High Flavor, Organic, and Conventional

No Man Is an Island: Jeff Sacchini and Howard Warner of Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe

Sitting 2,390 miles from California and 3,850 miles from Japan, the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated archipelago in the world. From a logistical standpoint, Kauai is the last place you may think to set up shop for the new retail and foodie-hub, Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe, but if you are Jeff Sacchini, you are up for the challenge.

“You have to adapt. Out here in Kauai, it takes a team of like-minded individuals to accomplish what we are trying to do,” Jeff tells me as we talk across a large swath of the Pacific Ocean, a time zone between us. And by “we,” Jeff means himself and Co-Owner and business partner Howard Warner.

Howard has more than just a hand in this game; he is also Jeff’s brother-in-law and visionary counterpart. Howard’s expertise in both law and business, along with his executive leadership prowess, were an ideal complement for Jeff’s food-focused background, passion, and entrepreneurial ambitions.

“And if you have a partner who is up for that challenge, like Howard, then you are more strategically positioned to see the waves coming before they hit,” Jeff adds. “And if I have learned anything from owning a business on Kauai, it is that no man is an island.”

“Our team has made all the logistics and marketing of a small island retailer that much more efficient and possible. Everyday it is all hands on deck." - Jeff Sacchini

Jeff has seen all sides of the food industry as a business-owner, foodservice veteran, produce association board member, and now as a retail owner and operator. Watching the food industry evolve through the years, Jeff is not afraid to tell it like it is.

“In California, you can have as many as 50 different supply options for produce, seafood, or grocery at a given time,” Jeff tells me. “Not only that, but you can place an order as early as the day before or day of to get fresh produce from the field to the shelf. Here we have a 7-12 day lead time and logistics are subject to anything from labor disputes on the West Coast to weather patterns on the ocean.”

 

It’s all About Timing: The Roots

Jeff is as meticulous as he is fearless, and even though this entrepreneur is about as far from any mainland as you could possibly be, he sees this new venture, Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe, as an opportunity. If you are looking for a non-GMO, organic, and high-end eatery and cafe, Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe is your spot. While Jeff and Howard may miss the artful and cutting-edge innovations and delicacies of San Francisco or Los Angeles, the Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe team is feeling fortunate from where they sit, with beer in-hand, on the beach of the serene and lush “Garden Isle.” 

This venture also gives Jeff the chance to hone his painstaking precision, as well as the diligence he has refined in his previous business ventures. I imagine him artfully composing a produce display, not a rambutan out of place. I wonder if it keeps him up at night? But I think that the island atmosphere must temper this rigorous intensity. Then again, it seems to have worked for him so far. 

While Jeff and Howard are both wise in the ways of market fluctuations and business strategy, their unique relationship allows them to bring their individual strengths to the table.

As a twenty-seven-year food industry veteran, Jeff has quite the produce expertise under his belt. Jeff joined FreshPoint, one of North America's leading and most respected fresh produce distributors, in January 2005 when FreshPoint acquired Piranha Produce, Inc., the company Jeff co-founded. 

Jeff is also a long-time avid runner and, in addition to his entrepreneurial ventures, has continued his charity work under the Hawaiian non-profit, The Kauai Marathon, which he founded with his wife, Liz, in 2009.

Together, they built a world-class destination running event that has drawn over 12,300 runners from 28 countries for the last seven years, and raised over $100,000 for charity on the island of Kauai. In 2015, the Kauai Marathon was named in Runner’s World Top 10 Destination Half Marathons, as well as featured in the book, The Best Half Marathons in the World for those looking to double down on a Hawaiian vacation. Not only does the marathon align with Jeff’s health and wellness goals, and his entrepreneurial spirit, but it also helps to bring business to the island every September during the off-peak Hawaiian season… if there really is one.

"Life is all about timing,” Jeff says. “Take Piranha for example, I co-founded that business at a perfect time when there was a strong need for produce distribution expertise; and we sold at an opportune time. The Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe opportunity was equally as timely and came at a point when both Howard and I were looking to make a change. Luckily our families were game.” 

So, what inspired Jeff to take up this venture? Both Jeff and Howard were drawn to the island lifestyle and over the years had been thinking about developing a business concept. The two business savvy professionals looked into opportunities from farming to a water enterprise and just happened to stumble onto the island market that was up for sale, through a mutual acquaintance.

Living Foods Gourmet Market & Cafe

“It took us nine months to work on the deal,” Howard tells me. “We immediately liked the groundwork that had been laid by the previous owner, but it still needed a lot of time, money, and TLC.”

Jeff and Howard began their first talks with the previous store owner, San Francisco restaurateur Jim Moffat, in the summer of 2013. It was his vision and passion for the market and cafe concept that drew them to the business. While it would not be a cut-and-dry acquisition, they knew in the long run that it was going to be worth the effort.

“While this venture is about adapting, it’s also about introducing an artisan flare into traditional Hawaiian customs and cuisine. We are looking to create our own diverse and eclectic ‘ohana here in Kauai..." - Howard Warner 

“It took Jeff and me about nine months of back and forth negotiations and rewriting the terms of the lease before we finally got the deal signed and sealed,” Howard adds.

In April of 2014, Jeff and Howard became the owners of Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe and the enhancements began. The team immediately refreshed the format to bring food, flavor, and variety front-and-center.  

 

Redefining 'Ohana (Family): Retail Style

“Kauai has a different pace, culture, and way of life – elements of the island that we’ve grown to love, adopt, and incorporate into Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe,” Howard tells me. “While this venture is about adapting, it’s also about introducing an artisan flare into traditional Hawaiian customs and cuisine. We are looking to create our own diverse and eclectic ‘ohana here in Kauai, and immerse the island’s story into our own.”

Both guys tell me that moving to Kauai was a big change of pace. In addition to the island-scape, there are cultural differences, but when people get there, they never leave. The idea for Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe was to offer a home-away-from-home experience and implement that vision through the fresh-forward and distinctive Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe concept.

Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe isn’t just a grocery store. As hard as they have worked to build an eclectic design and differentiate the Hawaiian palate, Jeff and Howard also know that it’s about the people. 

“Our team has made all the logistics and marketing of a small island retailer that much more efficient and possible. Everyday it is all hands on deck,” Jeff says. “We treat food as many families do, as a reason to come together, as the fuel for conversation. We are a kitchen at your command, a work space, a gallery of fresh edible goods, a purveyor of fine beer and wine, and, of course, maybe most significantly - a gathering place.” 

While I can’t see his face, I can tell Jeff is smiling on the other end of the phone line as he talks about providing guests with a space where they can lay out their newspapers each morning over Pineapple Brioche French Toast with their in-house roasted Hawaiian coffee while they work on their laptops. Then, as the island warms, meet friends that same afternoon for Kauai kombucha over a roasted corn salad, curry chicken salad, or a tangy noodle masterpiece. He is good at setting the scene, and executing.

"Even on a quaint island, the same rules apply in the marketing arena so we constantly have to keep the market’s offerings and message relevant, accessible, and interesting.” - Robin Jumper

 

“When you walk in, it is sensory overload, but in a good way,” Howard says. “Mostly because our key customer is not used to this kind of style and ambiance on the island.” 

Robin Jumper, a key member of this ever evolving ‘ohana, has been an integral part of developing the landscape and atmosphere of the store and helping Jeff to drive the market concepts to fruition. 

“It’s been an amazing marketing journey and opportunity to share the Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe story,” Robin tells me. “As we have enhanced current concepts, and developed new products and services throughout the market, the reward has been sharing them through social media, digital marketing, as well as through good old fashion ‘talk story’ sessions with the concierge throughout the island. Even on a quaint island, the same rules apply in the marketing arena so we constantly have to keep the market’s offerings and message relevant, accessible, and interesting.”

 

 

 

The Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe theater offers 3,100 different items between its multiple departments, as well as 35 menu items offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The store also crafts all of its dishes and prepared food offerings in-house with the help of six chefs from various culinary art backgrounds. From the abundant produce arena presenting a stadium of native and mainland fruit and vegetables, to the full dairy, specialty seafood department, gourmet cheeses, and full alcohol assortment that includes rare spirits, imported beers, and global wine offerings, Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe looks to honor the culture of the island and also rebuild the Hawaiian consumer’s idea of the shopping basket.

The deli alone gives you a taste of the Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe concept. Take your pick between ten to twenty different prepared salads from the Miso Crunch or Lentil Salad, to goat cheese and roasted beet salad with a twist. Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe also has at least seven authentic Italian pizzas on the board at any given time, and an old fashion meat counter with items ranging from Certified Angus Beef to locally caught fresh island fish and house made sausages. The team has recently opened The Juice Bar @ Living Foods, with locally sourced fruits and vegetables blended into revitalizing juices, frosties, smoothies, shots, and bowls. 

Jeff and Howard are also socially conscious about how all of their products are raised, grown, and manufactured, and they are dedicated to providing an exceptional working environment for their passionate ‘ohana of employees. 

The Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe team buys direct from Kauai farmers, artisans, and small businesses while rounding out the fresh offerings with imports from the mainland, Jeff says as we revisit the biggest challenge the team faces - getting product from the mainland to the store shelves.

“While we try and keep our store stocked with product from local growers and suppliers, we have to address the demand for non-native items, like mainland produce staples or USDA certified meats. Simply stated: items that do not grow well here consistently or with the level of quality we attach to the Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe standard,” Jeff says.

While the Hawaiian Islands do produce traditional mainland staples like lettuce, kale, eggplant, and spinach, Jeff and Howard work to ensure that they can provide those items with the quality and consistency necessary to continue elevating the Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe brand. 

While there are a host of products that need to be shipped into Kauai, there is also an amazing array of native items that align with evolving flavor trends. As more tropical and specialty produce items are incorporated into foodservice menus and culinary creations, Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe offers delicious treats like sunrise papaya, apple bananas, sugar loaf pineapples, rambutan, lychee, star fruit, and dragon fruit, just to name a few. Try a strawberry nectar papaya, which you can only get in Hawaii.

While Jeff may have his finger on the pulse of all things tropical, he tells me that it is also a challenge to stay up with the day-to-day trends, so both he and Howard look to get off the island when they can, in order to stay fresh, lively, and relevant.

“We are incredibly insulated here on Kauai where there isn’t a huge foodie movement to work with, and where culinary trends are a bit slower to emerge. Whether it’s Seattle or San Francisco’s burgeoning new retail formats or culinary innovators, we know that we need to stay in-touch with the prominent hubs for food artistry. Sometimes a departure from our new norm is good,” Jeff laughs. “Even if it takes us away from our little paradise.”

“We are looking to evolve both the aesthetic and the experience. This place should feel like home, whether that is through our 40-member employee team, the atmosphere and offerings, or by providing a space where people can hang out and ‘talk story.’” - Jeff Sacchini

So my question is “why?” Why acquire a business 2,390 miles from California’s bustling produce industry, with an ocean between you and your next shipment of tri-colored bells? 

Of course… it is about the challenge. Whether Jeff is running The Kauai Marathon or a division of FreshPoint, he is always game for an amazing concept positioned in any number of difficult locales.

“When it comes down to it, this venture has always been about the experience and addressing the unique atmosphere that we wanted to provide from the moment our guests walk in the door to the ‘mahalo’ at the register,” Jeff says. “We are looking to evolve both the aesthetic and the experience. This place should feel like home, whether that is through our 40-member employee team, the atmosphere and offerings, or by providing a space where people can hang out and ‘talk story.’”

“Talk story” is a local term that means to converse and catch-up. Jeff and Howard tell me that on Kauai, you can’t go anywhere without bumping into a few friends or acquaintances for some of this favorite pastime. Even if you are just taking a walk down your driveway, you should plan for five minutes to potentially turn into an hour. But who is counting? You are on Kauai.

“It is like living in a community of 5,000 people – no one is a stranger and you feel safe leaving your doors and windows unlocked. That is a foreign concept to most!” Howard laughs.

While Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe has evolved and been enhanced since Jeff and Howard took hold of the venture, the two emphasize the fact that they still need to continue to fine-tune and perfect the concept and the way it is presented to the consumer. 

“That will come in time, and as always, with a collaborative hand,” Howard says as he reiterates the importance of partnerships and the team moving forward. “We all contribute to the vision.”

The really big questions they have to ask themselves next are: How do they combat a newly opened Safeway down the road? How will they compete while they are still playing with different revenue sources in the store?

“You get to a place in your career where you want to make a difference in your community and your life,” Jeff says. “This is not a hobby. We work hard no matter what the day of the week is.” 

 

Front of the House, Back of the House

Jeff and Howard have found that their “balance” is truly what has helped to solidify their business partnership. Equipped with an MBA and law degree, Howard has spent a majority of his professional career in corporate development and mergers and acquisitions, but got the itch to focus on something of a different nature. Howard’s knowledge continually complements Jeff’s passion for everything food related. And with nearly 30 years in the food business, Jeff is a strong partner in which to align. 

“I guess you could say that I am the back of the house guy and Jeff is the front of the house guy,” Howard smiles. “I do the blocking and tackling. Essentially, I focus on the nuts and bolts of running the business whether it’s managing the financial processes, HR, and legal work, or planning and budgeting different aspects of Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe. Jeff focuses on managing our people and the product innovation, as well as the marketing and sales aspects. The perfect balance.”

I imagine that for Jeff, this challenge mirrors his passion for running, for breaking through the next wall, or beating that next split.

“You have to take everything into account from quality of life to really finding the right place for where you want to be when you get into your 50s,” Howard laughs and Jeff agrees.

Looking back today, Jeff and Howard had a few surprises yes, but for the most part they were pretty spot-on with their due diligence and managing the hurdles as they came. It has all been a part of the allure, they tell me - taking a business with great potential and creating a concept and that, over time, has become fundamentally sound and well worth the financial risk. 

“I pinch myself everyday,” Jeff says. 

The fresh produce business is deep in Jeff’s blood. That is evident. And just when we thought a chapter of Jeff’s life was coming to a close, and we all bid him adieu nearly three years ago, a new one opened. And as Howard tells me, the passion is contagious.

Now we find ourselves, wondering intently, what’s on the next page?