By Jeff Maisey
Taste returned to Ghent this fall with a specialty retail model destined to set the tone for all current and future stores.
The Ghent location is the first Taste to include a gleaming white Borjo drink bar offering everything from coffees, fresh juice and smoothies, milk shakes, beer and wine by the glass. The smoothies were named after Grateful Dead songs by co-owner/president Jon Pruden. Zone out on a comfortable white leather lounge chair with a Stella Blue (blueberries, organic acai, banana, almond milk, spinach, Greek yogurt) or Sunshine Daydream (pineapple juice, strawberries, mango, banana, Greek yogurt).
The new drink station is ideally complimented with the introduction of healthy, zesty breakfast sandwiches.
Ghent also is outfitted with new merchandising displays and an expanded array of quality private label food items.
The outdoor patio, like other portions of the exterior, will soon come to life with green walls of Confederate jasmine. Garage doors open to allow fresh air inside during warm seasons. Ghent will also be the first Taste with an outdoor firepit. Live music will be held on the patio as well.
Taste now has eight locations in Hampton Roads and plans to debut a Richmond location early next summer near the University of Richmond where Pruden attended law school. Pruden’s parents also met at UR so the location will hold special meaning to Jon.
To get a taste of how Taste has transformed itself from a take-out sandwich and gourmet market operation to a contemporary gathering space to relax and enjoy the “good life,” I caught up with Jon Prudent at the Ghent store on 21st Street. Here’s our conversation.
Take us back to when you and your dad, Peter Pruden, acquired what was then known as Taste Unlimited from Peter Coe. What was that transformation like?
We just had our 10-year anniversary as owners of the company. As you mention, we were fortunate enough to take over the business from Peter Coe. The best part of that transaction was that Peter (Coe) was interested in staying onboard with us. In fact, we ran the company together for the five years after we bought the business.
That was an incredible opportunity for us to learn from the master, and more importantly to become friends with Peter. He was an incredible, larger than life guy.
Can you remind us of the slight change in name from Taste Unlimited to Taste?
The first thing that happened after we bought the business was the recession. That was a mighty tough pill to swallow. Those were rough times for most businesses. It taught me early in my business career that it isn’t all going to be a bed of roses. I think we learned we need to be disciplined in our approach.
More than anything I’m thankful because it forced us not to do anything new with the business initially. It gave us a period to really understand what made Taste tick and what opportunities we might have.
What we seized upon was the fact that Taste had been run as a grab-and-go operation, and we thought there was an opportunity to turn it more into a cultural hub, neighborhood destination and give our customers an opportunity to enjoy their experience in the store.
The first opportunity we had to do that was our move to Larchmont. That involved closing our Ghent store (at the time), which had been around since the mid-‘70s. We added indoor dining with communal tables, Wi-fi, satellite radio, rotating local art, fountain drinks, gelato, win by the glass, coffee…a lot of things Taste hadn’t really gotten into before.
The reaction from the customers was tremendous. Sales tripled from where they had been in Ghent. So we knew we were on to something.
We then set upon a course of renovating or relocating all of the locations we originally inherited. That involved a lot of work at a pace of one store per year. We were able to transform the company.
Our largest store when we bought the business was our Oceanfront location (Pacific Avenue) and now it is our smallest. It has transformed into a destination now where people come and want to hang out. Our mission now is to cultivate community through a taste of the good life. That keeps us driven with a social mission-oriented approach.
“The good life” is now a tagline of Taste. What is the good life from your perspective?
Great question. We try to put our thumb on it every day. It seems to be whatever the beholder wants to get out of it. That’s the case with the good life. There’s no set definition and everyone has a different idea of what that’s about.
We feel Taste brings enough of those elements together in one place where everybody can get out of it what they like.
You asked about the name change. That was all coming together at the same point in time. We were able to get a federal trademark registration on the name Taste, which we thought was pretty killer. I think a lot of people would like to have that name.
Once we had that we thought Taste was more in-line with a more modern, streamlined design and approach to marketing with a more simple Taste name.
Can you share with us some detail on the contemporary design and color scheme of the Taste brand?
A lot of that has been driven by our team. Some of the best ideas we’ve gotten as been through travel. We travel many times throughout the year – the Fancy Food show, the Good Food Show. We’re very much involved in the Specialty Food association, the Good Food Movement out in San Francisco. All of those give us great opportunities to see what other people are doing and be inspired by the trend setters in our business. Some of our best ideas have been taken from them, but the general design aesthetic has been driven locally by architect Robyn Thomas, who does a lot of work here in Ghent. She’s helped us hone our look. But it is a contemporary, minimalist approach.
As difficult in retail as it is to do this we try not to clutter our space and bring a clean aesthetic through to our customers.
A couple things you see in the Ghent store are relatively new and inspired by our travels. We’ve gone away from the metal metro rack approach that was really pioneered by Dean & DeLuca. That’s more of a market grocery feel. Because our specialty foods are more of a highly curated mix of items we felt like these (wooden, on rollers) market tables were more of a boutique look. We thought that was in keeping with our unique approach on the retail side of the business.
How did the local Borjo coffee brand become absorbed into Taste?
Borjo actually predates our affiliation with Taste. It goes back to my college roommate, Rob Loomis, and I having the crazy notion in 2004 that we were going to start a coffee shop. Rob had recently returned home from a period of years in Seattle. He like to say his job there was to visit coffee houses every day. That was about the extent of our experience in the restaurant or coffee realm, but we had a romantic notion of what owning a coffeehouse would look like and making an incredible amount of money. That never happened. It did turn into a 24/7 occupation for Rob for almost a decade.
He raised his hand and volunteered to become the owner/operator while I was still practicing law at Kaufman & Canoles. It was enough of an exposure to the restaurant business that I really caught the bug.
It was two years later that we heard Taste Unlimited might be for sale. Once we heard that we immediately reached out to Peter Coe and his family. In October 2006, we bought the business.
So it was really Borgo that got us into Taste, and not the other way around.
Ten years later as Taste was rapidly growing I reached out to Rob and told him we could use some help. After thinking about it we came upon the realization that it would be pretty easy to just fold Borjo into Taste, and both keep moving along and stay in the business.
Rob is now a vice president with Taste and still oversees the Borjo part of the operation while being a tremendous help company-wide.
What spurred the return to Ghent for Taste?
If you’re a resident of Norfolk you realize pretty quickly there really are two worlds there. People who live in Larchmont and Lochhaven seem to think Ghent is on the other side of the universe. And the inverse is true as well. Even though the Larchmont experiment was largely successful, we continued to get requests and people lamenting we had left Ghent…after a while we realized there was a critical mass still left in Ghent where we could successfully open another Norfolk location without jeopardizing the business at Larchmont.
For the most part that’s been true. We did anticipate a little cannibalization and we’ve seen that, but certainly not to any severe degree. We’re excited about the prospects for both locations.
Customers have noticed an increase in private label items on the shelves. Taste branded peanuts, cheese sticks and the like. Why is this important to Taste?
The private label program has always been a part of what Taste has done. We’ve certainly grown it and we’re embracing it. Everyone in retail is now struggling with how they compete with online. The way we’ve chosen to compete is to refine our model and become more differentiated. Part of that is by offering products and services you can’t find anywhere else. That runs the gamut here from our private label program, which is defined by best-in-class. That a filter we use. If we put our name on it it’s got to be the best product no matter what that product may be; if it’s a peanut, coffee, a candy.
That notion permeates to other parts of the business as well. On the restaurant side, we just want to be different. We want to offer crave-able items that keep customers coming into the stores, whether pimento cheese or new breakfast sandwiches. We want it to be distinct.
Were your breads always baked in-house?
All of our breads are baked in-house. Some of them are par-baked. Interestingly, with our new headquarters in Virginia Beach we now have a lot of space and we’ve started a bake house. We’re still refining the business plan for the bake house. We’ve already started producing thing like decorated cookies in-house. We have a two-page list of items we want to expand into. We think there’s a huge opportunity with house-baked items to offer at Taste.
The famous Hilltop sandwich (turkey, cheese, house dressing on French bread) has long been a favorite. In 2017, what are the top selling menu items?
As much as I’d like to give you some breaking news, the Top 10 doesn’t seem to change very much. Our customers are very ingrained in their patterns. We encourage food adventure, but everyone seems to have their favorites.
It has always been the case where the classic sandwich, a build-your-own sandwich, has been number 1. In terms of our signature sandwiches, the Hilltop, as you mentioned, is number 1 and number 2 is the Northender (honey smoked turkey, hardwood smoked bacon, Havarti, avocado, romaine, tomato, basil mayo on French bread).
Interestingly here at Ghent, this is the first location where we’ve introduced breakfast sandwiches. The Hector (bacon, cage-free fried egg, cheddar, avocado, Weak Knees gochujang sriracha on brioche roll) has leapfrogged some of our former signature sandwiches and is now number 3 on our best-sellers list.
With the introduction of breakfast sandwiches will the Taste locations open earlier each morning?
It certainly will for the Ghent location. The three defining things that make Ghent unique from the other Taste locations are the breakfast sandwiches, the Borjo Drink Bar offering everything from espresso drinks, coffee, fresh-squeezed juices, smoothies, milk shakes, beer and wine on tap, nitro coffee, local kombucha. Borjo is our strong foray into drinks.
Our executive chef, Thomas Yeager, picked up a lot of nicknames as a child, so each of the breakfast sandwiches are named after a nickname he had in his youth.
When Taste Unlimited opened it was one of the few places to find a rare craft beer and good imported beers. Same was true for its small but important wine selection. Can you discuss the role of wine and beer play in Taste today?
Again, we are blessed with a talented team. Thomas, our chef, is a beer aficionado. As we’re a team oriented company we don’t usually let any one person run with anything. We like to work as a group.
We have some pretty killer committees. These include a beer committee and wine committee. We invite staff throughout the company to participate.
We do have space constraints. On the beer side, we pick craft breweries from the east coast as our focus. In a similar way, our wine committee is comprised with folks both inside and outside of our company.
On the wine side, we’re a 100-bottle set. We like to say we have 100 great wines under $40. We really try to keep it to a reasonable price point with a strong emphasis on your everyday wines. All of the wines have been seriously vetted. We’ve tasted all the bad stuff so you don’t have to.