Toucan Market: The Eat Better, Feel Better Grocery Store

It takes more than a nice end cap to stand out in the grocery business. Competitors are fierce, numerous and often fill 50,000-square foot spaces. So how does an independent grocer stand out? Follow the lead of Toucan Market and find an unaddressed niche.

Robert (Bob) F. Baur Jr. and Richard Cole cofounded Toucan Market (Toucan) in 2005 to bring a unique mix of food to Las Cruces, N.M. The 15,000-square foot market features locally and regionally grown produce, imported cheeses, a full-service meat department, an in-house bakery, an extensive microbrew beer and wine shop, and a mix of gourmet, ethnic and organic products.

"We wanted to carry things that were different," explains Bob. "If you have a special-needs diet, Toucan Market is your place to shop. We carry gluten-free, low sodium, low sugar, low fat … all kinds of different types of items."

The key to Toucan's success has been listening to what the customers want and then delivering. The store's staff of 50 now regularly works with over 250 vendors to serve a customer base that stretches from a nearby college to El Paso, Texas. "If we stocked what we originally stocked when we opened the store, which is what we thought our customers wanted, we may not be here today," says Richard, acknowledging the importance of listening to customer desires when it comes to what gets carried. Today Toucan Market has evolved to offer a mix of exotic, fresh, healthy, affordable and “just for the taste of it” foods.

Want to Open a Store?

Before cofounding Toucan, Bob has been in the grocery business for 30 years and Richard had been in the newspaper business for 28 years. The common link was an Albertsons: Bob managed the store where Richard's wife shopped. One day, Bob noticed she came in looking sad. Richard's wife explained that Richard's newspapers had been bought, and even though they had just built a house, they may have to move. Bob offered an alternative: "Why don't we open a gourmet grocery store?"

"About a week later, her husband came in and said let's talk about this gourmet grocery store," says Bob. "That's how we met."

Las Cruces had big bulk stores like Sam's and Walmart, and regional stores like Albertsons, but no smaller local grocers. The pair saw a niche to fill and just had to convince the bank, which was no small task. But Bob knew groceries and Richard knew business.

"The banks said we wouldn't even be sitting here talking to you guys about loaning money in the grocery business, because it's high-risk thing," says Bob. "Together the two of you can make this work. So 'two can.'" According to Bob, Richard spun the bank's "two can" into "Toucan."

What Two Can Do

Both Bob and Richard say launching Toucan was difficult, but they had lots of ideas to separate Toucan from other markets. For starters, the store looks different from other markets. Instead of end caps greeting customers, the aisles stretch across the store. The bakery operates in the heart of the store, pumping the fresh-baked smell through the store from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Toucan also features a full-service meat department, which can take special orders or cut steaks to the each customer's preferred thickness. All the meats Toucan sells follow the store's own rigid definition of natural: no antibiotics, no hormones and no steroids. While the profit margins of running the meat department aren't the highest in the store, Richard feels it's an important service that's disappearing.

Customer-focused touches appear throughout the store. Toucan's alcohol section features beer, liquor and more than 800 wines. The staff explores new trends and creates tasting notes for new products, which they post on shelves so customers know how to pair choices with food. "It's fun to tell people about various wine-tasting notes," says Richard.

Shop, Learn … Be Healthy!

Every year Toucan introduces a new feature – whether it’s a hot case, olive bar, or ice cream freezer – but the key to unlocking a legion of loyal customers turned out to be gluten-free products. Toucan offers more gluten-free products than any other store in a 200-mile radius, according to Richard. Word spread. Celiacs from as far as El Paso would drive in to stock up. Then they made requests. Richard says Toucan now carries a wide variety of gluten-free products specifically asked for by customers, such as beer and pizza crusts.

Bob and Richard aim to please all of Toucan's shoppers, dietary restrictions or not. In addition to gluten-free items, the store stocks 20 percent of the food items other stores have, including Campbell's soups and Kellogg's cereals, so customers don't have to go to multiple stores. On top of that, Richard estimates 60 percent of the products Toucan carries can't be found elsewhere in town.

"We have to work twice as hard as everyone else, because when we bring a product in and it starts selling really well, word of mouth gets to our competition and they start selling it," explains Richard. "But by the time they're selling it, we've moved on to the next new thing."

And there is always a new thing for Bob and Richard. The pair are looking to expand the Toucan Market concept into up to five new locations, but for now they are focusing on what they do best: sell groceries that allow customers to eat better and feel better.