BUTTREY TO OPEN SECOND FOOD COURT IN MARCH

GREAT FALLS, Mont. -- After cutting its teeth on an initial food court installation, Buttrey Food & Drug Stores here has a second court on the drawing board set to open in early March.The first food court here, in a remodeled store not far from the 40-unit chain's corporate offices, was opened two months ago.Thanks in part to a heavy emphasis on sampling, the "Food Court at Buttrey" has been exceeding

GREAT FALLS, Mont. -- After cutting its teeth on an initial food court installation, Buttrey Food & Drug Stores here has a second court on the drawing board set to open in early March.

The first food court here, in a remodeled store not far from the 40-unit chain's corporate offices, was opened two months ago.

Thanks in part to a heavy emphasis on sampling, the "Food Court at Buttrey" has been exceeding sales expectations, and has paved the way for the second installation, in another remodel just about 5 miles from the first one, according to a source involved in the project.

The first court incorporates four food stations based on concepts from Orion Food Systems, Sioux Falls, S.D. Those concepts are Moose Bros. pizza, Chix fried and rotisserie chicken, Joey Pagoda's Oriental Express, each offering hot food; and Cinnamon Street gourmet cinnamon rolls and coffee bar.

Buttrey is operating stations within the court itself, as a franchisee of the four concepts, said Mark Elliott, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Orion, which specializes in developing and operating food-service concepts in retail settings.

Buttrey recruited an executive from the food-service industry to run the operation.

Officials at the chain could not reached for comment on its plans for expanding the two month-old food court venture.

In a statement made earlier, Joseph H. Fernandez, president and chief executive officer of Buttrey, said that the food court is part of a new "Buttrey Big Fresh" merchandising strategy, first unveiled in mid-November when the remodeled unit here had its grand reopening.

Seating for 75 is provided at wood tables and chairs just inside the entrance, and is the first element customers see as they enter the store. The Cinnamon Street counter is to the left of the seating. The three hot food kiosks hug the seating to the right.

There is a dedicated cash register at the Cinnamon Street kiosk and one at the end of the line-up of hot food counters.

Beyond food court, the traffic pattern takes a jog to the right, where there are dry grocery displays against the right side of the store. The produce department is at the end of that right aisle. The bakery and deli departments also are toward the rear of the store, completely separate from the food court.

"What we're finding out as a company is that we need to be very flexible as far as placement of the food court in supermarkets goes." Elliott added that the choice of concepts for the stores was a joint decision. So was the placement of the court in the store, he said. The layout in the second remodel will be similar to that in the first, Elliott said.

In addition, the franchisor-franchisee agreement between Orion and Buttrey will be repeated for the second Buttrey food court, Elliott said.

Elliott said that Orion sometimes prefers to lease space from retailers and operate the concepts itself, thus retaining control of the operation, rather than selling franchises to the retailer.

"But one of the keys to the food court success at Buttrey is that we're working so well together," Elliott said.

He said Buttrey's first food court is exceeding the benchmarks that Orion typically sets for its courts' performances. Those benchmarks are a minimum of 3% of total store sales, and 15% of store traffic.

"It's doing much better," Elliott said. "I'd estimate that the food court is getting 25% more of store traffic than had been projected."

The most successful concept at the court so far is the Cinnamon Street kiosk. "The location has something to do with it, but probably more important is that it captures all the day parts. The cinnamon rolls are great for breakfast, a snack in the morning or afternoon, and even for dessert at lunch or in the evening," Elliott noted.

In addition to fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, the kiosk offers trendy, freshly brewed coffee drinks, such as cappuccino and cafe latte, as well as espresso and American coffee.

Buttrey's decision to open a second food court is based in part on the success of a solid sampling program at the first one, Elliott said.

"They're offering customers samples of hot food every day. Sampling is our best promotion. You already have the customers in the store. It makes sense to let them know you can provide quality food," Elliott said.

The Orion executive said he did not have an estimate on what percentage of Buttrey food court customers are destination customers, but he did say that food court traffic is heavily skewed toward lunch time.

Buttrey had already gained experience with Orion's Moose Bros. pizza programs over the past several years. The first Moose Bros. pizza station went into a Buttrey unit in 1989 and now most of the chain's stores have incorporated that concept in their fresh food offerings.

The second Buttrey food court will have all the concepts present in the first one, plus another: Eddie Pepper's Mexican food.

Elliott said that besides adding Mexican food, nothing else of major significance will be changed for the second Buttrey food court. But some tweakings in the placement of cooking equipment will save some steps for associates and add to cooking efficiency, he said.

Both stores were chosen for food court installations because they were already set for remodeling, and because they are two of Buttrey's units with the highest volume of customer traffic, Elliott said.