CLARKS SUMMIT – When the cooks at Caravia Fresh Foods need to replenish the vegetable stocks they use to create the store’s selection of prepared foods, they walk out from behind the deli cases in the rear of the shop and grab a basket or a cart. Then, they join other shoppers in the produce aisle.
“Our kitchen team will see what looks good, what looks fresh, what’s in season, what’s local and literally just shop for food,” said Ryan Cognetti, the gourmet market’s general manager and one of the owners.
Caravia opened in the Abington Shopping Center in June 2004. It remains in its original storefront, at 1151 Northern Blvd., but the focus of the business has changed since that inaugural day. Prepared foods and sandwiches have replaced grocery items as the largest revenue segment.
“We try to cater to people who’ve just gotten off of work and don’t have time to cook,” Cognetti said. “We want to have good, made-from-scratch food for people on the go.”
Cognetti views the store’s fruit and vegetable section as important because it draws many people through the front door. His family has emotional and commercial connections to fresh produce.
Ryan Cognetti’s, Joseph Cognetti, owns a third of the business, and Joseph’s first cousins, the married couple of Peter and Marianne Cognetti, own another third while Ryan Cognetti owns the remaining third of the equity in Caravia Fresh Foods.
Until he sold it in 1999, Joseph Cognetti owned Joseph Notarianni Produce, a Scranton firm started by his great grandfather nearly 75 years earlier.
“Every young Cognetti and many young people in the area had stints at Notarianni Produce, mostly in the tomato room,” said Ryan Cognetti, 39.
After they divested the produce company, the Cognettis looked to start a new business venture. By 2004, many supermarkets had been supersized. The stores tried to service all patrons by carrying multiple brands in dozens of departments. Acres of merchandise were displayed under row after row of fluorescent lighting.
“As things got bigger, our niche, we thought, would be a smaller neighborhood store where we could get to know people,” Ryan said. “We could focus on bringing in not a whole bunch of stuff, but stuff we’re really excited about and proud of.”
The store is named for one of Joseph Cognetti’s grandmothers, Michelena Caravia.
By opening a gourmet market and not a supermarket, the Cognettis were able to stock items not easily found in other grocery stores. They added artisan cheeses and chocolates and sourced breads, cookies and other baked goods from regional bakeries.
Pastas and sauces were of the founding family’s own manufacture.
“A couple of weeks ago, somebody said they drove up from Maryland to get our sauce,” Ryan said, discussing Caravia’s marinara sauce. It isn’t sold by the bottle and is only obtainable by purchasing an item from the prepared foods section.
The owners were surprised when sales of prepared foods and sandwiches became the largest revenue segment but they realized these items made it easier to differentiate the store from its competitors. New products were added to the menu.
“We do a lot of chicken here. We do a lot of vegetables,” Ryan explained. He said chicken salad is the top seller, and their Italian chicken cutlets have become popular items because they are easy to heat and serve.
Caravia Fresh Foods employs 30 people, the largest staff count since the market opened. The owners have discussed expanding the concept to a second location. Ryan comes in nearly every day to the shop, which is open seven days a week. Another Caravia would increase revenues but also dilute his ability to be a hands-on operator.
“We wouldn’t want to do anything until we could be sure that we could export the same standards that our customers are used to here, elsewhere,” he said.
Fourteen years ago, before they opened their store in Clarks Summit, the Cognettis visited a number of Italian markets in Philadelphia and New York City. They patterned some aspects of Caravia Fresh Foods after what they discovered in those urban shops. They liked how some of the places displayed items, and how others illuminated their merchandise. They noted how the city markets made the best use of limited retail space.
The Cognettis purposely kept Caravia Fresh Foods small. It is unlike the huge markets with dozens of aisles, a hundred employees and a mass of patrons whose faces are hard to recognize because of the heavy volume.
“I’ve gotten to know so many people,” Ryan said. “We’ve got so many loyal customers that I’ve come to know now as friends.”
Story and photos from Charles Erickson – email 1 of 3
Photos, taken by Charles Erickson, for use in his story about Caravia Fresh Foods in Clarks Summit:
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