Justin Marx tests ingredients in his kitchen. Credit: Ronald Holden
For the past four years, Seattle-based Marx Foods has competed in the crowded field of online gourmet products. It's a niche that comes naturally to 35-year-old Justin Marx, whose family (based in New Jersey) has been in the business of providing specialty foods to the top tier of the restaurant industry for five generations.
Just how crowded a business is this? In Seattle alone, niche retailers like Uwajimaya (Asian), DeLaurenti (Italian), and SkanSelect (Scandinavian) all have an online presence; meanwhile, manufacturers like Salumi Cured Meats and Theo Chocolate sell online. Formerly online-only purveyors like ChefShop and Pacific Food Importers have opened retail stores. And in addition to Marx Foods, wholesalers like Murdock & White offer exclusive-to-the-trade services.
So how is Justin Marx planning to be different? Not by offering all things to all buyers, but by sourcing better products. His job, as he tells it, has been to travel and taste, taste and travel. Farmers markets, fancy food shows, more farmers markets. Food & Wine this summer named Marx a "food scout extraordinaire." It's a tough life.
Samples pour into the office at the foot of Denny, where the staff (and invited guests) blind-taste and vote. Marx goes through dozens of forks and spoons a day, as he samples Tabby Cat pickled zucchini spears from Ballard; flavored Filotea pasta from Ancona, Italy; Savorykraut from Midori Farm in Quilcene; Maddyson's marshmallows from Sumner; flaked sea salt from Alaska; Sicilian pistachios imported from New York; mint jelly from Port Townsend and panforte from Siena. One rule: no double-dipping.
Online, Marx Foods offers well over 1,000 items; in the shop, only 300 to 400. The average supermarket, which must appeal to a wide range of customer needs and tastes, has 20,000 to 30,000 items. His online producers take care of shipping (air freight, usually), which means that the point of difference for Marx has to be customer service. Specifically, an unusually rich assortment of "how to" information: recipes, background & history and stories.
His in-house food guru, Matthew Johnson, teams up with an in-house photographer and staff chef to write and illustrate literally hundreds of recipes, how-to videos and to respond to customer queries. There's the free-standing AskMarxFoods.com, home to massive amounts of information, and another site, JustinMarx.com, for the CEO's personal blog. With a physical store, Marx goes head-to-head, (jar-to-jar? box to box?) with established retailers, from tiny ChefShop just up the street to giants like Whole Foods in Interbay.
But Marx has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, starting with a unique array of specialty meats not previously available to home cooks or many specialty purveyors (elk, venison, bison, boar, kangaroo, alligator, antelope, yak, llama, poussin, poulet rouge, squab, quail, pheasant, frogs, all cryovac'd and frozen).
Is there really anyone in Seattle who's crazy enough to buy yak or llama? Actually, it's a good bet that a chef, caterer or food service company could be in the market for something unusual. Not to mention the drop-ins who just want to pick up some edible flowers or exotic produce.
The lack of onsite parking doesn't faze Justin. "We're interested in building relationships with serious customers. There's actually plenty of street parking on Lower Queen Anne." And if the store succeeds in attracting food-savvy customers, who knows? Others may follow.
When Marx Foods opens its doors to the public Monday, it's going to be quite a change for the Marx family, whose East Coast operation has prospered with a customer list of maybe 500 prestigious restaurants. Retail though, is something else altogether.
First to feel the change: the entire Marx Foods canine pack. Justin's beloved Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Nyoki, named for his favorite Italian dish (gnocchi), has had free run of the premises. “Once we get fresh meat in here, the little guy stays home.”
If you go: Marx Foods, 144 Western Avenue W., Seattle, 1-866-588-MARX (6279)