A specialty foods store opening later this month on the edge of lower Queen Anne is poised to introduce new flavors and edible trends to the city's dining rooms, perhaps starting with mangalitsa, a formerly popular pork that's lately become difficult to source in Seattle.
The checkout counter.
Gourmet grocer Marx Foods, which supplies rambutans to Alinea and ground kangaroo to adventurous burger fans, is opening its first retail location, four years after creating a website for the general public. Justin Marx describes the 350-square foot space as "a physical showroom for our digital collection." While the store won't stock all 1300 items sold online, the 400-item inventory will be supplemented by iPads on which customers (with staff assistance) can access blog posts, recipes, tutorials and a wider selection of rare and exotic goods.
"We're not going to have 50 olive oils on the shelf," Marx, 35, says. "We'll have three."
While anybody's welcome in the store, Marx predicts it will be patronized heavily by personal chefs who don't have wholesale accounts and local chefs seeking the next big ingredient. "We're definitely looking to take care of food service customers," says Marx, who this summer was christened a "food scout extraordinaire" by Food & Wine.
To assemble the store's starting line-up, Marx traveled to farmers' markets across the country and solicited samples from well-regarded artisan producers. Every item was subjected to a rigorous blind tasting by employees and friends of the company: At a recent session, the panel only green-lighted 23 of the 98 items under review.
"First and foremost, we're drawn by quality and flavor," Marx says.
In addition to raw ingredients, Marx Foods will carry "a lot of products you can't get anywhere else in town," such as jams, soda syrups, squash seed oil and ramp vinaigrette. By eliminating shipping charges, Marx is able to sell low-cost pantry items which wouldn't be feasible to ship. "All of a sudden a $2 item is a $14 item," when delivery's part of the price, Marx says.
But the high cost of shipping also protects local food producers, who aren't currently forced to compete with faraway artisans. By introducing Brooklyn and San Francisco products to the local market, Marx could potentially raise the bar for Seattle handicraft.
As a strong believer in buying local - a philosophy Marx admits isn't wholly compatible with an online business built on air shipping, which is partly why he seized the opportunity to open an actual store - Marx dismisses any suggestion that his latest venture could somehow upset Seattle's artisan food scene.
"If anybody local thinks they have a product as good as what's on my shelf, bring it on," he says, pointing out he plans to put Seattle's Deluxe Foods preserves alongside Berkeley's June Taylor marmalades. "I'd love to be inundated by more products to sample."
The sampling process will become more complicated as new products are submitted, since each product will have to be tasted against the store's current holdings in the same genre before being approved. Marx is committed to regularly changing up his inventory to showcase whatever's best right now.
"Someone who's really dialed in can look at a retail store and say 'You opened in 2004. I can tell because that's what your collection is circa.'," he says.
The store is connected to the Marx Foods headquarters at the corner of Western Avenue and John Street. "We're opening the space in our office, which makes it sound like it looks like shit, but it's really elegant," Marx promises. The public space includes a test kitchen and tasting room, which Marx is still trying to figure out how to best use for customer programs.
"I'm not planning on running out of enthusiasm any time soon," he says.