Will it be McDonald's or the neighborhood supermarket for dinner tonight?If kids could decide, it's a safe bet the former would win out - unless there's some kind of excitement added to dinner at the grocery store.For a dab of excitement, programs such as Pizza Friday Night at McCaffrey's would certainly qualify. The aroma of fresh-baked pizza, the chatter of children and the informal setting make

Will it be McDonald's or the neighborhood supermarket for dinner tonight?

If kids could decide, it's a safe bet the former would win out - unless there's some kind of excitement added to dinner at the grocery store.

For a dab of excitement, programs such as Pizza Friday Night at McCaffrey's would certainly qualify. The aroma of fresh-baked pizza, the chatter of children and the informal setting make pizza night attractive to the whole family, company officials told SN. Sometimes there's even live music, provided by local schools' ensembles.

"On many Fridays, we'll have a full house between 5 and 7," said Mark Eckhouse, vice president of the three-unit, upscale chain, based in Langhorne, Pa.

At McCaffrey's flagship store in Yardley, Pa., a newly installed mezzanine seats 100 people, and the other two stores have smaller seating capacity. All are busy on pizza night and the event, along with other theme nights during the week, puts McCaffrey's clearly on customers' mealtime radar.

Setting up theme nights, pricing by the plate, bundling family-sized meals, adding flashy pizza ovens and grills and training associates to sell up - they're all tactics retailers are using to get customers thinking of their supermarket when dinnertime rolls around, according to retailers.

Eckhouse described how getting the whole family to sit down in the store to eat pizza - or meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs - benefits McCaffrey's in many ways.

"We don't make money on the pizza itself," he said. "We're giving them a 14-inch pizza and a 2-liter bottle of soda for $7.99. But it is worth it. First of all, it's a family thing, and that has made it a community thing.

Couples with their children meet here on Friday night. Then, they're apt to do their grocery shopping after they eat."

What's more, store manager Lou DeFranceso pointed out that with add-ons, the ring for dinner is usually a lot bigger than $7.99.

"They add toppings, sides, desserts," Eckhouse said.

So, it's not really a loss, and most important to the prepared foods program, theme nights underscore the fact that McCaffrey's has excellent ready-to-eat, and ready-to-heat food appropriate for dinnertime, Eckhouse added.

In fact, the retailer recently put the spotlight on family-sized dinners such as a two- to three-pound meatloaf with two large sides.

"That bundled meal is $12 to $13. In addition, we also have pasta and mashed potatoes sized for four nearby," Eckhouse said.

The stores rely on the company's central commissary to supply them with entrees, soups, sides, fancy pastries, sauces and marinades. Prepared foods are top sellers for the chain.

"Sales have grown steadily at all the stores, but at [the store in] Yardley, they're phenomenal," Eckhouse said. "At this time, they're pushing 10% of total store sales there. And that's not counting the regular [slicing] deli."

Theme nights have been added every weeknight at the Yardley store. American night often features meatloaf, and some type of pasta is the featured dish on Italian night.

Other retailers, too, have found theme nights are a magnet and serve to remind customers that they can be counted on for meals - to eat in, or take home.

Buehler's Fresher Foods, Wooster, Ohio, schedules theme dinners two or three nights a week.

"Our full-service, sit-down restaurants attached to our stores, more than anything, get people to realize we sell meals," said Mary McMillen, the 11-unit independent's director of consumer affairs.

She pointed out that the meal idea carries over to the prepared, chilled foods which have been doing well in sales.

"A customer might say, 'Boy, we liked that fried fish you had on fish night,' and we can point out to them it's available from our prepared foods case, too," McMillen said.

Fish night at Buehler's offers customers all-they-can-eat fried fish for $7.99. That's very popular, and so is all-you-can-eat pasta night when the price is $6.99.

"We definitely have moved in this past year more toward promoting a meal [at the chilled, prepared foods case]," McMillen said. "We've added signage, but what's more effective, I think, is suggestive selling. Our associates are telling customers the macaroni and cheese or the mashed potatoes go great with meatloaf, for instance."

Wegmans Food Markets pioneered the concept of suggestive selling of prepared foods. The Rochester, N.Y.-based chain has worked hard to promote its meal options. There's no doubt Wegmans' Market Cafes attached to the stores have helped put the idea in customers' heads that the stores are much more than places to buy groceries.

Back in the early days of "home meal replacement," Wegmans seemed to have a handle on getting the idea of "meal" across to customers. The stores have open kitchens. The advertising always underscores "meals made easy," either with ingredients grouped together or prepared foods highlighted. Associates are trained in suggestive selling.

A former Wegmans employee turned consultant, Terry Roberts told SN there are many different elements that contribute to Wegmans' shoppers viewing the stores as meal providers. Roberts, who was with Wegmans for 12 years, shopped in several Wegmans stores this summer while traveling on the East Coast.

"But most of all, you cannot overlook the staff and truly over-the-top training that the company puts into creating a team of food enthusiasts that interact all the time with customers - willingly," said Roberts, who is president of Merchandising By Design, a Carrollton, Texas-based consulting firm.

While some retailers, like Buehler's and Ukrop's, Richmond, Va., make a point of plating up the meal of the day and surrounding it with bagged meals for two, Wegmans, like McCaffrey's and others, arranges attractive platters of sides around platters of entrees in their prepared foods cases.

"That way, it suggests a meal, but each family member can choose the side they want. The kids can have mac and cheese while Mom may choose green beans or coleslaw," said an industry observer.

Wild Oats Market, Boulder, Colo., has just begun to move in that direction, placing sides around platters of entrees, in newly designed displays, a spokeswoman for the retailer told SN.

That method works well for some retailers, but others are at least testing selling meals by the plate.

Customers, when buying prepared food by the pound, often don't know how much they should get for each serving, retailers have told SN. Also, with pricey items like beef tenderloin, the sticker price by the pound can be daunting. A four- or six-ounce serving with the trimmings, however, sounds affordable.

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle has begun testing a by-the-plate lunch and dinner at its new Market District format stores.

"It's just easier to think about a plate of food," Sandy Glatter, Giant Eagle's director of product development and quality assurance, said in an earlier interview. "It's almost like a blue-plate special, with four slices of protein and two sides, for maybe $8, or less, depending on the protein."

Market District stores are offering a tenderloin dinner for four with two large side dishes for $20.

Aside from the plated or bundled dinners and lunches, Glatter puts emphasis on suggestive selling at the chilled, prepared foods case.

"We've invested a lot in training and our associates are doing a good job," she said, adding enthusiasm on the part of associates will be key to the success of the stores.

"Just recently we had a customer who was describing himself as a meat and potatoes guy and his wife was saying he won't try anything but coleslaw. But we - our associates - got him to try a potato pancake, some planked salmon, even carrot souffle with heavy cream."

They bought some of the dishes they sampled, and said they'd be back for more, Glatter said.

In addition, interesting new features have been added at the new-concept stores that are bound to attract the attention of Dad and the kids as well as Mom. An open grill, a brick pizza oven, and a Brazilian-style churrasco add an aura of excitement and make people think of eating as fun.

It's significant that Houston-based Sysco, the largest food-service distributor in the United States, is the new supplier of ingredients to the Market District stores' central kitchen. Sysco sales associates are known to be adept at giving their customers tips on how to sell meals.

Similarly, Bashas' Supermarkets, Chandler, Ariz., has focused its attention - and its customers' attention - on a different plated meal for each day of the month.

Bashas', with a total of 156 stores, including 82 operating under the Bashas' banner, launched a "Chef's Prepared EntrTe" program three years ago that offers a different hot, plated meal a day, and the program continues to grow as it has earned customers' confidence, said Alison Bendler,

Bashas' spokeswoman.

The program is supported by fliers, demos, radio ads, suggestive selling and a big presence on the retailer's website with the meal of the day listed for the whole month.

All meals, made from scratch at each store, are served hot, and ready to go, at the prepared foods counter, but Bendler said the next step will be to expand the program to include chilled, grab-and-go items.

While there is limited seating in some stores, the Chef's Prepared EntrTe program is designed and promoted as a take-out program.

"We promote and merchandise the program as meals to be eaten at home, while having family time," Bendler said.

In addition to the individual plated meals, a family-sized, Chefs Prepared EntrTe with sides and trimmings is offered at a reduced price.

Family Dinner Day

WASHINGTON - For the first time, the Food Marketing Institute this year has joined forces with other organizations to promote Annual Family Day - A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children, on Sept. 25.

"We're thrilled to support this important initiative through the nationwide support of our supermarket retailer and wholesaler members," Tim Hammonds, FMI president and chief executive officer, said when he announced FMI's support.

Retailers who have provided financial support for the Family Day event include the Safeway Foundation, the Kroger Co., Hy-Vee Food Stores and Coborn's. FMI as an organization also has provided financial support. A number of chains, including Stop & Shop Stores, Albertsons, Publix Super Markets, Winn-Dixie, Raley's and Bel Air Markets, are involved in events to mark the day, according to FMI.

Some retailers are calling attention to the event on their websites. Winn-Dixie, for example, marks "Family Day - September 25" on its home page and suggests some quick, easy-to-make dinners likely to appeal to kids.

The day, initiated five years ago by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, has been gaining support. Last year, President Bush, 47 governors and mayors of more than 500 cities and counties proclaimed the fourth Monday in September as "Family Day -A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children."

The day calls attention to a connection between family dining and positive behavior by teens and younger children. Indeed, CASA-commissioned research has established a correlation between families eating dinner together several times a week and teens staying away from cigarettes, alcohol and illegal drugs. The research also shows teens and younger children who frequently eat dinner with their families do better in school, develop healthy eating habits, and are less apt to get into fights.

In fact, CASA statistics show that, of teens who have dinner with their families five to seven nights a week, only 14% smoke cigarettes. By contrast, of those who have dinner with their families zero to two nights a week, 34% smoke cigarettes. According to the statistics, just 30% of those who eat dinner with their families five to seven nights a week drink alcohol, while 52% of those who only eat dinner with their families zero to two nights a week drink. The data also indicated 12% of those who eat with their families five to seven nights a week use marijuana, compared to 35% of those who dine with their families zero to two nights a week.