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Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Marvelous Market
Bread at hybrid cafe-market concept Marvelous Market.

For the growing base of customers who prefer gourmet meals, but lack the time to stand in line for a customized order much less sit down and eat it, Marvelous Market is answering the call. The Washington, D.C.–based company began in 1990 as a specialty bakery that was so popular it had to ration its bread to two loaves per customer. After a change in ownership in 1996, the company has grown from two stores to eight, with two stores scheduled to open this month.

The man at the helm, CEO Michael Meyer, has a background in investment banking rather than food. “One day I was sitting across the table from a company experiencing high growth and having fun and realized I was on the wrong side of the table,” Meyer says. “I was an early investor in all the high growth names—AOL, Netscape, Starbucks—so I knew what a growth concept looked like. I decided I wanted to grow my own concept.”

Meyer says he looked for a company with strong potential, but needing operational guidance—his forte. His search wasn’t focused on foodservice, but Marvelous Market was a fit in many ways. Meyer says he developed an interest in food and wine during his years at Yale and considers himself an amateur chef.

“This was a small interesting company. The operators really weren’t financial people but they were good at baking and making really good food,” Meyer says. He believed Marvelous Market could be much more than it was.

Meyer added new products and food categories and then hit a crossroads around 1999. “There were a lot of bakery cafés emerging, and most were deciding to go the Panera route,” Meyer says. “We asked our customers what their biggest need was and they said the quick side of our business. So we made a hard right turn and de-emphasized the restaurant part of our business and focused on gourmet convenience.

“We are now a convergence of a coffee shop, bakery, gourmet food store, restaurant, and convenience store.” Meyer likens Marvelous Market to an upscale 7-Eleven, stocking between 500 and 1,000 gourmet items, depending on location. Standard stock includes fresh-baked breads and pastries, sandwiches and salads, wines, cakes and other desserts, and flowers. “We are constantly adding new items to make our customers’ lives more convenient,” Meyer says.

Recent additions (in answer to customer requests) have been hot breakfast items including a variety of egg sandwiches and egg tarts. Marvelous Market also added yogurt parfaits and fruit bowls last fall as the first breakfast expansion beyond traditional European breads.

Most stores open at 7:30 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., although some with a strong coffee business open earlier. Meyer says mid-day and early afternoon hours are the busiest, with customers purchasing sandwiches, soups, and salads for lunch, and snacks, gifts, and entrées for later use. The most popular sandwich is the Jambon Brie (imported French brie and ham on a Parisian Baguette). There are 15 other regular sandwiches, eight salads, and seasonal offerings too. Sandwiches are priced in the $6 to $7 range and salads run $6.50 to $8.

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