BETTER YET

Gone are the irrelevant made-to-order omelettes, idling white-toqued chefs and unused carving stations. In today's supermarkets, the fresh meals department is all about portions, health and authenticity. Several factors are getting credit for what many see as the resurgence of a once-moribund section. The menu today is consumer-friendly, and initial indications are that shoppers like what they see

Gone are the irrelevant made-to-order omelettes, idling white-toqued chefs and unused carving stations. In today's supermarkets, the fresh meals department is all about portions, health and authenticity.

Several factors are getting credit for what many see as the resurgence of a once-moribund section. The menu today is consumer-friendly, and initial indications are that shoppers like what they see — and taste.

Publix Super Markets' current endeavors epitomize a lot of what's going on. On April 12, the Lakeland, Fla.-based traditional supermarket chain will unveil a pilot meals program that appears to have it all.

Like other retailers that have recently revamped their meals offerings and presentation, Publix obviously has had its ear to the ground to discern what today's consumers really want.

Its pilot concept, which will debut at a newly built 51,000-square-foot store in Lake Mary, Fla., near Orlando, embodies seven different venues offering ready-to-eat and made-to-order meal components.

“We like to call it ‘The Seven Wonders of Publix Deli,’” spokeswoman Maria Brous told SN.

The seven staffed counters are bunched closely together in a dedicated deli area that has its own entrance from the parking lot. This is the first time Publix has, at any of its stores, cut a separate entrance directly into the deli, Brous said. The deli grouping, too, will have its own cash registers. Both of those features — as well as a high service level and the adjacencies of the food stations, offering a huge number of options to choose from — constitute a bow to consumers' quest for convenience.

“This is our commitment to serving our customers who are pressed for time. We're offering them real convenience, as well as service and a variety of high-quality, restaurant [type] food,” Brous said.

What's more, the prepared-to-order feature underscores freshness, which surveys and focus groups have proved is a priority with today's consumers.

In an effort to create desirable choices for every member of the family, Publix, in developing the seven venues, has run the gamut from custom-made sub sandwiches — always a Publix mainstay — and seasoned rotisserie chickens to carved roasts with mashed potatoes and gravy. Ethnic favorites, too, can be found there, as well as salads and hearth-oven pizza, Brous pointed out.

“When you have a family of four or six people, they all probably have different tastes, and picking up something for everybody for dinner usually results in multiple stops. Here, they can get food for everybody's taste at the same place, and they don't even have to walk across the store,” she said.

For instance, if a customer wants turkey, mashed potatoes and salad, he gets his entrée carved at the carvery station and steps a few feet along the line to get his mashed potatoes, and a little farther along to add a prepared-to-order salad, on his way to the register.

Planning for the test program has been extensive. Publix' corporate chef developed all the recipes for the seven meal venues, and much research has gone into finding the right containers to ensure the integrity of the food is preserved on its way to the customer's table, Brous explained.

“We've paid a lot of attention to packaging. We want the food to arrive home looking and tasting as good as it does here.”

Meanwhile, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, and Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, are two of the many retailers that have sharpened their meals programs with new positioning, eye-catching displays, European ovens, flaming grills and the like, as well as adding menu variety, and they're seeing gratifying sales results, officials told SN.

Even home meal replacement pioneers such as Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., which has been successful with meals programs for years, have done some significant revving up.

In addition to adding more variety to its chilled prepared mix, which is produced in its central commissary, Ukrop's has expanded its Chef Specials program and put new emphasis on it. That program underscores freshness with such things as made-from-scratch lump-meat crab cakes, prepared each day in-store.

“We've seen big growth there,” Nancy Wingfield, the 28-unit independent's director of food service, told SN.

Wingfield said Ukrop's also recently took down partitions in its upstairs cafes to create a lighter look and to allow a better view of the whole store. The tweaking was done to improve ambiance, she said. “We're concerned with making people comfortable while they're eating. We've always perceived ourselves as competing with restaurants, so we watch closely what's going on in the restaurant world.”

The chain has added Starbucks counters inside three of its cafes and may put them into others as well, and has considered adding other conveniences, such as wi-fi, in the cafes, Wingfield said.

Late last year, United Supermarkets regrouped its food-service programs right up front at its newest fresh-format Market Street store to make a stronger statement that the chain offers an enticing variety of ready-to-eat meal possibilities. In addition, the new Market Street store has put the spotlight on healthy menu choices, Eddie Owens, the 48-unit chain's director of communications, told SN earlier this month.

“One of the biggest changes is our tossed salad area, where you can get any of five signature salads tossed to order. Freshly grilled chicken or garlic-seared shrimp can be added to any of the five,” Owens said.

He said the program is already doing very well, but as the weather gets warmer, sales there and from a new healthy choices menu are rising significantly. The chain also has adopted its own version of Subway's “Jared.” Owens described that endeavor.

“A professor at Texas Tech University has lost 60 pounds on what he calls ‘The Market Street Diet.’ Basically, he's been eating from our healthy choices menu. We recently ran an ad featuring him.”

All of a sudden, or so it seems, traditional retailers have tuned in to what busy consumers are looking for to make their mealtimes easier. Dramatic changes take their food-service programs way beyond the early days of “home meal replacement.”

Today's scene is a far cry from the '90s, when some chains made bumbling efforts with slacked-out mac and cheese and lasagna that sat too long, and others went over the top with certified chefs proudly presenting osso bucco and quail. A lot of those early efforts produced more shrink than profit. As a result, some chains gave up, and some gradually trimmed and shaped their programs into money-makers.

“What I see today is the bad getting worse, and the good getting better, a lot better,” said Harold Lloyd, a consultant and supermarket industry veteran based in Virginia Beach, Va.

Another supermarket industry veteran turned consultant, Terry Roberts, wholeheartedly agreed that in the early HMR days in the '90s, many retailers just veered away from what they knew how to do well. They went overboard with complex programs they couldn't control, said Roberts, who's now president of Merchandising By Design, a Carrollton, Texas-based consulting firm. “My opinion is, it's smart to keep it simple,” he said. “Soups, salads and sandwiches do great. They did then, and they still do.”

But what's causing the clear shift toward offering more convenience, emphasizing freshness, spotlighting signature products, becoming more restaurant-like?

Some say it's the imminent arrival of Tesco, the U.K.-based grocery chain that's known for the excellence of its chilled prepared foods. Others say it's a build-up of competition from the likes of Outback Steakhouse and Ruby Tuesday's, which are successfully running takeout programs.

Ron Paul, president and chief executive officer of Technomic, a Chicago-based food-service research and consulting firm, believes retailers' renewed interest in meals has been spurred primarily by Whole Foods Markets, Austin, Texas. Whole Foods has long had an impressive presentation of quality fresh-prepared foods with appeal for a broad cross-section of customers, but what's new is that they've expanded big time into new areas.

“The last time I was in a Whole Foods, I wanted to eat all my meals there, maybe lunch and then take dinner home. It was so appealing,” Lloyd said. “There's variety, and you can get it in different ways, to eat there, take out. And the abundance! Thirty birds cooking at a time. They're not afraid they might have to throw something out,” a fear that kept supermarkets' early meals programs from maximizing sales.

Technomic's Paul underscored the positives about Whole Foods. “Ever since they opened the store in the Time-Warner building [in New York] and have been expanding out, they've been driving this revival in the traditional chains. That Time-Warner store was a wake-up call,” he said. “Traditional supermarkets have been Whole Fooded. There's no doubt in my mind.”

Another consultant, Howard Solganik, offered a different perspective. “I think it's the new generation that's putting these progressive ideas into practice,” said Solganik, who is partner in Dayton, Ohio-based Culinary Resources with his sister, Carin Solganik.

“Look who was in control in the early days when supermarkets were trying to offer meals. It was the old-school grocers. Now there's a new group of people who grew up in the industry, but who aren't burdened with the past. It's a changing of the guard.”

There's been new thinking injected, too, with the waves of acquisitions that have taken place over the last few years, Solganik and others pointed out.

Most recently, Solganik has been working with Giant Eagle Markets, which has continued to liven up its food-service offerings. It was Solganik's idea to add flair there with a Brazilian churrasco, a horizontal rotisserie that can cook several different items at different temperatures simultaneously. It's an eye-catcher, too, with its flames and twirling roasts — appropriate for leading off the food-service aisle.

Solganik is one industry veteran who doesn't give much credit to restaurant competition for driving the bettering of retailers' deli/food-service offerings.

“For meals programs in grocery stores, it's the best-of-class basics that are the key to success. We're not replacing restaurants, we're replacing Mom.”