Gourmet Boutique LLC: Cooking Up a Combo of Quality, Innovation and Food Safety

If you’ve ever purchased a premade wrap, or a grilled chicken breast, you’ve likely experienced the handiwork of Gourmet Boutique LLC (Gourmet Boutique), the nation’s leading manufacturer of high-quality home meal replacement foods.

Gourmet Boutique has made its name manufacturing high-quality, fully cooked entrées, salads and side dishes to retail outlets and foodservice providers throughout all 50 U.S. states. Beginning in 1996 as Ernie’s Mini Mart, a small-batch meatball and pasta dish maker in Queens, the company that has evolved into Gourmet Boutique has since grown exponentially using its “micro-manufacturing” techniques to require two plants: its 80,000-square foot headquarters in Jamaica, N.Y., and an additional 60,000-square foot production plant in Phoenix, Ariz. Gourmet Boutique’s state-of-the-art facilities and strategic locations have allowed for the delivery of fresh, high-quality foods to be available to customers throughout the country.

Gourmet Boutique has become the leader in the prepared foods segment by establishing the highest level of food safety and quality standards, leading innovation and delivering consistency and convenience day in and day out. More than 345 highly trained employees focus their efforts on delivering the ideal combination of food science and culinary flair to make Gourmet Boutique head of the table in the fresh and frozen slack food arena. A fun fact is that the company’s New York plant sold enough food in 2012 to fill the Empire State Building 130 times, which is an amazing achievement for a company that had humble beginnings.

“We started out small, servicing delis in the New York area that did not have the kitchen space or labor and needed to outsource prepared foods,” explains Jason Sussman, VP operations and general manager at Gourmet Boutique. Founded by Jan Sussman, who remains the company’s president, Gourmet Boutique has strategically expanded to fill a void in the market for healthy, preservative-free complete meals for a busier-than-ever world.

“Retail space was at such a premium, it did not make financial sense for these delis to have their own kitchens, so we supplied them with fresh, quality prepared foods and provided multiple deliveries per week to fulfill their needs,” recalls Jason. “At that time we were doing about $1 million in sales annually. We grew the product line and customer base over time with further penetration into the western US. There was – and still is – the trend in America of both husband and wife working full-time jobs, and therefore having less time to prepare their own dinners at home. The need is for comparative high-quality food products in the supermarket area that not only deliver convenience, but also the quality and product choices these families desire.”

Gourmet Boutique fills this niche by supplying meals and protein-based components to foodservice, other manufactures, retail outlets, retail outlet chains and retail supermarkets. All consumers need do is make a selection, take it home, put it in the microwave or oven, and within 15 minutes they can enjoy a satisfying home cooked-style meal.

The Real Deal

Jason, who attended Syracuse University, joined the company in 2006 and gained full understanding of Gourmet Boutique’s need by seeing them firsthand. He explains, “I’ve performed or have detailed knowledge of every basic role in the company that is performed on a daily basis. I’ve worked those positions myself. I started cleaning parking lots and made sure to learn everything I possibly could from whomever I possibly could. From there I took over as purchasing manager, then strategic development manager, then director of operations, and finally national corporate operations at just 29 years old.”

A truly remarkable leader, Jason attributes the company’s success to its management team and supervisory team. “They make our growth and sustained success possible,” he says. “Recently we have upgraded our Arizona Facility management team, led by General Manager Dave Andersen, and the results have further improved our national performance and ability.”

Jason’s first-hand experience has helped him guide the company’s initiatives to provide real food created by real people. Gourmet Boutique makes any number of variations on the prepared foods theme: Kosher, vegetarian, single-serve, family-style, pasta salads, protein salads, entrees, quiches, soufflés, grilled items, wraps and more, all which can be delivered fresh within three days anywhere in the U.S. and all with utmost dedication to the sacred trinity of quality, innovation and safety.

True to its roots of home cooking, Gourmet Boutique is the only national manufacturer that truly grills its “grilled” proteins. Startlingly, many companies steam or roast their proteins then add smoke-flavored extracts and artificial grill marks. Gourmet Boutique uses high-heat gas-powered grills to deliver the feel, taste and look of grilled chicken as if it was cooked on your barbecue at home. “We grill 150,000 pounds of chicken per week; it’s real grilled chicken, with juices that are dripping from the meat onto the gas flame, and adding that true grill flavor,” says Paul Zullo, Gourmet Boutique’s executive chef and director of product development.

Culinary R&D

Gourmet Boutique focuses on the fine details that separate its products from the rest of the offerings in the industry. Zullo, who has been with Gourmet Boutique since 1999, is the leader of this mission. Zullo, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, then studied food science and nutritional science at Cornell University, relishes having his dream job.

“I always wanted to be in product development,” says Zullo. “More recently, chefs have been part of recipe development; however, I feel you need both the synergy of the food scientist and the chef. The culinary perspective and the manufacturing are exciting, interesting, and I could not be happier.

“Our products have become more complex,” continues Zullo. “There are more complicated challenges. Whereas we started with a potato or macaroni salad, now we need to provide grilled salmon and chicken saltimbocca.” Gourmet Boutique rises to meet the needs of the growing sophisticated American palate.

“Our capabilities have grown as our niche grew,” affirms Jason. “We’re constantly working to innovate, providing our customers with solutions that allow them to differentiate themselves from their competition and drive the consumer to the deli counter.”

To this end, the company develops unique innovations to mainstream products, such as its Philly Cheese Steak Mac & Cheese. Novelty in food has become popular, and Gourmet Boutique strives to meet that without tipping over into the inaccessible. Its solution to the novelty factor is to offer “petite casseroles” in trendier flavor combinations. Portion size is also considered as one of several ways to address consumers’ desire for health, convenience and variety.

“There’s also an effort to use healthier ingredients, so that people get what they expect taste-wise, but with less calories or sodium,” shares Zullo. “We’re always trying to find a good middle ground.” Gourmet Boutique lives by its mission statement of being innovators of safe, quality, prepared food solutions.

Product evaluations are rigorous, and Zullo and his culinary team have developed many recipes. They all have to hit the happy sweet spot of mass appeal, production efficiency and the ability to be made consistently. The shelf life of every component and its potential chemical interactions with other ingredients must be evaluated; as Gourmet Boutique products are both available fresh or frozen they must perform at store level. They must retain their moisture, texture, color and flavor.

“You have to constantly re-invent the wheel,” shares Zullo. “There’s a lot to balance. You have to figure out a way to achieve a finished product from a classical culinary technique, translate it into manufacturing processes, and yet have the same result. You get feedback from production runs and then rehash the formula several times or you get lucky and hit the bull’s-eye the first time around.”

One aspect of the process that gets constantly reevaluated but never compromised is food safety. Gourmet Boutique is USDA and FDA inspected, as well as SQF 2000 Level 3 certified in both facilities. Thirty-three percent of Gourmet Boutique’s entire workforce is dedicated solely to food safety and quality. The SQF 200 Level 3 certification is the highest level of food safety and quality a plant can receive. Vanessa Lindsay, director of QA and food safety, has recently received the Outstanding Achievement Award on behalf of Gourmet Boutique team in November 2012 at the SQF International annual conference.

“It takes one mistake, one person not thinking, to jeopardize food safety,” says Jason. “We do everything we can to prevent that.” Gourmet Boutique recently implemented a full-scale training program, which all employees receive on a weekly basis, and topics include sessions to consistently retrain employees on personal safety and food safety. This is just one piece of the puzzle that helps to ensure those standards are consistently maintained.

The Many Ingredients of Service

This constantly proactive philosophy of appraisal is necessary because about 85 percent of Gourmet Boutique’s work, including shipping, is done by hand using an in-house workforce.

Gourmet boutique allocates significant time and resource working with its vendors and customers to ensure the use of safe, high-quality ingredients and processes. “Apportion of what makes Gourmet Boutique stand out from the rest is the relationships and partnerships we nurture,” says Jason. “We maintain those relationships through service, quality and consistency. And we guide them in raising their standards as well.”

It’s all in the details, which is an area in which the Gourmet Boutique team excels. Handling 150 different items, assembled from 500 raw materials on a daily basis, Gourmet Boutique examines all its operational expenses and closely monitors daily performance, finding the most cost- and time-efficient formulation and processing methods, as well as proprietary packaging means to extend product life and profitability. There are 30 to 40 key performance indicators that Gourmet Boutique evaluates on a weekly or daily basis to assure everything gets from, to and through the supply chain most effectively.

Cooking Up Plans for the Future

Gourmet Boutique loves to celebrate its successes daily, from small to large. “We have a dollar bill hanging on all the walls of our manager’s offices from our first $1 million sales week,” enthuses Jason. “We celebrate all the milestones and the day to day achievements of our team. We stress culture and leadership throughout our operation and daily lives.”

Gourmet Boutique is always evolving, changing, redesigning and reinvesting in itself to expand capabilities. Over the next several years, Gourmet Boutique will be adding new plants and capabilities. The company’s aggressive, entrepreneurial growth mentality and strong management team is hungry for more market share.

“Our goal is to continue to push into new categories with food innovations and expand solutions for future growth, including items such as entree kits, sandwich kits … more things that remove in-store labor and allow for higher quality and consistency,” strategizes Jason. “The more solutions we develop, the more value we can provide our customers, the more space we take up in the deli, the more foot traffic we attract.”

If the past two decades are any indicator for the future, Gourmet Boutique LLC will not be taking a number at the deli counter, but will be first in customers’ cart.