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Babcock & Miles

Date: 01/01/11 | Source: Specialty Food Magazine | Author: Susan Segrest
Categories: Industry Operations; Retailers | Tags: Beer; Cheese; Montana; Prepared Foods; Private-Label; Retailer Profiles; Wine
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Babcock & Miles

This Red Lodge, Mont., specialty retailer satisfies both locals and tourists alike with a carefully curated selection of fine cheese, beer, wine and packaged goods.


By Susan Segrest


Launching the store in 2008 was selfishly motivated, explains Andrew Porth, who owns Babcock & Miles, an 1,100-square-foot specialty shop in Red Lodge, Mont., with his wife, Karen. The two moved to the area in 2005 after vacationing there for years. They enjoyed the gorgeous mountain town, but missed the foods they had easy access to in bigger cities where they’d lived such as Chicago and Minneapolis. After unsuccessfully trying to get a local retailer to carry some of their favorite provisions such as imported olive oils, they decided to create a store and stock the products themselves. Neither one had a background in retail (Andrew is an architect and Karen a doctor), but they were experienced consumers of specialty foods and decided to run their new shop in addition to their other professions.

The Location

The building, which is a block off the main retail stretch, housed a bike shop and a brick-oven bakery in recent years. But an early business in the structure was a saloon and what has been euphemistically called a female boarding house, explains Andrew, which added to the appeal of the location.

“The first part of the project was saving a building that needed love,” he says. “It had a lot to offer but was rotting away to the ground. We raised the building and dug a full basement and built a new foundation that would give us the space we needed and room for inventory. We also incorporated green strategies, including a geothermal heating and cooling system and a green roof.”

The Product Philosophy

“Initially, we had a list of things we knew weren’t available locally: good balsamic vinegar, high-quality extra virgin olive oil, and bronze dye extruded pasta from Italy. We also recognized that we were in a tourist destination and needed items that would make good gifts,” says Andrew.   

The retailer’s overall strategy is that the product has to be visually compelling, must deliver on the taste and needs a champion on staff. “Without a cheerleader,” he explains, “many of these products don’t sell.” The store carries about 1,500 SKUs ranging from cheeses to fine knives. Wines and specialty beers comprise around 500 SKUs.  

Cheese Selection

“We order cheese frequently, but in smaller quantities in the slow season. We sell quite a lot of Cypress Grove, Cowgirl Creamery and Jasper Hill and we usually carry Amaltheia Dairy goat cheese from Montana,” explains Andrew. “We also sell a lot of imported cheese. We always have a Parmigiano Reggiano and try to have an Alpine cheese and a few hard sheep’s milk cheeses on hand.”

Product Mix

“I’m a sucker for imported products. They are packaged so beautifully and I have a real weakness for that,” says Andrew. “We recently ordered from Viola Imports a San Giacomo balsamic vinegar jelly from Italy. But we also have domestic products that fit our mix. We picked up Lowcountry Produce and promptly sold out of the gumbo and vegetable soups. The King’s Cupboard is a local high-quality favorite.” Other products include pasta sauces from Bella Cucina, Vidalia Onion Brothers salsas and dressing, Kusmi tea and A.G. Ferrari pestos and sauces. The meat case offers varying items including D’artagnan pâtés, Fiorucci pancetta, Echo Falls wild Alaska sockeye salmon and Fra’mani salami.

The most expensive items in the store are LamsonSharp knives, higher end wines (such as a Sauternes) and the specialty aged balsamic vinegars that run up to $135 a bottle. However, the majority of wines that are sold are in the $12-$20 range, and only two or three bottles of the upper-end vinegars are sold each year. The sales mix is 40 percent for wine and beer and 60 percent for food.

Private-Label Offerings

The store sells Babcock & Miles custom roasted coffees, whole and ground spices, dried mushrooms (including European porcini, lobster and sliced organic shiitake) and bulk items like Israeli couscous.

Employees

The staff consists of three full-time employees and one part-time worker. “One of the great benefits of having a store in a town like Red Lodge is that people will choose to make a career compromise in exchange for the lifestyle they can have here. This means we’ve been able to attract phenomenally overqualified staff, who bring a range of skills from past careers,” says Andrew. “We wouldn’t be succeeding if we had typical hourly staff. We have working for us a few retired veterinarians. A river raft guide is one of our sales people and our sales and marketing manager and wine guy used to run a chain of car dealerships. Karen took a year off at the inception but has now returned to part-time medical practice. I slowed down my architectural work in the beginning but I’ve ramped that back up.”

Customer Base

“About 50 to 60 percent of our customers are locals—people who live in Red Lodge or in towns within an hour, such as Billings or Cody, Wyoming," says Andrew. "There are also snowbird residents who live here six months out of the year and second-home owners who will discover us and become repeat customers. Our challenge is to capture the people who are spending one or two nights here on vacation. We recently started providing the nearby Pollack Hotel with a discount coupon to give guests who book packages there. When they come in, they do spend. Then we also capture their contact and shopping information so they can call back if they want to remember what they bought, which particularly happens with wine and cheese." Andrew notes that the local, baked-daily fresh baguettes are another draw that gets consumers of all types stopping in the store more often.

Future Plans

The Porths may eventually launch other outlets but are gaining experience from operating one store first. “It is a good place to incubate an experiment,” notes Andrew. “We are contemplating other locations. It is a huge leap in terms of complexity but there are some economies of scale to be realized. What we might do first is to try to develop a reasonable amount of online presence. But for the time being, we will be a brick-and-mortar kind of place.” |SFM|


Susan Segrest is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.

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Babcock & Miles


This Red Lodge, Mont., specialty retailer satisfies both locals and tourists alike with a carefully curated selection of fine cheese, beer, wine and packaged goods.


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