A Curated Collection

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A Curated Collection

By Jennifer Crain - 04/09/2016
Justin Marx has taken the family business online.

When Justin Marx moved to Seattle from the East Coast, he thought he'd have to leave his family's 100-year-old food distribution business for good.

Instead, the eldest Marx sibling expanded the family business by creating a retail arm that's revered by chefs and serious home cooks in Seattle and beyond.

Forging a Retail Path
The 38-year-old CEO of Marx Foods says his father tapped him with a simple idea: Provide retail customers with the distinctive, hard-to-find ingredients that are served in high-end restaurants.

At A Glance:
CEO: Justin Marx
Retail Location: 144 Western Avenue W, Seattle 98119; retail showroom, 400 square feet; warehouse and Seattle headquarters, 3,000 square feet
Year Founded: web store, 2007; retail showroom, 2012
Locations: Seattle; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
Employees: 26, 13 in Seattle
Phone: 206-447-1818
Websites: www.marxfoods.com, www.marxpantry.com

The family was accustomed to moving bulk orders of specialty ingredients all over the country through their restaurant distribution channels. But individual consumers — who were starting to clamor for esoteric meats, such as squab, ostrich and antelope — needed a different model.

Marx and two employees created the first web store in 2005, offering meat in bulk to retail customers. When it flopped, they launched another. But it didn't catch on either.

"We were still old-school meat guys," Marx laughs. "It was total uncharted territory."

The family's meat roots go back to the 19th century. Justin Marx's great-great grandfather, Frank M. Marx, emigrated from Germany and opened a Brooklyn butcher shop in 1895. Subsequent generations opened a slaughterhouse and expanded into cattle dealing and meat distribution. Today, Marx Foods is one of the divisions of Marx Cos. LLC, which is owned by Justin; his father Frank, who serves as president; and his brother Keith, who is manager of North American Meats & More.

But meat sales didn't translate to e-commerce, at least not at first. "I think it's really common for entrepreneurs to have an if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality," he says. "At first we thought, 'Oh, all we need to do is make this available to the world, and people will beat down our doors.' It turns out, it takes a lot of work."

Culinary Concierge
After the failed attempts, the Marx team took a step back and noticed that no one was selling a full range of fresh specialty foods online. So they restructured their plans and tried again.

Their third web store, MarxFoods.com, launched in 2007 with a focus on fresh seafood, produce and specialty meats. This time, they planned to build a reputation as a "culinary concierge," to give consumers access to restaurant goods and solid resources so they could learn to cook them.

The integrated concept worked. Today, their online store is stocked with 1,400 "über-specialty" products, sold retail or wholesale. A retail shop serves local customers in the food-forward city and has become a destination for local flavor enthusiasts.

The Retail Showroom
Housed within their Seattle headquarters and warehouse, the 400-square-foot retail showroom opened in 2012. A wall of plants is a focal point, separating the register from the back workspace. The lofted space feels larger than it is. They stock a rotating array of about 400 products, sourced from more than 180 vendors.

A bank of coolers holds such things as quail eggs, micro orchids, jars of duck fat and seed-to-sauerkraut goods from a nearby farm. Cuts of unusual meats — "progressive proteins" — include grass-fed beef, duck breasts, wild boar and top-grade salamis.

A minimalist tasting table is set with vinegars, pickled goods, confitures and fine oils. Near the door is a display of the modernist powders used for molecular gastronomy techniques — gelling, spherification and thickening.

Pantry goods are stocked on one whole wall, a center table and shelving near the register. Standing before the crush of innovative products — lime extract, maple flakes, heirloom squash seed oil, yuzu marmalade, coconut jam — is akin to viewing a museum exhibit.

Though Marx Foods sells select cheeses, specialty rice and center-of-the-plate ingredients, they aren't a full-service grocer and don't intend to be. "We are not a one-stop shop, not even close," Marx says. "You can't even put together a picnic out of this store."

The showroom is the stage for more than additional sales. Food-conscious customers make an out-of-the-way stop to stoke the deep knowledge of Marx's staff — for starters, their retail clerk is a trained chef — and to find products they've never seen before.

Marx wants to nurture those experiences. "One of the goals of our product collection is to create discovery moments, to help customers find new flavors and new ingredients."

Marx Foods offers gourmet pantry staples in store and online.

The collection evolves steadily, with two or three new products added each month. Though space is limited, the store is flexible enough to stay up-to-date. Marx names grass-fed meats, edible flowers, palm leaf plates (a type of sustainable, compostable picnicware) along with mixology and modernist ingredients as notable trends. More than a year ago, they added a collection of edible insects. "They do better than I would have expected," he says. "This is something that excites people." Marx expects to see even more products made with edible insects at the upcoming Summer Fancy Food Show.

Rounding out the store's selection is a limited selection of housewares — oyster and clam knives, truffle slicers, and oil and vinegar servers — that are also available online.

Serious Selection
The heart of the company's inventory is a monthly tasting panel. Employees and guest chefs gather in the test kitchen to sample products and determine what to add to (and subtract from) the collection. Over the years, it's grown from three or four participants to about 12.

Products don't survive the panel's scrutiny without an enthusiastic majority. "It's an agonizing process because our pass rate for the tasting panels is only about 3 to 5 percent," Marx says. Only one product in the company's 8-year history has earned a unanimous vote: Haku's Smoked Shoyu.

Local foods occupy a cherished spot in their inventory, particularly in the showroom. But Marx emphasizes that quality comes first. "I love local products, but it still has to be the best. Our brand stands for the pinnacle of quality. Period. End of story."

All products must meet the company's high standards for sustainability and animal husbandry. Marx is adamant that the store will never sell farmed salmon, for example. And they won't carry a product just because it's pretty. "We don't give points for packaging," he quips.

Marx has brought in more than 500 sample products from food scouting trips. The staff hunts through magazines to flag new trends, discover novel ingredients and check editorial product endorsements. They nose around farmers' markets. Sometimes they taste unsolicited samples or request suggestions from trusted distributors. But some of their best new products come from customer requests. Seattle chef Jason Stoneburner, for instance, once asked them to source colatura, an Italian anchovy sauce. It's now one of Marx's favorite products.

A Greater Pantry Presence
The variable landscape of pantry goods is the next frontier for the company's growth. By filling half of their showroom with oils, drinking vinegars and fine chocolates, they unwittingly broke into a new market.

Only 8 percent of their customers buy both fresh and pantry goods. To gain traction with pantry customers, they launched a dedicated web store, MarxPantry.com, in September.

Marx Foods is planning to expand its online and brickand- mortar presence.

"It's a totally different demographic," Marx explains. "The person buying a bottle of olive oil or candy or salt is a different buyer than the person who's buying a 40-pound case of rib-eye steaks. We're branding them similarly and they're all part of the same family, but they're going to end up serving different markets."

To make products more accessible, they're loosening quantity requirements. The original concept was restaurant-quality food in restaurant quantities. But many of their products can now be purchased online in individual units, like their showroom stock.

More of a Good Thing
Marx is pleased with the growth and says they're "bullish about the future." The pantry website is a big part of that, but so are their plans for a physical expansion. He's looking for a warehouse twice the size of the current location to accommodate an anticipated surge in orders and also to increase the size of the store.

In the new space, they plan to add a wine collection and may expand their charcuterie and cheese departments. Street parking is the only option at the current location; expanding to a space with a parking lot will allow them to reach out to more local customers.

A Resource for Customers
Marx Foods woos customers through a tight marketing plan and the development of exhaustive online resources. The keystone is the NetSuite point-of-sales system and its ecommerce plug. The company keeps up a strong online platform with engaged social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. Most of the marketing budget is earmarked for pay-per-click advertising and a few targeted print ads. They create newsletters for both the web store and the retail shop and produce a stream of fresh images and video. The website is in its seventh iteration and will get another facelift this year.

"One of the key advantages of being a hybrid wholesale/retail is that we have an uncharacteristically large and sophisticated marketing team. We have six versatile, contemporary, creative people who can pretty much do anything, so long as the budget is there for it." That said, Marx adds, it's a challenge to maximize impact within a limited budget.

Since the beginning, they've created in-house recipes that highlight their products. To date they've created more than a thousand recipes, a marketing engine in itself that the staff also leverages to create a positive post-sale interaction with customers. Following each sale, they send customers links to recipes and posts on cooking techniques based on the products they purchased.

The company has built a reputation on the quality and novelty of its ingredients. But they also build trust behind the scenes by accruing deep, reliable information so they can be a sound source for their customers.

"We focus on activities that have created mutual benefit," Marx says, "and that's the sweet spot. That's one of our mantras. And that permeates everything we do."