garner from the other, your counterparts over at Giant Eagle or wherever else?
Ed Cifu: So, we are parallel but different. We run- it is one company. Our get go, our convenience stores- are one company, we are one team. But depending on the department, meat, I’d say we’re 95%, 90% similar. Seafood’s 90, but we’re diverging a little bit there. Prepared foods, it’s 50 to 20% the same, depending on the week. But it’s different in prepared foods, the catering, gourmet cases. So, bakery, my new job directive is not to let market districts look untidy in the next couple of years. Best direction I’ve ever been given.
Neil Dudley: Well, from your history and just knowing your personality, I mean, that’s a good kind of project for you to be leading. And I want to circle back for anybody that missed something that Ed said, it is really valuable, and I think he can tell me if I’m right or wrong here, but in part to your success is your willingness to try it, if it’s failing, change it, just really be quick to shoot somebody straight – look, I’m going to try it. If it’s not working, we’re going to do something different, and that might mean we’re done. But what do you think?
Ed Cifu: Yes, I have a large team, but when we go in a room and we do recipes and we do research and development and we try stuff, everybody’s equal. If there’s ten people in the room and six people like it and four people don’t, we give it a shot. I think in seven years, I’ve overruled them once and said, no, we’re going to try this even though everybody hates it. And honestly, I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but they’re going to tell you I was wrong. -in the bakery and deli, but they all work together. The other thing we do in our stores, everybody has a secondary team. So, if you’re the produce guy and you go into one of our stores, he has an assigned team go walk around and I’ll make it up in the meat department as a customer, if you don’t like what you saw, get on the phone, grab somebody in the store, share with your counterparts so that you’re not just going in and looking at apples and oranges. So, we go in like customers. I shop a different store here in Pittsburgh every weekend just to kind of see what’s working, what isn’t working. But the keynote really is getting the teams involved. In a lot of companies and supermarkets, it is top down. They’ll send out a recipe, they’ll send in the mix. I work, being a fresh guy, I work 50/50 with our grocery side of the building, which doesn’t happen in a lot of supermarkets. So, we’re working on July right now, six or seven different sauces that we’re going to highlight in grocery kind across merchandise in grocery or over in our department. It’s like, are we- Neil’s barbecue sauce. Well, do we have an item in the meat case and the seafood case and gourmet that’s using Neil’s barbecue sauce? So, when Neil comes in to do a demo on that, now that we can get back to demoing now that COVIDs kind of letting up, are we using it across the store and can turn it into an event?
Neil Dudley: Oh man, I can see like just your leadership pops through even in Whole Foods and just wherever you’ve been with that kind of thought process of, hey, that was a really great piece of working with Whole Foods, and still that willingness and kind of flipping the traditional script and just the whole store working together and minimizing shrink. There’re ways of doing that, too, that are really valuable.
Ed Cifu: We have a- our company’s kind of all-natural line. So, we rolled out a Nature’s Basket salmon and seafood department. From a small island off of Norway, we buy all the salmon. There are only 80 people on the island. One day later, that’s the only salmon we use in prepared foods. It helps our partners. It helps the people on the island. It’s fresh. It’s just like buying off the boat. We’re buying the stuff the minute it is on the boat. Last week, it was one bluefin tuna. We bought it all. We have store in Indiana, which is in kind of an affluent neighborhood. For a while there, before COVID, we were flying tuna in from a dock in Hawaii, 18 hours to the case. My teams, my seafood teams, have to make the call. They’re calling an island off the Florida coast, which is the most sustainable shrimp farm in the country, as soon as they get the order, they’re capturing the shrimp, catching it, processing it, and overnighting it to the stores. It isn’t the least expensive shrimp in the country, but unless you own a boat, it’s definitely the freshest.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. And people, I think everybody realizes there’s kind of a difference between super fresh and been there a while or kind of harvested, I don’t know, produce comes to mind, just harvested green, ripened on the boat or whatever. So, if you’re after that really fresh stuff, well, Ed’s stores are the place to go get it, market district.
Ed Cifu: Well, we offer both, and people have a choice. But if you try it, it’s worth it. So, you take that, Neil, to every department, every dip, every cake, every piece of meat, everything. My job gets very- it’s a lot of fun every week.
Neil Dudley: Yes, sir. I want to say one quick thing. You just mentioned you’re working on July. I want to tell everybody we’re recording this in mid-April. I’m not sure consumers or even vendors a lot of times understand you’re working way ahead with a lot of your planning, a lot of your purchasing decisions. It’s not like everything just is happening that week or last week.
Ed Cifu: No. And especially in this environment, the way supply is, the way costs are, as you well know. You can make a great plan, but you’re going to be tweaking it right up until the minute it rolls out. From a merchandising plan, stuff in a bottle is kind of easy. But whatever, I got calls – flour is going up, sugar’s going up, everything is just in flux. We’re getting vendors saying, hey, I’ve sold you a crumb cake for the last two years, but I can’t make them anymore. We’ve got to suspend it. So, you can write the plans, but you just be nimble. And we’ve got some pretty large stores, so there’s some pretty good options no matter what happens. But yeah, we’re working. We like to do three months out with the general plan and then two or three weeks out with the details.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. The execution, it is kind of like three months out planning, then you’ve got to execute those plans. And like you said, they’re so dynamic. Now, for those guys and gals like me and probably even me, I’m not unselfish in this regard, what in your mind makes the best vendor? Like who are the people you typically value the most within your group of vendors?
Ed Cifu: It’s real simple. I just want to say it the right way and capture it. And I know it’s your podcast, but people like yourself who you can pick up the phone and talk to. Being in this industry for a long time, working in Manhattan with a lot of great people, a lot of great companies. We had wholesale and a retail business. We worked with over a hundred restaurants in Manhattan. We worked with a lot of executive kitchens. -a lot of the butchering. For people I can call up and go- like the gentleman who does my beef in Ohio. He’s a little older than I am. Hey, Bob, what’s up? He’ll just call me up and say, hey, what’s going on? Here’s where we are. Things don’t need to be in writing, when it comes to business, quality assurance, quality standards, ingredients, and all the legal stuff that you’ve got to have in writing. But the best vendors are the ones- people like yourself. I haven’t seen you in 10 years, and here we are three weeks later, like we hadn’t- like we only stopped for a week. So, people that want- You know what it is, Neil? People that take pride in what they produce are the easiest ones to work with.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. Well, and then I like- I mean, it’s almost valid for me to say the same thing. Like, you can answer your own question. If you want to be a vendor of Eds or a vendor of mine or if you’re just a salesperson of any sort. I mean, Ed’s a salesman; he’s selling to every one of those people that comes in his store. I mean, we all have to think about it that way a little bit. And who do you like to do business with? Just somebody you can trust that’s not going to- Like, I love what you said. We haven’t talked in 10 years. I’ve emailed you a couple times throughout there just saying, hey, you need anything? You didn’t, whatever. But that relationship we built years ago stays good because we just did it right.
Ed Cifu: Someone in the beef industry, Mr. Will Harris at White Oak Pastures. I hadn’t seen Will in a couple years, especially because of COVID. The first text I get is a picture of a pasture. I talk to Will every once in a while, but I hadn’t seen him. And whenever I down to Georgia, I take this power trip over to just go see him and see what he’s doing in the industry. People like yourselves, this whole story with the animal welfare, and it just started to grow. When we started talking about animal welfare, which a lot of people don’t get, it was unheard of. What is it, 18 or 19 years ago? That time piloting the Global Animal Partnership, for Whole Foods in my region of Whole Foods, Mr. Joel Cutner, my former assistant, we got to make some great relationships, and our founder, Whole Food’s foundation, that’s- has a new sustainability manager. Our CEO is now getting more interested. But animal welfare. We have a little bit of credibility. And if there’s one thing I have, it is a lot of people I know in the industry who do really well with animal welfare.
Neil Dudley: And some of it’s- I was talking to someone the other day, and experience and just time is hard to replace. It’s just over those years, even me, let’s say I’ve been doing this 20 years, I know a lot more people now than I did when I was five years in. I happened to be meeting you, and now we’re 20 years circling back around. So, I mean, everybody don’t- you can’t just go and know everybody in the first day. You’ve got to spend the time and work, go to the shows, say hi, be around, and that’s just such a valuable piece. It is just kind of don’t expect it today, put some time in, and then once you have the time, understand that value.
Ed Cifu: -even 15 to 20 years later, people are happy to run into you. My team is in charge of local- our new boss for the entire company. And we do a lot of work. My thing in Whole Foods was local. We were the only region that didn’t sell any organic meat because we sold local. We had- traceable back to the farm way back, years ago, 15 years ago. The local, it’s got to be a partnership. These are people that are just trying to grow their businesses, their family’s wellbeing, leave something to the kids. People look at me when I came here, the first statement I would tell people, profit is good. At the first point where either one of us isn’t making money, we have to suspend. Just if this isn’t sustainable and somebody’s losing, somebody’s going to have some hard feelings and ruin the relationship. It’s better to stop business for six months and figure out what was wrong and get it right then to go to a point where the vendor was doing something wrong, and we were annoyed, or they weren’t making enough money to sustain it. It’s got to be a partnership, and then you can run into somebody 20 years later, that all right, let’s pick up where we left off. We run it that way at market district in my stores, my team knows that. Brutally honest, brutally open, transparent, and here’s what we need. And the hardest thing when I was with Whole Foods with all the people that wanted to sell to us was saying, no, you’re not a good fit for us. They’re just trying to do the right thing for their families, their neighborhoods, their communities, but sometimes it is just not the right thing. And it’s only- luckily I’ve got the experience now, it’s going to cost them money in the long run. And it’s just not for anybody.
Neil Dudley: I just want to say yeehaw. I hope everybody’s listening because that’s some really great insight, business education. If you didn’t know that kind of stuff already, Ed’s telling you some really good insight into a good way to be successful in your business. And it doesn’t even just have to be meat or food. I think those concepts, those philosophies work well really in life, anything you do. Okay, so I’ve got you- I mean, time flies as it always does when you and I are talking. But before we say bye, where do you get the philosophy as a buyer? Like, how did you learn that? What was the thing that taught you that both of you need to be able to make a little money?
Ed Cifu: Well, all the years in New York, growing up at the meat market, it was a different day. It’s not about business, Neil, it is about people. We are all here to make money. We’re also here to care of our guests and serve the best food possible. The best offerings. You can’t do that consistently on a long term – if it doesn’t taste good, they’re only going to buy it once. Think about a frozen pizza. If it doesn’t go home and heat up well, they’re only buying it once. One of our biggest programs is our meals for one, anywhere from 7.99 to 9.99, a complete meal, 26 ounces of protein, whether it’s salmon or chicken or whatever it is, but it’s an eating meal for one. It has grown exponentially through COVID because people were worried- had to close our salad bars, had to close our hot bars, had to close our soup wells. We had to evolve into a grab and go business. And it is just- we are up 20-30% year over year the past few years and actually are expanding more and more. But it’s got to be- people who are supplying us the best ingredients in the world, whether it’s- we travel the country. I get sous vide chicken breast from Long Island. I get sous vide tri tips from California. I get the tuna from the middle of the Atlantic. Start with the best ingredients, but it’s got to be good for everybody. If you treat people right, you wind up doing pretty well. And I’ve got a pretty picky pallet, and I’m surrounded by lot of great chefs. Some people are pretty picky, so we generally do pretty well offering for our guests.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. Now then, how do you deal with a guest that says you’re too expensive?
Ed Cifu: Well, luckily, I don’t see a lot of guests.
Neil Dudley: But you have to think there’s going to be people that walk in the store that see some of your prices because you spend the kind of money to get the freshest, the best. But you also mentioned you try to offer other options too. So, I think you’re thinking about it where I try to give something here in a price range that everybody can appreciate.
Ed Cifu: We just try and tell a story. Hopefully your marketing is caught up with what you’re doing. But again, having, in the meat department, experienced butchers behind the counter, having a chef behind the gourmet case that says, not only did I make that but I tried it and here’s why I like it and why I don’t. I was listening to one of our chefs talk to someone the other day. And he knew who I was, but certainly the guest didn’t. She goes, what do you think about this? He goes, I think that’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever tried. I wouldn’t buy it if I were you. And I am both proud and upset. I’m proud that he told her the truth and he got her something she wanted. I’m upset that we put an item in the case that somebody thinks is horrible. I know enough to know that it’s food and he just may not like it. And to him, somebody’s favorite could be somebody else’s thing. So, I sit there, and I go, now, I’ve got work to do; I got to double check that recipe, see if we made it right. You take it to that level and then on a large scale, I do something different every 20 minutes, 5 minutes, 3 minutes, depending on the day. It is a lot of fun. But I’m torn when I shop our stores because I want to hear the great feedback. I know I got to go do more work when I don’t hear great feedback, which is also the fun part of making stuff better.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, that’s totally right. Everybody, I hope you’ve listened. Ed, thank you so much for your time. I mean, you can almost boil everything we talked about down to people. It’s about the people. It’s having good people to work with, around you, to be vendors, to be customers or people that are shopping your stores. So, all in all, everybody, look, they’re making robots, they’re coming up with AI, but here’s a couple of guys saying it’s still going to be about the people in one way or another.
Ed Cifu: Thank you, Neil.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, you bet. Have a great one. Thanks for being on the show, and I can’t wait until I see you again. Okay, later.
(3:40) – Ed’s background
(5:56) – How are you able to juggle all of this responsibility?
(10:41) – How much parallel is there in your stores and Giant Eagle?
(11:56) – Ed’s ability to be nimble in trying new products
(17:13) – Product planning and purchasing methods
(18:40) – What makes a great vendor?
(25:44) – Ed’s buying philosophy
The Pederson’s Farms Podcasts is produced by Johnny Podcasts & Root and Roam.