BY COLLEEN PATTERSON
You’d be hard-pressed to meet anyone behind a deli counter with more celebrity connections than Debbie Sharpe.
It’s 1978, London. New wave rock has taken over the British radio and Debbie Sharpe is on the road with Adam and The Ants, the band which famously opened for the Sex Pistols’ first-ever concert. She’s a caterer and her recipes have begun to catch on. Cut to 1984 and she’s on the road again, this time with the Rolling Stones. By the early 2000’s, Debbie’s company, Eat Your Heart Out! (recently re-branded to The Goddess Rocks) had impressed the likes of Paul Simon, Sting, Justin Timberlake, Fleetwood Mac, Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, and Aerosmith.
So what happens when the music industry’s most beloved caterer decides to take a break from the road? She opens a franchise of grocery stores.
If you live in Chicago, you’re familiar with the Goddess and Grocer. It’s much more than a grocery store. It’s a community hub. Part-bakery, deli, coffee-house and wine bar, the Goddess and Grocer shares its roots with a similar type of catch-all eatery native to Debbie’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia. As she recently told Louisa Chu for the Chicago Tribune, "(In Melbourne) you could go to a store for lovely prepared foods, get a fresh sandwich, some nice soup, a few little groceries. You could sit down but not be overwhelmed by service."
Nothing like it existed in Chicago at the time of her first opening in 2005. Today, there are five Goddess and Grocer locations, three Goddess and the Bakers (a friendly spinoff), and at the heart of it all, the Goddess Rocks catering operation.
“She came here to settle down, take a break from tour catering and open a few restaurants. Then, Live Nation called asking her to come back because she had set the bar for all tour catering that exists now, and she hopped back on,” says Brandon Sullivan, one of two marketing managers for the Goddess franchise.
Having relinquished the road to open her restaurants, Debbie couldn’t help herself. Tour catering is in her blood, but managing multiple vendors, affiliate brands, and business operations spread out across a variety of distinct neighborhoods is quite the marketing challenge.
“On our platform, we want to focus on what the Goddess is up to,” says Emma Watson, the social marketing manager for the Goddess. “It’s difficult to keep the distinct brands separate and also highlighting them as an umbrella. We’re not just a grocery franchise but we’re more than the backstage tour stuff.”
Emma and Brandon’s primary initiative is to keep things simple. Their second most important directive is keep things local, by connecting and engaging with their neighbors and retail partners on social media.
"A lot of what we do is grassroots,” says Watson. “The companies we carry are small, organic, and local with a very niche audience. We focus and highlight the products we’re working with, stick to our loyal fan base, and tag each other in posts so we get in front of each other’s audience.”
For the Goddess and Grocer team, maintaining an engaged audience while simultaneously maintaining a local grocery empire boils down to quality over quantity.
“Social media is a natural and free marketing platform,” says Watson. “It’s the perfect way to get news out to our customer base and let it grow naturally but you have to make a point of wrangling the right information.”
In keeping with quality, Watson suggests that the content you share on social media be important to your audience. “As a company, we’re constantly trying to streamline everything. What do our customers really need to know? What do they want to know from us?”
The Goddess and the Grocer may cater to an incredibly niche audience, but its team often incorporates citywide events into its local restaurant specials and company-wide initiatives. For brands struggling to prioritize their marketing content, it’s okay to go timely and broad.
Take the Cubs taking the World Series. Together, Sullivan and Watson devised two specialty sandwiches named for players, Rizzo and Jake, donating a dollar to the Anthony Rizzo Foundation to benefit cancer research for every sandwich sold. Locals went crazy for it.
“Once the dust died down from the Cubs chaos, we were able to write a check to the Anthony Rizzo foundation,” said Watson, “which was an incredible feeling. That campaign, too, is the perfect example of reaching an audience that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We tapped into this younger male demographic and showed them that we’re more than a salad bar place. We’re the place where you can get a Cubs sandwich, too.”
In fact, the campaign not only culminated in a hefty donation to cancer research but with a FOX News segment in which Brandon Sullivan showcased a Cubs-inspired rendition of their famous rainbow cake.
“Catering to every audience is very important to us. We’re proud that we carry organic and locally-made products, those favorite specialty items that our customers usually can’t find anywhere else,” said Watson. “But it’s also important to Debbie that there’s something here for everyone.”
The Goddess and Grocer is a place for everyone. Every specialty item they stock is hand-picked and sought-after; every event they co-host and brand they carry has local ties to the community. They carved out a special place for ultra-niche grocery stock and opened it up to the whole city.
Whether it’s handling Miley Cyrus’s entourage backstage or organizing a neighborhood event, the marketing team will tell you that the secret to the Goddess’s success is Debbie Sharpe’s uncanny ability to connect.