Hawaiian chef Keoni Chang wants the peace of mind that comes from knowing his customers—everyone who shops at the 32 Foodland supermarkets across the Islands—will go home and prepare meals that make them happy.
He’s found that level of satisfaction through a relentless quest for the best that is part technical and part rooted in memories of his grandmother’s scratch cinnamon twists and lemon meringue pies that had no equal.
Those roots saw him through, from a local community college to a professional degree at New York’s Culinary Institute of America. They nourished him during an apprenticeship at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and jobs from New York to Las Vegas and Honolulu before Chang signed on as Foodland corporate chef in 2004.
“Chefs in supermarkets, at the time, that was a rarity,” he says. But it was an opportunity to work with a team to elevate quality in both prepared foods and perishables, including beef.
“Every day is different for me, which is great,” Chang says.
The morning may start at the deli, testing different brands of rotisserie chicken or flour mixes for fried foods, or preparing a meal to educate consumers on the company’s website. Then again, he may be off to Napa Valley in California to meet with wine producers across the spectrum, building relationships.
From growing up on Oahu and spending years on the mainland, Chang appreciates different tastes.
“The cuisines in the Islands tend to reflect a lot of Asian flavors,” he says. “It’s a melting-pot cuisine; there are classical and traditional Hawaiian foods that focus on a limited number of native species and plants and seafood, but we have a lot of influx from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai. And we’re starting to get a lot of Western influence as well.”
Beef is a big-ticket item, and covers a range from grinds to thin cuts for marinating and stews to a newer trend toward thicker “middle meats” for the grill.
“We’re learning how to appreciate the thicker cuts, looking for better marbling and expecting a better eating experience, and I think that’s one of the big changes happening in the market,” Chang says.
Several years ago, that led Foodland to upgrade from Select beef, starting with cutting tests of Choice and premium brands. “From the standpoint of tight specifications and consistency, the Certified Angus Beef ® brand is what came out on top for us,” the chef says.
Of course there were many questions, mainly centered on how much the consumer will pay for a significantly better eating experience. But the answer came from the Hawaiian principle of pono: Effectiveness is the measure of truth.
“We found that our sales have grown and they continued to grow at a double-digit percentage rate through last fall,” Chang says. “That’s telling us, one, people want quality and pay for it. And two, they’re having, really, that eating experience that they’re looking for, that consistency. And they’re coming back, and that’s what we’re very happy about.”
When customers come in, our meat managers have somewhere between 20 seconds and a minute to talk about beef.
“We may have a zillion things we want to tell everyone, but in that time all we can really talk about is the highest end of USDA Choice and the consistency. The thing they want to know is, ‘If I buy this again, am I going to get the same quality result every time?’ We think so,” Chang says.
That’s why Foodland offers a double money-back guarantee, no questions asked, “that helps them sell a lot of beef.”
For a retailer, a beef program that’s working well “creates a solid anchor point for us as a company,” he says. “It allows us to continue to build, sort of like one of those foundational pieces. If you don’t have your beef program right, then you can’t really go anywhere.”
With few local grocery companies left in Hawaii and none others with stores across the state, Foodland is celebrating its 65 years of serving Hawaii with responsibility for both their traditions and changing community.
In that spirit, Chef Keoni remains dedicated to staying ahead of the curve. Relentlessly.
“Relentless about learning, about keeping up with what’s going on, about listening to the customer, about looking for trends, because I think that the second that we become complacent or think that we know it all, that’s when everything could come crashing down,” he says.