Occasionally we are lucky enough to encounter people who are truly passionate about their jobs. Their enthusiasm is infectious and it makes the product or service they provide, or in this case, dip – all that much sweeter. Such is the case at Bayview and Ralph’s Thriftway grocery stores in Olympia. The Produce Manager, Nate Conat, has been hand-dipping strawberries in chocolate for two very special events twice a year for the past five years.
“I’ve worked for the company for over 15 years,” Nate says, “and I left Olympia for six years and went to Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma. That’s where I learned how to dip the berries.”
He says this with a big grin and adds that when he came back to Ralph’s and Bayview he was determined to bring this fun event to Olympia. “I put it together, and it’s been super successful,” he shares. “I can’t keep them on the shelf. I’m dipping them all day long and they fly out the door.”
As they should. These first-of-the-season berries from California, (because strawberry season actually begins in January in the warmer climates), are hand-selected by Nate. He orders a pallet of berries (that’s 480 containers of berries) and literally sifts through each container himself, selecting the biggest, juiciest, most perfect strawberries that are ripe for dipping.
He says they’ve always had an event like this down at Bayview, but when he took over the process, he employed the method that he had learned: instead of selling chocolate-dipped strawberries by the pound, he sells them by the pack. “It’s big berries, by-the-pack,” Nate says, and we do a 2-pack, a 4-pack, and a 10-pack. People know what they’re paying, and they’re getting the biggest, best berries.”
His method is a chocolatey one. “It’s got chocolate all over it – they’re sweet,” he says, and on February 13 and 14, and during Mother’s Day, he can be found at the front of Ralph’s – in a tie – no less, dressing up the berries to match.
“It’s so fresh,” he says. The chocolate-dipped event starts at 9:00 a.m., but Nate arrives much earlier to get a head start on inventory. “I’ll dip all the chocolate,” he explains. “I do three big baking trays at a time, and then I go to my white chocolate and drizzle with that, and by the time I’m done, I start packaging the very first one because it’s already dried.”
Three large baking trays takes him approximately 15-20 minutes to do, and he uses a quick-setting truffle ganache chocolate. “It’s the best chocolate,” Nate says. “It’s got a great flavor!” He emphasizes all the right hunger-inducing words to create the most chocolatey of cravings. “It’s super creamy and very smooth,” he adds.
What Nate does is a bit magical. A berry is already one of Nature’s most perfect foods, and adding chocolate to it turns it into an experience of culinary resplendence. Both Ralph’s and Bayview get calls weeks in advance from anxious berry enthusiasts. (This is the Pacific Northwest, after all, a region known for its bottomless-berry-eating).
A Meal to Complement the Berries
But that’s not the only department in the grocery stores that emanates a bit of magic. In the meat department, you’ll find a Surf and Turf event that is the perfect complement to the blissful berries. There’s lobster and Painted Hills Natural Beef available to set a beautiful special occasion table.
There’s also magic happening behind the scenes. Rob Backman, the beer and wine guy, also doubles as the shipping and receiving clerk. It’s his job to come up with the ultimate pairings for fun events like these, and he’s also the wizard coordinating the great deals on hard-to-come by craft beers and boutique wines. “I send my own trucking in,” he says about Thriftway’s distribution network. “That’s how I’m able to get amazing products in from small companies that don’t have distribution.”
It’s brilliant, and impressive, just like the price-point he offers them at despite them being so hard-to-come-by. The ability to do this is what makes our neighborhood grocery stores special.
Rob says to look for a beer for Buoy Beer Company this Valentine’s Day at Ralph’s Thriftway. His trucks are bringing in a shipment in from Astoria, Oregon, (where the sea lions dwell underneath a glass floor of the brewhouse), and due to popular demand from shoppers, he’s offering a beer pairing to go with the strawberries in addition to a sparkling wine.
Nate estimates that last year 2,912 strawberries were dipped between the two stores. Both Bayview and Ralph’s Thriftways will be hand-dipping chocolate strawberries on February 13 and 14 from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and then again on Mother’s Day. Of course, you can select from Rob’s regional curations any time.
516 4th Avenue W, Olympia
1908 E 4th Avenue, Olympia