At the famous wedding-dress sales held in Filene’s Basement in Downtown Crossing, brides-to-be often turned shopping into a rough-and-tumble contact sport.
Now, on that same patch of sacred retail space, a new “grab-and-go” shopping experience is about to debut — only this promises to be more civilized and genteel, and it involves gourmet food and groceries rather than bargain-basement designer gowns.
Wednesday marks the opening of a new Roche Bros., a Downtown Crossing store that will be part traditional supermarket and part takeout food emporium of the sort you might find in Europe. Along with milk, paper towels, and boxed pasta, the store offers a slew of ready-made entrees, snacks, lunches, and more.
On two levels, this will be the only market of its kind in the neighborhood. It is the second big supermarket to open in the city this year. Whole Foods Market recently debuted its latest shrine to fresh and organic at the former Boston Herald site in the South End, now known as the Ink Block project. More city grocery stores could be on the way. Star Market recently signed a lease to operate a 50,000-square-foot store near North Station as part of a huge mixed-use project being developed by Delaware North and Boston Properties Inc. Wegmans, meanwhile, is hoping to make its Boston debut as part of the Landmark Center expansion project that Samuels & Associates is developing in the Fenway.
There’s a straightforward explanation for this boom, says senior editor Mike Berger of the Griffin Report of Food Marketing, a trade publication based in Duxbury. “More people are returning to the city to live,” he says. By one count, 8,000 new apartments are expected to be completed in Boston over the next three years. And what these new residents want, particularly if they’re younger, is food that is “fresh, fresh, fresh,” Berger says.
To help figure out a concept for its Downtown Crossing location, Roche Bros. executives took field trips to other successful endeavors and ran focus groups. What they learned was that people want sophisticated items like charcuterie sandwiches, workout rejuvenators like protein parfait cups, healthy meals like quinoa-and-kale bowls, and sweets like dark Callebaut chocolate cookies.
The area may be a pedestrian oasis of residents and office workers, but according to research by Roche Bros., it is also a grocery wasteland where deli sandwiches, fresh seafood, and sheet cakes are as scarce as free parking places. In focus groups, consumers expressed a desire for “bolder flavors,” says Brian Buckley, senior director of perishables at Roche Bros.
To address that need, the Wellesley-based supermarket, which operates its other 20 stores mostly in the suburbs, applied some lessons from New York’s Eataly, a gourmet Italian marketplace made famous by culinary impresario Mario Batali. (Batali is close to a deal to launch an Eataly in the Prudential Center next year.) Eataly inspired a menu of $7 to $9 charcuterie sandwiches, a first for Roche Bros., which use such ingredients as truffled ham, shaved imported Parmesan, and fig mustards.
The Downtown Crossing store has no parking lot where minivans can be loaded with a week’s worth of groceries. That means Summer Street customers are likely to buy fewer items on a typical shopping trip. The new store will emphasize prepared foods and small portions. Much of the store’s 3,000 square feet of street-level space will be devoted to “grab-and-go” breakfast and lunch items and the street-level space will feature a cookie theater thanks to an oven partly made of glass. Baked-goods voyeurs can watch 5-ounce cookies going into the oven and buy them warm.
Back in the day, a highlight of a pilgrimage to Filene’s or Jordan Marsh could be a side trip to Jordan’s for a celebrated blueberry muffin. Old-timers still talk about them today. To evoke bakery deja vu, Roche Bros. is ready to unveil a signature cinnamon bun of its own that it hopes will someday be as beloved as those blueberry muffins.
Meanwhile, the store’s 22,000-square-foot basement will feature a deli, salad bar, soup bar, butcher shop, seafood counter, and on-site kitchen, offering tomato couscous, Thai peanut noodles, sesame-crusted tuna steak, grilled mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa, and black-pepper flank steak. Also available are partially prepared meals such as rosemary-and-black pepper pork chops.
Focus groups revealed something else: Residents are more likely to host a wine-and-cheese soiree than a full-blown dinner party. That has the market stocking up on a wide array of small-plate items — “We’re demystifying the tapas tray,” Buckley says — but there’s no beer and wine (they plan to apply for a license).
The new store expects to add another 10,000 square feet of space in an adjacent building at the end of 2016.
For harried households, one benefit of having a supermarket nearby is neighborhood delivery ($10 extra) within two hours of shopping. Office workers can stop in during lunch, and by the time they head for the T, their groceries will be sitting by their desks ready to take home.
ROCHE BROS. 8 Summer St., Boston. 617-456-5111, www.rochebros.com