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Brooklyn Deli Shrouded in Mystery
Boar’s Head Meats new R&D kitchen masquerades as a neighborhood deli.

There's a deli on nearly every corner of Brooklyn, but only one has been making news since well before it opened in mid-October.

For nearly a year, Brooklynites scratched their heads and looked for clues as a new restaurant or supermarket—no one was sure which—began to take shape at the corner of Court and State Streets.

Even after it was apparent the site would host a new delicatessen, one named F. Martinella, it remained unclear who or what was behind the undertaking or why the operator agreed to pay a record $125 dollars per square foot to rent space there.

Mystery solved.

The deli is operated by none other Sarasota, Florida–based Boar's Head, one of retail's leading suppliers of premium branded deli product.

The "F", as it turns out, stands for Boar's Head Provisions founder Frank Brunckhorst, "Martin" for Boar's Head CEO Robert Martin and "ella" for company president Michael Martella.

No, Boar's Head has no intention of expanding into foodservice, at least not outside of Brooklyn. Instead, F. Martinella is part deli, part test kitchen, with feedback from diners expected to provide fodder for new product development in Sarasota.

True, there are large cultural and geographic divides between the two locations, but that's part of the plan.

Until just a few years ago, Boar's Head was headquartered in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. It was founded there to serve the borough's Jewish population, which generations ago all but invented the American deli. Area residents remain connoisseurs of the cuisine, making Brooklyn the perfect location to "develop and test new product concepts" for supermarket delis, as Boar's Head Spokeswoman RuthAnn LaMore recently explained to a local newspaper. "We want to understand the retail environment, test new concepts, and bring them out to our retail distributors and partners."

It's probably wise that Boar's Head is keeping its day job, says Bob Goldin, executive vice president with Chicago-based foodservice consultant Technomic, Inc. "We've seen branded manufacturers dabbling in foodservice for years—and usually with little success. Oscar Mayer has done it, Betty Crocker has done it and so has Ghiradelli—usually in the form of kiosks at malls, airports, and the like."

The objective is generally to push product and boost brand identity rather than perform research, though the results are invariably the same, particularly if suppliers attempt to join the chain gang. "One location, fine. Two, three, or four the same thing. But where do you go from there?" Goldin asks.

Usually nowhere fast, he says. "Foodservice is a different business and arguably a tougher one relative to merchandising packaged consumer goods."

Neil Stern, partner with Chicago-based retail consultant McMillan/Doolittle, warns that suppliers that expand into foodservice run the risk of alienating clients by becoming their competitors. Companies such as Boar's Head not only supply to large supermarket chains, but also independent deli operators, and often under very favorable terms. Mom and Pop delis, to say nothing of retail monoliths such as Kroger, probably wouldn't be pleased to see a F. Martinella popping up on every corner, Stern says.

Sure, an iconic location such as Brooklyn confers authenticity to Boar's Head product, but remember that what works in Brooklyn doesn't necessarily work in Atlanta or Des Moines, Iowa.”

Dabbling in foodservice for purposes of research presents another set of problems. "Sure, an iconic location such as Brooklyn confers authenticity to Boar's Head product," Stern says, "but remember that what works in Brooklyn doesn't necessarily work in Atlanta or Des Moines, Iowa. As a research tool, the concept also lends itself to imperfect data, since you're not necessarily on site to monitor how product is menued, marketed, and prepared. So, as a supplier you need to supplement sales data with more methodical research."

Nevertheless, the concept isn't without its potential merits. The majority of large food manufacturers, including Kraft, Sara Lee and Tyson Foods, perform consumer testing in lab environments prior to bringing product to market. The good news: Labs are data-rich environments because consumers can be pinched and prodded in any number of different ways. The bad: Favorable lab data doesn't always translate into sales.

"The most notorious example of that is Coca-Cola's New Coke," says Stern. "It scored off the charts in test labs. Now, if only Coca-Cola had first tested the concept at a restaurant or two."

John Gregerson is the former chief editor of Meatingplace On Line.