Getting Saucy with Joe DeCicco

Joe DeCicco grew up in a grocery store family. He’s a family member and partner in DeCicco & Sons, which was founded 1973, as well as a buyer for the chain in the New York City suburbs. As we get ready to taste all of the Sauce King™ NYC entrants, we wanted to talk to someone who spends a lot of time tasting premade sauces and knows what makes one a winner. Joe talked to us about sourcing and merchandising new products, seasonality in grocery stores and how social media influences his purchasing.

Joe DeCicco (center)

Food Karma: What does your day to day look like?

Joe DeCicco: I’m a partner and family member at DeCiccos, but then I also oversee purchasing. On an almost daily basis, I’m meeting with vendors, either driving to manufacturers and brands or meeting with representatives for the distributors. Either in person, on Zoom or via email they’re presenting new items. My day is a lot of procurement, learning about the brands, getting samples, tasting them, sharing them with the group in the office, and it’s a lot of paperwork after that. The fun part is discovering new items, but then it’s setting them up and promotions and getting them on the shelves and maintaining them and all the work that goes on with that after the fact. Depending on the items, it’s promotions via social media, or, if it’s more of a commodity type item, it’s making sure that we’re competitive in the market. I’m definitely on the buying side but I’m heavily involved in the merchandising side including consumer placement and displays also social media.


FK: How often do you bring in a new product?

JD: Basically every week we’re bringing in new stuff. A lot of the bigger chains do yearly reviews of a category. We do a lot of stuff on the fly, but we’ll do it kind of seasonally. Right now, we’re concentrating on Back to School as all the barbecue stuff is running down. Hopefully as it cools off people are going to be back in the kitchen. People’s cooking and shopping patterns change, so that’s kind of how we do it. We look at stuff throughout the year as the opportunities arise and the seasons change.


FK: Besides produce, what gets switched out depending on the time of year?

JD: As you can probably imagine, by mid-August we’re switching to Back to School, and then mid-September we’re going back to people cooking in their oven again. Produce obviously changes with the season. The meat department goes from steaks to roasts. The deli will go from summer salads to more hearty dishes and root vegetables. Then you’re into the holidays and having all the necessary. On November 1, you have your gravy and your cranberry sauce. That’s kind of how it works. There’s a formula to it, it’s what you’d expect based on what people are doing.


FK: Are you going back to those same products each year or looking for new ones?

JD: Right now, for Back to School we’re looking at new stuff. We’ll reach out to the vendors and brands we have relationships with to see what they’re doing and if there’s anything new or any innovation. Then you always have your classics. Even though I’m looking for the latest and greatest “lunchbox snack,” I still have to reach out to Pepperidge Farm and get Goldfish. It’s a combo, it’s a balancing act.


FK: When you’re looking for new products, do social media trends in food influence your purchasing or are they too ephemeral?

JD: There’s a few things. In terms of just creating content that you want to get views and likes, we might tie into something like the feta pasta. We actually had internal conversations where people were talking about that in the office and we happened to have feta cheese on sale, so we threw up a recipe just for fun. Chili crisp is a perfect example of an item that I know I can use social media to merchandise and get the word out. I’m not going to put a ten dollar bottle of chili crisp in our circular that gets mailed to people’s homes – who reads circulars these days? They’re usually a little older. My grandmother reads them, does she care about chili crisp? No. I can target it to exactly the people on Instagram and Facebook, get a really nice, sexy picture up there and create a little buzz. Knowing that I can promote via social media helps me target different demographics.


FK: Do you work with a lot of local producers or mostly big brands?

JD: A combination.The biggest thing I tell people is that I usually promote local when local means something. We have brands that are local to Westchester. Believe it or not, my wife’s family business is Walter’s hot dogs, so we sell them. Local coffee that’s roasted locally is fresher. When the local attributes help the product we like to go local.


FK: As we are emerging from the pandemic, have there been any big shifts in what people are buying?

JD: During the pandemic, and especially the last six months where people were kind of more comfortable in their home cooking, people were getting more adventurous, so we’re getting a lot of requests for more esoteric items and traditional ingredients. People were home, and if they were into food before but they couldn’t go to their favorite restaurants, they wanted to try and cook at home and just keep themselves busy. There was a lot of interest in different specific ingredients whether it was spices or sauces, a lot of ethnic items. I hope that continues. That was the biggest thing on the edible side, and then obviously in the household aisle things were crazy.


FK: We’re gearing up for Sauce King™ NYC, what trends are you seeing in sauces?

JD: I think you kind of hit it on the head with the chili sauce. There’s definitely an emphasis on traditional ingredients and sauces based on traditional recipes. People are going back to these original recipes and making newer versions or modern versions of stuff. I spoke to Progressive Grocer a few months ago on specifically hot sauce and hot sauce items. We’re an Italian themed store, so there’s a lot of calabrian chili paste and calabrian hot spreads. I definitely see in the next year or few months as things kind of calm down a lot more modern or domestic versions. Trader Joe’s has its own calabrian chili paste now. People want to learn and cook at home, so definitely more quality focused and more for the enthusiast than just generic barbecue sauce that you can buy at any supermarket.


FK: When you find these more interesting versions do you phase out the basic ones?

JD: You have to have a combination. We want something for everybody. We’re always going to have your run of the mill classics, like we have Sweet Baby Ray’s, that’s a staple. Sometimes you just want that classic, sticky, sweet barbecue sauce so we can’t ever knock that kind of stuff. But then we’ll get up to your bourbon barrel aged barbecue sauces and the thick, small batch sauces; there’s something for everybody.


FK: What makes a sauce a Sauce King™ award winner? 

JD: For me as a buyer, if I taste something and it stops me in my tracks it’s a winner. I taste this kind of stuff all the time, so I’m looking for something unique. It’s totally subjective. What I like when it comes to sauce is depth of flavor and I kind of like viscosity and I don’t like getting hit over the head with too, too much spice. I like a lot of flavor, and if you’ve got a nice story to tell that always helps. Those are the things that I look for.


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