A serious investment in people is the secret ingredient to the cult retail group, with its Pasadena and Frewville supermarkets bringing on four new chefs since COVID hit.
How Adelaide’s Finest Supermarkets became a safe haven for chefs during COVID-19
Bringing another four chefs into the Adelaide’s Finest Supermarket group (AFS), the company that operates Foodland Pasadena and Frewville, was an easy decision for director Spero Chapley, but one he admits might seem strange to competitors in his industry.
The number of chefs within the business is now at 36, and their collective passion and knowledgebase is the reason you’ve likely heard friends gleefully speak of heading off to Frewville or Pasadena Foodland in a tone never reserved for a Woolies or Coles.
What Spero wanted to create, and has successfully achieved at these sites was “a real foodie business.”
“We’ve always said, we’re not a café, we’re not a restaurant. It’s basically food appreciation,” he says.
“The missing link was having cooks and chefs in our business, really. Because I’m not one. I like to eat. I know good food when I eat it, but I can’t cook for the life of me.”
The Adelaide’s Finest Supermarket model is one based on similar stores in Europe and the United States, which have distinct produce sections and hospitality offerings built in. This is not such a familiar concept in Australia, and so getting chefs on board initially was not an easy sell.
“You can imagine, we were calling for chefs and cooks to start working in a supermarket. We got people hanging up the phone on us all the time,” Spero says.
“We had to do some cool stuff, create the environment for it, including back-of-house, make it professional. It was never going to be, ‘Let’s just see how we go.’ We knew we had to do it properly, and we had to sell some stuff to pay for those wages, basically.
“That was always the aspiration, so nothing’s changed since then.”
As the coronavirus pandemic struck South Australia, supermarkets were one of the few retail sectors to see a boon in trade – thanks in no small part to a still baffling spate of hoarding.
In the restaurant industry, though, many workers were left in the lurch, particularly those not eligible for JobKeeper or JobSeeker payments – migrant workers especially.
On a tour through Foodland Pasadena, CityMag is pointed toward chefs who’ve come from Mount Lofty House, Jamie’s Italian and Golden Boy, before we’re introduced to David Costa in the seafood department.
David is a Brazilian national and had worked at AFS previously, before leaving to work at Magill Estate, and then taking a job with Emma McCaskill at fare.
Once COVID-19 hit, the job at fare was no longer available, and so he came back to Pasadena.
“I feel very proud to be back and do a great job,” he says.
“They’re pretty good, because they value your work. It’s pretty nice… They gave me plenty of freedom to do whatever I like, especially with fish, I love to fish, I’m a spear fisherman.”
Virginia Gordon is another new recruit. She had already planned to join the company just as the pandemic hit. She has worked previously at Rigoni’s Bistro as a chef, and most recently at the Mayfair Hotel as a pastry chef.
She saw in the supermarket Spero’s vision.
“When I first walked in here, it reminded me of the supermarkets in Europe, whereas there’s nothing like that in Australia,” Virginia says.
“There’s so much produce to choose from when you’re doing stuff. And also, if you have any questions, there’s so many people in different roles here who have got experience, so you can ask people for help, and they actually know what they’re talking about, because they’re all running their own departments.
“It’s a bigger kitchen, and you’ve got this huge wealth of knowledge here.”
The combined insights of the 36 chefs also flow through to the customer experience – and not just via the on-floor cooking demonstrations and tastings.
The team is always on hand to offer advice on the best prep technique for even the most obscure vegetables, and there is a ‘vegetable butchery’ coming soon, which will see the chefs take all the guess work out of prep.
And there is even a membership program in the works, but not the sort offered by the larger chains.
“We’re not going to do flybuy points… we sell food, we don’t sell cars and anything else, so it’s really about using technology to have a sharp connection with our community,” Spero says.
“We can offer our snapper: ‘It’s fresh, it’s live, we’ve got 100 kilos, we’re selling it at a reduced price, who’s in?’ Whether you’re a chef at a restaurant or you’re a foodie at home who wants to know what’s going on.”
There is a culture built into this business, and it’s built entirely around people and an investment in their passions.
Looking back at the last two months, Spero is proud to not only have been able to bring more people into the family, but to also ensure none of his staff lost hours.
When the hospitality side of the businesses were closed down due to the coronavirus, staff were redeployed to different areas – some were put on a hygiene team, others became shop assistants who would help customers reach for items, push carts, or navigate the bustling space. David’s wife was in the hospitality team in Frewville and now works with online orders.
Spero has seen some larger competitor supermarket retailers begin to mimic concepts he’s introduced into the Australian market, but he’s continually frustrated in the one part of his business they can’t seem to grasp.
– Spero Chapley
“We’ve always had, and will have, lots of people in this business working,” he says.
“Supermarkets and retailers are always looking for ways to reduce employment, take out wage costs. It’s a complete contrast – we’re at odds with all of that stuff. For us, we love employing people. We’ve just got to make sure we keep them busy and sell some stuff on the way.
“[If] you’re just looking at ways to cut costs, you won’t do anything unless there’s a dollar in it for you. You definitely won’t do it if you can see there’s going to be a risk. For us, we love taking those risks.
“Generally speaking, [our competitors will] cherry-pick what they like of what we do that’s low-risk for them – proven by us, therefore low-risk for them – or it looks good, the aesthetic.
“Ours is soul. We’ve got soul. It’s the depth that excites us.”