Justin Marx grew up working in his family’s high-end meat importing company in New Jersey and built his own business in Seattle by supplying exotic ingredients like whole, trap-to-order wild boar and flower buds known as Szechuan buzz buttons (“They taste like electricity!”) to restaurants, then online to culinary enthusiasts across the world. Marx kept coming across items he loved but that only worked for his distribution chain if he bought them by the case and stored them himself. Once he had amassed nearly 150 such products in his headquarters in Lower Queen Anne, he had a realization. “We almost have a retail shop already; we might as well just put one up.”
He had long toyed with retail ideas ranging from bulk organic cleaning supplies to “some kind of weed shop.” Apologies to potheads, but the parade of 400 uncommon salts, sauces, sweets, meats, and other goods that now line his shelves and meat cooler seems infinitely more stimulating. The store opened last November in the front portion of the building where Marx Foods has been headquartered since 2008. QR codes and plasma screens are bursting with interactive information designed to demystify novelties like pistachio cream and fennel crystals.
The space also has a test kitchen; Marx Foods brings in local chefs to develop recipes so customers can learn what exactly to do with products unavailable anywhere else in town. The Marx Foods website now harbors about 800 game meat recipes.
Marx built his wholesale and online following on ingredients like edible flowers, dried morels, and antelope stew meat. To round out the shop, he spent the fall traveling to cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Denver in search of actual products—pantry items in industry parlance. He embarks on such missions with an enormous empty suitcase and a roll of bubble wrap to cart home intriguing items found at local farmers markets and specialty shops. Items that catch his eye get submitted to a brutal tasting panel of friends and family; only about 20 percent of Marx’s finds land on his store shelves.
Now he runs those same merciless tasting panels using customers who wander in from Western Avenue. This wasn’t the plan when Marx Foods opened, but its owner says moving into brick-and-mortar sales means instant, unfiltered feedback unheard of in the virtual world. He’s already planning his next reinvention, swapping out a third of the products as he discovers new treasures. The entire 1,331-item inventory of his website can be ordered at his store, but “The simple act of restocking a shelf at the end of the day is remarkably enlightening.”
Published: February 2013