ALTERNATIVE MEALS

ROSWELL, Ga. -- Harry's Farmers Market here is in a hurry to expand its presence in metro Atlanta, with firm plans set to open at least three more Harry's in a Hurry meals stores.Three new locations have been contracted for, said officials with the company, all in the metro Atlanta area. Others in Atlanta will be added later in the year, said Mary Ann Lukas, marketing director for Harry's. All the

ROSWELL, Ga. -- Harry's Farmers Market here is in a hurry to expand its presence in metro Atlanta, with firm plans set to open at least three more Harry's in a Hurry meals stores.

Three new locations have been contracted for, said officials with the company, all in the metro Atlanta area. Others in Atlanta will be added later in the year, said Mary Ann Lukas, marketing director for Harry's. All the new stores will be modeled after a prototype the retailer opened in an Atlanta suburb in January.

The company currently owns and operates three Harry's in a Hurry, its small fresh-meals-to-go format, as well as three large Harry's Farmers Markets, which specialize in a vast selection of fresh foods.

The next Harry's in a Hurry opening is set for May and another will follow soon in the summer, according to Lukas, who explained that a fast-track expansion strategy is under way for the format.

"Harry Blazer [owner of Harry's] said he sees Harry's in a Hurry as our major growth vehicle for the future," Lukas commented.

The company had unveiled some new home-meal replacement concepts and expanded others in its new prototype store, the third and largest Harry's in a Hurry unit, opened late in January, as reported in SN's Feb. 2 issue. That unit, at 15,000 square feet, is more than twice the size of either of its predecessors. Its debut marked the company's first opening of a Harry's in a Hurry since 1993.

New elements in the prototype store include an upscaled, European-style pastry shop that heads the traffic pattern, a made-to-order sandwich bar that combines service with a self-service toppings and condiments table, parcooked vegetables priced by the pound, a stir-fry station and a coffee bar.

An on-site chef who oversees in-store cooking is a new feature at the prototype; future stores also will have a resident chef. Indeed, a chef was added to the in-store staff at one of the existing Harry's in a Hurry stores several months ago, Lukas said.

The resident chefs preside over open-production grilling and preparation of items destined for the hot table, salad bar and other food stations, with the exception of chilled, packed meal components. Prepacked, refrigerated meals and meal components are not cooked in-store. "Those are made in our USDA [approved] facility and packaged there," Lukas said.

Indoor seating and a seafood service counter were added, at customers' request, after the store's opening, Lukas said. Both will be features in future stores.

The traffic pattern itself has been changed in the prototype store. As customers enter, they see the pastry shop and coffee bar straight ahead. Next is the sandwich bar, soup bar and hot bar, followed by a display of refrigerated meal components and value-added meats. The deli meats and cheeses continue the pattern, followed by seafood, produce and floral, and checkout. In the middle of the store are a salad bar, specialty groceries, and beer and wine.

At earlier Harry's in a Hurry units, produce is first in line and hot foods are near the back of the store.

Lukas said the positioning of the pastry shop and coffee bar up front is "for the customer's convenience. We've found that some people like a leisurely walk through the store, sipping their coffee as they go. Here, they can actually go in one of two directions. They can continue on through the store, or, if they want to buy just pastry and coffee, they can turn to their immediate left and go to check out," she said.

She also said that locating the pastry shop at the front of the store serves to showcase a whole new line of pastries. The pastries are made at the company's central bakery by a newly hired pastry chef.

Seating to accommodate 40 people at tables and chairs is adjacent to the checkout registers. There is also seating outside, as there is at earlier Harry's in a Hurry units.

The new sandwich bar, which one local observer described as unique to the area, is designed for ultimate customer convenience, Lukas said. Sandwiches are made to order in the first two Harry's in a Hurry units, but emphasis on the program is much more limited compared with the new prototype store.

At the prototype store, a server slices meat, cheese or other main ingredients for the sandwich, puts it on the customer's choice of bread, and then places it in the bottom half of a plastic container. The customer then proceeds to a large array of toppings and condiments on a long self-service table, adding to the sandwich.

Lukas explained the thinking behind the sandwich program this way: "Haven't you ever ordered a sandwich somewhere and found it didn't have what you ordered on it, but it's too late because you're already home or back at the office? This alleviates the possibility for that kind of frustration. You put exactly what you want on it yourself."

Lukas also explained why Harry's in a Hurry now offers parcooked vegetables. "They're partially cooked to save the customer time. They're displayed right beside the hot bar and there's a sign that tells customers that they're partially cooked. They can stir fry them at home quickly or microwave them without overcooking them."

The new prototype was designed to help customers save time, she said. Local observers said that the unit's particularly well-defined food stations, brighter lighting, and bolder signage and graphics set this Harry's in a Hurry apart and make it easy to shop.

"My overall impression was positive," said Ira Blumenthal, president of Atlanta-based Co-Opportunities, a marketing and consulting firm that works with manufacturers and food-service operators. "It was bright, cheerful and very clean-looking and, immediately, you see separate food stations, like the soup station, a sandwich station. They're well-defined, and signage is bold enough to make it clear what's there.

"Customers, I think, want to know what their options are from 50 feet out and here they know," said Blumenthal. "A lot of [the new look] is probably a byproduct of just having more space to work with."

Blumenthal also said he noted more selling going on.

"I saw some real strong efforts at marketing. For example, all the packaging isn't the same. I got sushi for lunch and it was packed in a different-colored, speckled container, not just the black-and-clear that you see everywhere. The container was not as deep either. It differentiated the product," Blumenthal said.

He added that he saw a lot of interaction between associates and customers and heard associates doing suggestive selling. "The whole store just seemed more customer-friendly."

Another industry observer told SN that he saw increased emphasis on hot food-to-go and on sandwiches. At the earlier Harry's in a Hurry units, the service hot food, an in-line salad bar and other ready-to-eat offerings are near the back of the store, he pointed out.

"Putting hot food and sandwiches up front makes it convenient for the customer to get in and out," the observer said. And aisle space is at least double or triple what it is at other Harry's in a Hurry units, he noted.

Blumenthal, however, questioned the strategy behind the traffic pattern. "The food stations, while well-defined, don't fall in logical sequence. I think a customer could be confused. For example, the first thing I saw was desserts. Then, I saw soup and salad. But, in our lives, we don't pick up dessert first. If they menu-marketed, it would be easier on the consumer," Blumenthal said.

But having more space to work with is allowing for better definitions of what's available. For example, the salad bar has two price points just as it does in the other Harry's in a Hurry units, but at the new store it's more obvious. One whole side of the island case features items for $3.99 a pound and the other side features more upscale items at $5.99 a pound. One side is designated "deluxe"; the other, "superior."