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What Passes for Gourmet

April 27, 2011

My expectations are not impossibly high, but I’ll admit they are higher than most.

Still, I try my best to keep those expectations proportionate with the kind of business I’m evaluating. A clam shack on the beach doesn’t have to pass the same standards as a white tablecloth restaurant.

For today, let’s focus on food purveyors, since that is the impetus for this post. The owner of a local gourmet market stumbled upon some critical things I wrote about her store, and wrote me a note conveying that she is open to suggestions. So I’m taking this opportunity to explain what I think fine gourmet food is and what it isn’t.

And I’m going to be as gentle as possible.

The store is relatively new and it’s called Bel Cibo. There was a write-up on All Over Albany recently that included the shop in a piece on Upper Union Street in Schenectady. In my comments I wrote, “Bel Cibo is a cute little shop, but I just don’t get it.”

I’ll admit that the statement was dismissive and vague, so I’m happy to take the time to elaborate. Especially since I know I’ve got the owner’s ear.

Although, to be fair, this wasn’t my first public criticism of the store. Six months earlier I had written a more thoughtful comment that I saw as a good bit more constructive on the Table Hopping blog:

I wish Bel Cibo would tighten up its product mix to be more of a gourmet fine foods shop, and less of a whimsical-food-products-i-like-and-you-might-too shop.

How do you describe a store that has Baconaise, a $65 box of salt, fair-trade Zata, and hot cocoa mix?

Given its name, I was really hoping for a wide selection of gourmet Italian delicacies from the many regions of the country. You could fill a shop that size with just a selection of regional Italian olive oils (not that I’m suggesting that would be a sustainable business on upper union).

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to see how it evolves.
I wish it the best.

Back then the owner replied that the whimsical items were selling well, that Bel Cibo means fine foods and not Italian foods, and that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a gourmet Italian market when there were so many Italian shops where specialty items could be purchased.

At the end of the day this is a business, and businesses have to sell things to people. 

There are many who believe that places in the business of selling food need to give the consumer what they want. And that’s a perfectly reasonable position, but I happen to disagree.

Food purveyors are on the front lines of not only how their communities eat, but on how they see food. They are the ones who can entice and educate. They are the ones who can challenge palates or gently nudge them in a certain direction.

They can create demand.

This is truly where I see Bel Cibo falling down. There is little about the product mix in this store that has anything to do with gourmet fine foods. Instead of a ridiculously priced gourmet salt tasting kit, I would have preferred to see individual bottles of some of the world’s better salts. Instead of novelty chocolate bars, I would like to see products from Valrhona, Schokinag, Guittard or Callebaut. Other gourmet treats from around the world might include marcona almonds, anchovies packed in salt, Ortiz canned tuna, Mariage Frères teas, and other truly great things enjoyed by food lovers everywhere.

Instead, they stock fun and fanciful things. There is a wide variety of products for people who don’t cook from scratch, like jarred marinades, pre-made sauces and spice rubs.

For the most part everything is presented like museum pieces. All the jars and bottles are in neat little rows on shelves that line the walls. They are dramatically lit and nicely staged. But while this kind of treatment might be fine for $200 bottles of 25-year old balsamic vinegar, it’s a bit out of place for Baconaise.

Honestly, I don’t know what to call a store like this.

It would seem to me the place to go when you don’t know much about food, but are trying to fill up a gift basket with treats for the food lover in your life. But if that food lover is a true gourmet, they would much rather prefer one small tin of caviar (and possibly a nice bottle of vodka) than an entire basket of pre-made, overpackaged, overpriced, and entirely too cutesy foodstuffs.

I would argue there is a great opportunity here to deepen some product categories and eliminate others. Given the name of the store, it’s natural for people to expect more of an emphasis on gourmet Italian foods, and I am confident that there are plenty of regional specialty products that cannot be found even in Schenectady’s best Italian markets. I’m not saying the whole store needs to be Italian, but I think a dedicated section would be appropriate.

And while I think there can still be room for whimsy, if foods are being billed as fine and gourmet, that’s what they should be. Not all hot chocolate mixes are created equal. Some I would say qualify as gourmet while others can only be charitably described as “fancy.”

What the store needs most is a better sense of focus. But I would also really like them see to try and expand the tastes of comfort zones of people in the region. Although I understand that might be too much to ask. This could be an amazing place, and I would love to see it achieve its potential.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Phairhead permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:32 am

    Being a life long resident of Sch’dy, I can’t imagine that this shop will survive

  2. rose permalink
    August 6, 2011 3:07 am

    Dear Fussy,
    I read your review and suggestions to the owner of Bel Cibo. I fail to see your point! We do not live in NYC. Most middle class Americans cannot afford the food you would like to see sold in this store. I have been to Bel Cibo, and must say I enjoyed the experience. I love the arrangement of product in the store, the lighting and most of all the products. No we all cannot spend 200 dollars on one product, as you suggest, but I can go in get great product and a beautiful gift basket for less than the cost of your one suggested item. I do not know where you live, but for myself and many others in this area… we love this shop. To the owner..sometimes change is good, but in this case don’t change a thing!

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