TWO years ago, the wholesale food company Gourmet Garage was supplying more than 100 New York restaurants with their specialty produce.
The key to their success was simple: high-quality food for low prices. As high-volume importers, they cut out the retail markup. By choosing out-of-the-way locations, they saved on overhead. Under such conditions, it wasn't unusual to find smoked Scottish salmon for $16 a pound as opposed to $28 a pound elsewhere.
Little by little, the word got out, and the SoHo garage started receiving knocks on its door from ``ordinary'' people, whispering, ``Pssst. Can I buy a little of that?''
So, in the fall of 1992, the owners tried offering gourmet bargains to the public as well.
About 1,200 people showed up when the doors opened.
``We were shell shocked,'' remembers John Gottfried, who owns Gourmet Garage along with Andrew Arons and Edwin Visser. Soon after, they decided to keep selling to the public in addition to taking wholesale orders.
Mr. Gottfried says the onslaught was a clear indication that people in the 1990s didn't want to change their extravagant tastes; they just wanted to pay less. People also like the idea of snooping around a ``warehouse'' in search of unusual things - at low prices, of course.
``We're fine food for the downwardly mobile,'' Gottfried says.
These days, Gourmet Garage is flourishing.
On the wholesale end of the spectrum, they fill orders for such celebrated restaurants as the Four Seasons and Le Cirque. Once a week, they supply a private jet.
The original store has moved a few blocks up from Wooster Street to Broome Street. Another store opened last year on East 91st Street. (It has since been sold to Zabar's, a gourmet food shop in New York.) And more are yet to come: In about a year, Manhattan will have a total of five Gourmet Garage outposts, Gottfried says.
Commenting on Gourmet Garage's success, Clark Wolf, a food consultant and partner of the Markham restaurant in New York says: ``They're focused, and they're editing, and they're making it easy. Good food at good prices is always a good idea.''
``In the United States, you can get a discount on almost anything. But no one tried that approach to fine foods,'' Gottfried explains as he gives an informal interview in the SoHo store.
This particular day, Gottfried is hosting a tomato contest. The entrant with the largest tomato will be awarded $500.
``That'll go on one heck of a hamburger,'' Gottfried jokes with Mini Zaccaria, a woman holding a 4.19 lb. tomato, which would eventually win the contest.
``We're bare-bones,'' Gottfried says, looking around the store. The atmosphere at Gourmet Garage is casual, unglamorous. Wooden floors and modest displays focus attention on the produce. The sound system spews out the likes of Neil Young and Tom Waits as workers display bread and stack goods.
One realizes this is a company that relies heavily on sales of perishable products: Wild mushrooms from the West Coast, bell peppers from Holland - inventory turns over every 30 hours. Gottfried admits that it can get hectic. Four trucks go out to the airport every day.
``The key is being a distributor and having prices no one can match,'' he says. Here, caviar is between $9 and $12 an ounce as opposed to $18 an ounce elsewhere. One liter of Antica Italia olive oil - extra virgin, cold-pressed, estate bottled (each bottled numbered) - goes for a mere $7. ``We don't carry 20 to 30 varieties,'' Gottfried points out.
Yet with other provisions, customers have the ultimate in choice. Gourmet Garage offers some 12 varieties of baby lettuce, five types of baby pattypan squash, and as many as four different shiitake mushrooms. The baby eggplant is a little bigger than an olive.
And speaking of olives, behold 16 pails, each filled with a different kind of olive. Behind the olives are 60-pound wheels of Parmesan; the store goes through about 15 wheels weekly. It moves 2,000 to 3,000 cases of herbs a week (5,000 pounds) - the public pays $1 an ounce.
``If it's baby, giant, purple, or free-range, we sell it,'' Gottfried says.
AT the refrigerated section, Gottfried points out his favorite thing in the whole store: white-truffle butter, sold here for $4 for two ounces as opposed to about $7.50 elsewhere. (Spoon it over pasta, and you are in heaven, he says.)
But he keeps adding to his list of favorites, including sheep's milk yogurt with a small amount of maple syrup. ``It's just like the first time you tried tiramu-su or mascarpone,'' he rhapsodizes.
``Try this,'' Gottfried says, opening a package of smoked shrimp. After a few fingerfuls, he widens his eyes and says: ``We're food crazies.''
During the week, the majority of Gourmet Garage's customers are local. ``We get people with slightly artistic leanings and also the Wall Street crowd,'' Gottfried says. Big sellers are pasta, salad, tomatoes, and bread, followed by pickles and smoked salmon.
On the weekend it flip-flops: Most business is from out-of-the-area foodies stocking up for parties or making a cupboard run. ``People want to shop at the source. Even if they have money, they appreciate good value,'' Gottfried observes.
In line at the checkout, New York resident Heidi Michel Fokine says she shops here ``pretty often. They have good prices and fresh, unusual things.''
The story of how Gottfried and his partners started Gourmet Garage dates back to the early '80s, when all three got involved in specialty-food sales.
``I was an investment banker - full of sin and bored,'' Gottfried says, cracking a smile. For fun, he started restaurant reviewing and writing on food and wine for the Village Voice, the New York Times, and Town and Country. After writing an article on wild mushrooms, he fell into the mushroom business.
Mr. Arons started the gourmet- food company Flying Foods in the early '80s and then sold it to Kraft.
Mr. Visser is a former restaurant manager at Maxwell's Plum and a veteran of the specialty-foods business. (He is considered the first person to export sea- urchin roe from Maine to Japan.)
Gottfried sums up the three-pronged ownership: Arons is in charge of inspiration, Gottfried specializes in negotiation, and Visser commands the operation.
They often start their days at 4 a.m. and work six days a week.