by Cynthia L. McGowan
Only the best will do for Rice Epicurean Markets’ floral
Rice Epicurean Markets, established in 1937, is the oldest
family-owned supermarket chain in Houston. But there is nothing
old-fashioned about this five-store company, which has
continuously adapted to the changing marketplace and found a
niche as an upscale grocery chain that has an excellent floral
operation and even has its own custom event business.
The company began as Rice Boulevard Food Market, but in 1988
changed its name and focus in order to compete with the larger
national chains. In an interview earlier this year, Rice
Epicurean’s vice president of specialty food and wine, Scott
Silverman, told the Houston Chronicle, “Our niche is an upscale,
specialty and gourmet grocery store with personalized service
and unique products.”
The stores are a Houston institution, and even President Bush is
familiar with them. At a campaign stop in Houston in March 2004,
he drew a laugh when he told members of the audience that they’d
likely see his mother, Barbara Bush, “over there at the Rice
A visit last summer to the Tanglewood store in Houston’s Tony
Galleria area revealed a supermarket that would delight foodies
and flower lovers alike. The newly remodeled store is designed
in a sleek black-and-white décor with wide, uncluttered aisles.
Near the spacious entryway, a sit-down cafe with a vase of
flowers on each table invites shoppers to take a break and relax
with a full-course meal or a snack.
The store’s specialty departments include a “haute grill” and
gourmet deli, where the chefs can prepare “Haute to Go” meals; a
cheese department with more than 250 varieties; See’s Candies,
available exclusively in Houston at Rice Epicurean; an olive bar
with nearly two dozen types of olives or olive combinations; an
extensive selection of wine and beer; a meat
department—featuring signage that says “meat cutters on
duty”—that offers dry-aged prime beef; and a bakery with its own
The floral department, in the rear of the store, greets shoppers
with an irresistible array of flowers and plants in an elegant,
understated setting. Products are merchandised on glass or
cloth-covered tables or sleek, black merchandisers. A walk-in
cooler has signage inviting customers to come in and peruse the
stylish arrangements and fresh, colorful stems.
Mark Luchak, vice president of produce and floral operations,
says three of the five Rice Epicurean floral departments are in
the front of the stores. “The stores that have them in back
would like them in the front, but in this case, it’s in the
back, and it’s one of our top-volume stores,” he says.
WITH THE NEW
Rice Epicurean strives to offer new flowers when they come on
the market and keep on top of new trends for its consumers, whom
Mark Miller, director of the custom business, Epicurean Custom
Floral by Mark Miller (ECF), calls “very educated about
The chain offers a selection of blooms that will satisfy
customers looking for home décor items, gifts or products “just
to cheer themselves up,” says Panna Bhatia, floral manager at
the Tanglewood store.
Weekly repeat customers are the norm, and some buy two to three
times a week, says Mr. Miller, who declined to give sales
figures for the floral operation. Many shoppers enjoy choosing
from buckets of fresh flowers to make their own bouquets, and
others ask the floral employees to do so. Customers often bring
their own vases and ask floral employees to design arrangements
Flowers available during last summer’s visit included roses from
Ecuador, at $2.99 a stem or $69.99 for a dozen; gorgeous,
locally grown sunflowers at $2.99 a stem; Gerberas for $1.99 a
stem; birds-of-paradise at $3.99 a stem; Oriental lilies at
$7.99 a stem; and cut orchids, from $2.50 to $4 a stem.
Orchid plants, ranging from $25 to $30, are a signature item for
the store. The best sellers are Phalaenopses. Also popular are
bromeliads, displayed in an array of bright colors; African
violets; Kalanchoes; and ivies.
The chain’s floral products come from a mixture of local,
national and international growers as well as wholesalers, and
deliveries are made two to three times a week. Customers
especially are fond of products that are homegrown. Mr. Luchak
says a local produce grower recently offered to grow specialty
flowers for the chain, and the result was a “Summertime
Bouquet,” full of yellow, pink and orange Zinnias with accents
of foliage including Eucalyptus. Customers loved the $12.99
Mr. Miller acknowledges Rice Epicurean’s florals can be priced
higher than other grocery stores’, but he says the chain’s
shoppers are willing to pay more for a high-quality product.
“They understand that there are different levels of quality when
it comes to flowers,” he says. “They do see the difference.”
KNOWING THE CUSTOMERS
In addition to expecting high-quality floral products, Rice
customers are accustomed to a high level of service. “You’ll
find people in the departments literally going up and down the
aisles and seeing if customers need assistance,” Mr. Miller
says. “It’s just a totally different approach from being left
alone to shop.”
The company also takes a high-tech approach to customer service,
using the information collected through its “E-Points” loyalty
program, which rewards shoppers for purchases. As a result, the
chain has increased the number of shoppers in its
Phil Cohen, vice president of marketing, told Executive
Technology magazine in August 2003, “We always knew who our
customers were—you know, ‘How ya doing?’—but we know them now by
first name, last name, and we can call them by name. Not only
does every layer of our management team know them, our
department heads know our very best customers by name.”
customer service extends to the floral departments, where Ms.
Bhatia says all floral employees are trained to acknowledge
customers when they walk in and ask if they need help. Each
store has an average of four floral employees, who have a range
of floral experience, from learning their craft at the store
level to coming to the chain as experienced designers.
The designers work with shoppers to create the right
arrangements for their tastes, from contemporary to traditional.
“I don’t entrust any of my likes or dislikes on the client,” Ms.
Bhatia says. “I would rather let them talk to me. I say, ‘What
would you like us to do?’ All of us are well trained like that.”
All arrangements are made in store; none are purchased from
vendors as ready-mades.
THE CUSTOM EVENT SIDE
A natural outgrowth of Rice Epicurean’s position as an upscale
company is its custom event subsidiary, Epicurean Custom Floral
by Mark Miller (ECF), which is part of the floral operation and
has been in business for about 15 years. ECF handles large
weddings (smaller ones are done at the store level), galas,
large parties and other events.
In addition, ECF provides weekly flower arrangements, funded
through an endowment, for The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—a
prestigious assignment. It also provides Phalaenopsis orchid
plants for the Chanel store at The Galleria as well as flowers
for Chanel events.
ECF has a studio at the company’s corporate office. Brides and
party hosts meet there to plan their events, for which ECF can
provide the flowers, catering and rental items: “We do it all,”
Mr. Miller says. He creates the look of the events and designs
the flowers, and, he says, “we pull the best” employees from the
stores to help.
with events and weddings offers opportunities for the in-store
floral employees to grow, he notes. “They get to participate in
something that they normally don’t participate in on a daily
basis, so it’s very energizing for them,” Mr. Miller says.
ECF offers other benefits for the floral departments. “The
exposure is tremendous,” Mr. Miller says, “and the
advertisement—you can’t put a price on it.”
ECF is a high-profile example of Rice Epicurean’s continual
willingness to adapt and thrive in the competitive supermarket
arena. Mr. Miller tells how the floral departments often change
their looks to keep customers’ attention. “We try to keep a
fresh edge since they come in so often,” he says. “We don’t want
anyone to become complacent.” That philosophy could apply to the
chain’s outlook as a whole.
You can reach Cynthia L. McGowan at
email@example.com or by phone at (800)
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