BUSCH'S IS SERVING UP WHOLE MEALS IN CONTAINERS

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Busch's here has put everything together for dinner with the launch of whole meals in dual-ovenable, three-compartment containers.The program features 15 to 20 meal varieties, displayed in low-profile, tiered cases. The company had previously displayed meal components -- entrees, side dishes and desserts -- there and still does.But Busch's decided to add complete meals in order

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Busch's here has put everything together for dinner with the launch of whole meals in dual-ovenable, three-compartment containers.

The program features 15 to 20 meal varieties, displayed in low-profile, tiered cases. The company had previously displayed meal components -- entrees, side dishes and desserts -- there and still does.

But Busch's decided to add complete meals in order to give customers more choice and more convenience, said Elton Reid, director of perishables, at the 11-unit Busch's.

"This is a new direction for us, to package the items together as a meal. This is really about having another option," he said. "Look at the way people shop. We want them to keep coming back. This is a statement that we have more than rotisserie chicken and coleslaw on the side for dinner."

He said Busch's is not so much looking at home meal replacement as it is at restaurant meal replacement.

"We are in the business of selling them groceries, too, so we don't want to replace home meals."

Reid added that most of the meal varieties were chosen based on the sales success of the separate components.

"For example, we sell a lot of stuffed chicken breasts from the deli service case. So we've taken a stuffed chicken breast and packaged it with a side and a dessert. We've added some breakfast items such as a ham and cheese omelet with potatoes, too," Reid said.

"We wanted to go beyond a cup of coffee and a doughnut for breakfast. We added the whole breakfasts because we think people want that."

Reid pointed to the success of McDonald's Egg McMuffin and various types of bagel sandwiches and said he thinks it's obvious consumers are looking for an easy way to eat a protein in the morning.

While the cases show off a few breakfast selections, the focus is on dinner. A sign posted over the case says, "Dinner Tonight."

The heat-sealed packages travel well, Reid said. The compartments are deep and the tops of the containers are heat-sealed. At this point, no sleeve envelopes the package.

"Sleeves get in the way of showing the product," Reid said.

A label indicates, however, that the items come from Josephine's Kitchen, the umbrella designation the retailer gives fresh items it prepares in-store or in its central commissary.

Depending on the size of the store, the length of tiered case devoted to the whole meals could be up to eight feet. A limited selection of components are displayed there, too. Where it's possible, the case is positioned next to the service deli, Reid said.

"Again, it depends on the store [as to where the self-service case is located], but ideally you want it to be connected to the service deli. That way, as they're refilling the case, staff can interact with guests."

Even as he adds more options, Reid said he's aiming to simplify decision-making for the customer. He contends that work-weary consumers welcome not having to make a decision about what to put together for dinner. Offering them a complete meal saves them time and energy, he said.

"Dinner tonight? Boom, it's all right here. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes. This is convenience food, warm and cozy things like meat loaf and lasagna and macaroni and cheese."

One of the things that spurred the introduction of the whole meals program was the success the retailer had in plating up a meal in the service case to show customers what goes with what and what it would cost. [see "Put Simplicity in the Meals Mix, Retailers Urged," SN, 10/18/99].

"They look at that plate and it has a price on it, so it makes it easy for them to calculate how much it'll cost them to feed one or two or four people," Reid said.

The dual-ovenable containers are part of the convenience, too. "If you're offering convenience, you can't tell them it has to be heated in the microwave. You need to make it easy."

Heating instructions are included on the packages. The meals are made and packaged at Busch's central commissary and they have a three- to four-day shelf life. Reid said it's too early to determine which is the most popular variety of whole meal.

"We're keeping close watch on what's moving and we're asking our guests what they like. You can't just put a display out and forget about it. This is just the beginning. We might add varieties or take some away."

Reid declined to say what the retail price of the meals is, but added that "they're no more expensive than a meal at a fast-food place."

He said Busch's is not the only retailer in the area offering complete, self-service meals.

"There are other attempts at doing this," he said. "I just want to make sure ours is the best and that there is enough variety. We want people to come back."