Howdy folks, and welcome back to Houston Historic Retail. Today, we’re checking out the shopping experience of a Gordon Food Service Store. HHR initially broke the news that GFS was planning to enter the Houston market almost one year ago. We’ve been following the development since then, finally getting official word from the company itself on their opening dates (speaking of which, if you’re a business that would like to have your story covered, reach out to HHR). After covering this story for months, it is exciting to see GFS finally arrive. Despite how you feel about the chain, it is nice to see new competition in Houston. For the most part, we’ve seen the extreme end of specialty grocers, like The Fresh Market or Sprouts. While GFS is more focused on wholesale, it is still a general grocer for the most part. While I wouldn’t do a weekly shop for myself at GFS, I could see it being advantageous for families. Today we’ll be checking out the GFS at Westheimer and Dairy Ashford (which, by the way, is not in the old Randall’s, but rather the former Goodwill/Petsmart.
One thing that surprised me at GFS was the variety of “regular groceries” these locations carry. I have been to the chain once before in Ohio, at a relatively older location. It lacked many fresh grocery options and mainly focused on frozen foods and bulk supplies. There is not only more fresh grocery selection in Houston but more options overall. A negative strike against GFS for many seems to be the price. Compared to other grocers, prices on non-GFS items are closer to Randall’s and Kroger than Walmart or HEB. I have seen some people comparing the bulk prices at a GFS store with buying from wholesale suppliers directly. It should be noted that the prices at GFS reflect a few things, like the fact that items are available without any membership and are purchased. I asked HHR Contributor billytheskink, who also visited the same location, what his thoughts were
“As a nearby resident and a guy with a family to feed, my initial impression is that I probably won’t find myself there too often as the bulk offerings are generally more business and restaurant-oriented than general consumer-oriented. Even so, there are some interesting offerings that may get me in the door from time to time, particularly the well-stocked meat department, the front of store specials on pre-made items, and some competitively priced rotisserie chicken. I might also be back for the 2000 count box of Sweet ‘N Low…“
Overall my impression is mixed, I think GFS can find a market in Houston, especially if they continue to target areas with poor representation by Sam’s and Costco. However, I’m unsure if the target market of “big families” is as big as GFS hopes for. If nothing else, I’d recommend you stop and check one out. They’re interesting stores, and the candy-coated popcorn is really good!
I learned that Sprouts on Westheimer and Kirkwood is closing, so there will be one less competitor.
This particular location is pretty convenient to a lot of small restaurant and food service businesses along the Westheimer corridor and in West Houston and Alief, so perhaps that will be their market. I’m sure these places weren’t thrilled when the Sam’s Club at Richmond and Eldridge closed a few years back.
The store is pretty well presented, especially the meat department. The giant jugs of Ken’s salad dressing in produce brought back bad memories of using the same exact jugs years ago to the salad bar ranch bottles back when I worked at the cafeteria in college. It was never-ending… and it was always ranch. I hated salad bar duty and I have refused to eat ranch dressing ever since.
I have not made it to my local GFS Store yet, but I plan to do so this week or next. From the photos, the stores obviously have a very austere warehouse type design (albeit a small warehouse relative to a Sam’s Club or something like that), but the displays and such look to be professional. Something like a popcorn service department is very unusual and something kind of like an old style candy counter might help retain some customers. The presence of the tortilleria and Blue Bell, food service sized and regular size, does show that GFS has put some effort into finding products that appeal to local flavors. Also, by all indications, the stores are certainly emphasizing manned checkouts so there is some priority on customer service. I’m not sure if they man enough registers for the demand, but I’m sure we’ll find out about that soon enough.
So those are the positives. The negatives seem to be centered around pricing. On the consumer side of things, it appears the pricing is ‘average’. On the food service side of things, it appears the pricing ranges from high to obscenely high compared to Sam’s Club, Restaurant Depot, and the other food service companies that compete against GFS’ main non-retail store business. With that in mind, I suppose it is a question if GFS can find a niche for themselves. For the most part, GFS is going into parts of Houston with typically thin supermarket competition (though certainly that would not describe this Westheimer location) and even thinner bulk warehouse store competition. Add to that the non-membership model of GFS Stores and maybe there is a niche for them, but there might not be a big enough niche for them.
We’ll see if GFS Stores can find some success in Houston. If nothing else, it is exciting to have a new grocery chain come to town for the first time in a decade and GFS Stores are mostly opening up in shopping centers which could use the kind of boost that a grocery anchor usually brings to a center.