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PRESS COVERAGE

CBS.MarketWatch.com

June 20, 2002

GOURMET PANTRY: FOOD WEB SITES OFFER FINE FARE FOR MEALS, PICNICS

BY CECILY FRASER

LOS ANGELES (CBS.MW) -- Anyone who's prepared a gourmet dinner knows how tough it is to track down pâté, truffle oil or seasonal produce such as blueberries to complete a meal.

But there's no need to scrap the recipe or attempt to rewrite it to compensate for what's lacking on your local supermarket's shelves.

The Internet is becoming a great purveyor of hard-to-find foods. Many consumers are shipping these goodies to friends and families as gifts, but the majority are stocking up for everyday meals, summer picnics and barbecues.

"Summer is a good time because it's an eating season with all the grilling," said Spencer Chesman, chief executive officer of Igourmet.com, noting that a $32.95 cheese and sausage summer snack kit is selling "too well" and it's been having trouble keeping the French Saucisson in stock.

The online food and beverage category, which generated less than $300 million in sales last year, is small compared to others such as books or apparel, according to ComScore Media Metrix. Yet online grocery shopping, often criticized as the biggest dot-com failure, is still seen as having strong growth potential by many gourmet retailers.

Business is very holiday-driven, but new customers continue to sign on each month, Chesman said. About 30 percent of its online orders are gifts, while the remainder is made up from regular customers.

"We've worked hard to develop a stock-to-fridge customer, people who buy for their own consumption," he said. "Sauces and marinades are popular, but they don't blow the doors down."

That's why Igourmet and others have chosen the foods displayed on Web storefronts carefully. They know their customers often face higher costs due to gourmet site's packaging and shipping fees, so greater variety is a must to leave an impression with customers.

Online shoppers are often sold on the "novelty of being able to send gourmet steaks or ice cream truffles," said Kathy Valtin, catalog manager for Hickory Farms. "The quality is there and what the customer had in mind to pay."

Still, consumers' approach to summer entertaining varies. More than half, or 53 percent, plan to cook everything themselves, according to a poll from healthy lifestyle site Foodfit.com.

About 28 percent will throw a potluck, 16 percent plan to make some dishes and order the rest, and 2 percent will buy from the grocery store, while 1 percent has opted to hire a caterer.

No matter the approach, there are a slew of sites to deliver the goods. Here's a look at what's available:

Meats, cheeses and other delicacies

Interest in gourmet foods is jumping as Americans grow more sophisticated about their food choices, Chesman said. "We know Wisconsin cheddar, but if you want to taste original, authentic English cheddar, it's a different experience and people are starting to get into that."

To be sure, registration in Igourmet's cheese of the month club has climbed 400 percent from last year. For $19.95, consumers get a pound of cheese, a write-up about the latest selection and brochures.

English cheddar, priced at $6.95 a pound, is good for grilling or crumbled in Cobb salads, Chesman said.

Carli Olive Oil, which is sold direct from the factory to the consumer in Italy, is priced at $11.95 a liter. Many consumers use this for making oil and vinegar-based salad dressings. Through May 15, Igourmet had sold 1,200 liters, compared to 486 last year, Chesman said.

On the sweeter side, Igourmet also has Belgian chocolates and Fabbri cherries for $6.95.

Anyone with a heartier appetite, might want to check out Pfaelzerbrothers.com for pork, lamb, Cornish game hens or prime rib roast. The site currently features steak burgers for those ready to light the coals on a grill. Twelve, four-ounce burgers sell for $19.95.

Meanwhile, complete dinners might be a good option for party planners who don't want to lift a finger. Pfaelzer's beef Wellington dinner for six comes with garlic mashed potatoes and a green bean casserole for $139.95.

Farmers' markets are another culinary summer highlight, and many sites can deliver what's ripe to you, said Lauren Zollinger, managing editor of Gourmetspot.com. E-berries.com generally ships fruit within five hours of being harvested, she said.

Ethnic fare

Gourmet food sites are especially popular with folks living in rural areas or outside an ethnic region of the U.S. California residents, for example, have easy access to Mexican grocery staples, but Midwesterners are largely out of luck.

"If you're living in Ohio and Kansas, or somewhere where you can't get peppers, (the Web) is an easy solution," said Ignacio Hernandez, Jr., vice president of MexGrocer.com, which carries more than 1,000 items. "About 85 percent of our sales are outside of Hispanic areas."

Hot sauces and salsa to combine with barbecues are in greater demand over the summer, while soft drinks, juices and nectars also are big sellers, Hernandez said.

Hot sauces such as Pico Pica are priced at 75 cents to $3. A 13.5 ounce bottle of Jarritos guava soda, meanwhile, is selling for $1.25. A seven-ounce can of chipotles, a smoked red jalapeño pepper costs $1.55 and can be used to make fish tacos.

Surf and turf

The Web also can accommodate seafood cravings. SimplySeafood.com has a large selection of fresh and frozen seafood, featuring Alaskan king, snow and Dungeness crab. Two and a half pounds of Alaska red king crab legs and claws costs $65.

Two regular Nova Scotia lobsters, each weighing 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds, are priced at $69.99, which includes overnight shipping.

Check costs

Most of the items listed above don't include shipping costs. So, when browsing for gourmet fare, it's smart to check out site's order information page to see how your final bill will shake out, especially if you need the items quickly.

Consider that a $30 basked of groceries ordered through Mexgrocer.com will cost about $6.95 to send standard delivery. Next-day service jumps between $23 and $62, depending on the destination, Hernandez said.

"If you're in a hurry, it's going to cost you big time to send our these products to you."

Cecily Fraser is Assistant Personal Finance Editor for CBS.MarketWatch.com in Los Angeles.




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