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Archive for Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Tastes of Europe entice customers to gourmet grocery

April 3, 2002

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Lora Duguid was studying in France in the early 1990s when she came up with an idea for a business she could run.

"I saw an American food store in Aix-en-Provence. I was excited to see Oreos and peanut butter and Dr Pepper. It was a brilliant idea, and I decided to do the opposite (in America)," said Duguid, 28.

That's how au Marche  the European Market, 21 W. Ninth St., was born.

The gourmet grocery, tucked around the corner from Wheatfields Bakery & Cafe, focuses on carrying an array of cheeses and chocolates. But the store also sells products such as pate, salami, prosciutto, dry pastas, olive oils and vinegars, spices, Russian caviar, butter, biscuits, European cakes, cookies, cold beverages and coffees.

Many of the products are imported from Europe, while the more perishable items are made in America by specialty companies or European families that have relocated from abroad.

"I choose products that I like and think would be popular. I soon discovered there are lots of European food enthusiasts in the community who had been looking for products that they couldn't get. We get new requests every day," Duguid said.

Transplant business

Who are Duguid's customers?

"Generally, they're people who travel in Europe or have been transplanted from there. There's an incredible amount of Europeans who live in the Lawrence area. I think KU has a lot to do with that," she said.

One such customer is Dr. Nina Bryhn, a Topeka internist. A Norwegian by birth, she has lived in Kansas since 1987.

"I just walked by the store one day. Lora has food that I really like to eat  all the cheese and sausages. I'm sure if I want anything special, she can get it for me. And she keeps expanding (her product line)," Bryhn said during a recent visit to au Marche.

"Lora is very professional, yet very friendly. She always remembers my name. Every time I'm in Lawrence, I come in."

Au Marche has many customers who are international students at Kansas University, as well as American students at KU who have studied abroad and long for the foods they sampled elsewhere.

For Duguid  who graduated from KU in 1995 with bachelor's degrees in French and art history  au Marche is a dream come true.

"I meet just a ton of interesting people, and I enjoy working with European food. I learn something new every day, and that makes work really exciting," she said.

Overcoming obstacles

Duguid is the managing owner of au Marche. She has two business partners, Sally Helm and Susie Pryor, who own Brits, the English specialty store at 732 Mass.

Each of the three partners of au Marche have one-third ownership in the European gourmet store. Duguid is in charge of day-to-day operations.

Au Marche opened at its original location, 19 W. Ninth St., in August 1998. The store measured a whopping 363 square feet. Duguid's enthusiasm was undimmed by this modest beginning.

"It was pretty slow at first, but still very exciting. It was a neat feeling to have started something I had dreamed about. It was satisfying," she recalled.

The store has had its share of challenges to overcome.

Less than a year after au Marche opened, the city tore up Vermont Street to install new sewer lines. The repair work, which lasted for several months, made it a difficult task for customers to reach the store.

"It was frustrating. But I knew the store was a great idea, and if we could survive the construction, we'd be fine," Duguid said.

The store did survive, but the obstacles to success weren't over yet.

Damage from a major fire that broke out in April 2000 behind Wheatfields forced Duguid to close au Marche for three weeks.

Due to smoke from the fire, she had to discard nearly all of the store's inventory. All of her equipment, refrigerators and computer had to be professionally cleaned. And Duguid had to repaint the store.

Despite this second setback, au Marche continued to prosper.

In February 2001, the store moved a few doors down to its present location, doubling the amount of space available.

Duguid is serving a three-year term on the executive board of Downtown Lawrence Inc. As a downtown merchant, she is a big supporter of Lawrence's historic business district.

"There's lots of foot traffic, and having Wheatfields nearby is very beneficial. People who are supportive of local businesses come downtown a lot, and those are some of our best customers," Duguid said.

Dream come true

Several Lawrence restaurants also buy products from au Marche. The BleuJacket, 811 N.H., purchases cheese and bottled water, while Pachamama's, 2161 Quail Creek Drive, buys some of its cheese and caviar there.

Au Marche does a brisk business in cheese trays and gift boxes for customers, too. The store also can take orders through its Web site, www.aumarche.com.

Duguid gets her products from specialty food distributors in Chicago, New Jersey and elsewhere. If they don't carry an item she wants, Duguid turns to the Internet to locate a source.

"If we still can't find the product, but we at least have a company's address, we'll write or call them. I speak French, and we have employees who speak German and Italian, so we contact them in their native tongue," Duguid said.

Many of her customers bring in empty containers of foods they've tried in Europe, requesting that she carry these products in the store.

A monthly newsletter that Duguid puts out helps to keep customers updated on new products that are available at au Marche. About 1,300 people have signed up to receive the newsletter.

"I can't say enough about how lucky I feel to have such loyal customers. Some people come in every week or every month," Duguid said.

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