The rush began when dozens filled the store just before noon.
People lined up to buy quinoa and lentil salad, hot meat and potato dishes for lunch. Others grabbed loaves of bread, packaged dried fruits or rare hot sauce. A steady stream of customers picked up their orders of challah before Yom Kippur. Around the room, people spoke on a first-name basis, and orders were already memorized.
“Some people come and their food is ready for them every day,” said John Lederman, co-owner of Joanna’s Marketplace on U.S. 1 at Ludlam Road. Nestled in the corner of a shopping plaza in unincorporated Miami-Dade between South Miami and Pinecrest, the gourmet store has been a fixture for locals since it opened in 1992.
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had to adapt to survive. Changing consumer tastes, shifting demographics and increased competition from big chain stores have forced locally owned shops like Joanna’s and South Beach’s Epicure to emphasize what makes them unique, whether it’s specialty products or lower prices or creating a strong neighborhood atmosphere.
People like to come here to feel at home. We’re their neighbors. We’re their friends. That’s how we differentiate ourselves.
John Lederman, co-owner, Joanna’s Marketplace
One recent, noticeable evolution has begun at Epicure Market. The original market in South Beach has stood since it opened as a butcher shop in 1945, eventually growing into a market, bakery and cafe.
But where blintzes, chopped chicken liver and fresh produce may have flown off the shelves in the past, today’s shopper prefers convenient grab-and-go items like prepared Italian dinners and lunch-sized salads, or produce that’s been chopped and peeled so it’s ready to go into a recipe with minimal prep work.
“They don’t have time to pick and smell and choose,” said Michael Love, Epicure’s specialty chef. “A lot of our customers want something quick. But because of our legacy of having such great food and being a gourmet market, it has to be good. It has to be great.”
The goal is to accommodate fast-moving customers — particularly millennials — while maintaining a high level of quality.
“We make small batches, just for the day,” said Lederman, Joanna’s co-owner. “So it’s more fresh.”
People want smaller portions and more convenience. And tastes have evolved. Places like Joanna’s and Epicure are selling more kale and quinoa than ever before.
“We used to use kale as garnish on catering orders,” joked Jason Starkman, CEO of Epicure.
We had to do things to get the millennials to come here … You name one millennial who’s looking for a good chopped liver.
Jason Starkman, CEO of Epicure
But classics still sell, and older longtime customers still expect their favorites to be on the menu. Regulars still love the wild rice salad at Joanna’s. At Epicure, taking the matzoh ball soup away would be sacrilege.
The owners say the trick is to balance the old with the new in a way that makes them stand out from the increasing number of chain stores like Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Trader Joe’s that have been established in South Florida.
Lederman, whose store is one mile north of Trader Joe’s on U.S. 1, said the increased interest in the competition has actually put more customers in his store as they stumble upon Joanna’s on the way. The family-owned store doesn’t try to compete with the chain on price. Instead, it focuses on the quality and atmosphere of the store.
“People like to come here to feel at home. We’re their neighbors. We’re their friends,” he said. “That’s how we differentiate ourselves.”
At Epicure, they’ve taken a more aggressive approach. A Whole Foods right down the street is also a big neighborhood draw, so Epicure has dropped prices, renovated the store and reinvented its branding to stay relevant.
In a South Beach environment that is decidedly younger and hipper than 30 years ago, the store wants to give the younger crowd a reason to shop there.
“We had to do things to get the millennials to come here as well,” Starkman said. “You name one millennial who’s looking for a good chopped liver.”
Probably not many. Instead, the store sells sliced watermelon pieces, personal-size salads with fresh dressing and vegetables that are peeled, cut and ready to cook.
Starkman knows about seeing a business through good times and bad. He ran Jerry’s Famous Deli for 14 years in the Beach before it closed in 2014. Even the Coral Gables location of Epicure had a short life, opening in December 2013 and closing in June 2015.
“It’s hard to keep up and be fresh,” he said. “It’s very difficult to keep the audience entertained.”
Miami Herald writer Cresonia Hsieh contributed to this report.