EDINA, Minn. -- When Byerly's Fine Foods here opened its first stores in the Chicago area last spring, it continued a long-time association with Leeann Chin restaurants, but with a new twist.
The name of the Leeann Chin operations was changed to Asia Grille Express and made-to-order cooking is featured instead of a hot table, which is the hallmark of Leeann Chin operations in Byerly's units in Minnesota.
Since 1991, the 13-unit independent retailer has had a successful lease arrangement with Leeann Chin Chinese Cuisine, Bloomington, Minn., a restaurant chain well-known in the Minneapolis area. The restaurant chain runs Chinese food operations under the Leeann Chin banner in-line in the delis of all Byerly's Minnesota stores, including its newest unit in Egan, Minn.
In Chicago, the cooked-to-order mode as well as the more trendy name for the operations seemed to fit better, said Keith Kersten, vice president of perishables operations at Byerly's.
"We know that consumers in the Chicago area are aggressively looking for alternatives to fast food," he said, implying that offering food prepared to order would be a plus at Byerly's Highland Park and Schaumburg, Ill., stores.
"The prepared-to-order operation is a step up from the hot table, just like Leeann Chin's in our Minnesota stores is a step up from ordinary Chinese food you might find elsewhere in that area," Kersten said.
Kersten said the Leeann Chin name is not known in the Chicago area as it is in the Minneapolis area, so name recognition was not a factor to be considered. And the "Asia Grille" name implies more menu variety, Kersten said. The menu, indeed, includes Thai satay and Asian tacos and other items not on the Leeann Chin hot tables in Byerly's Minnesota stores.
Byerly's may have had doubts about the Leeann Chin name translating well in another market, but it has no doubts about the operation's success.
"The Asia Grilles are doing about the same [in sales] as Leeann Chin's [in the retailer's Minnesota stores], and that's good," Kersten said. He also pointed to the additional benefit the prepared-to-order mode brings to the Chicago stores' image.
"The freshness of products is emphasized when customers see the chefs behind the counter stir-frying food to order," Kersten said.
Customers are provided with beepers so they can continue their shopping while their entrees are being prepared. They're beeped when their orders are ready, Kersten said.
The Asia Grille is housed in a separate kiosk instead of being in-line in the deli like the Leeann Chin operations in Byerly's Minnesota stores. Adjacent to the kiosk is a Wolfgang Puck's pizza counter and an Oberweis ice cream and soda fountain. Nearby is seating for 80.
Unlike the Minnesota stores, where Leeann Chin sales are at least 95% takeout, about 30% of customers eat their Asia Grille fare in the store, Kersten said.
The two top sellers are lemon chicken and Peking chicken in that order, Kersten said. Those are the best-sellers at Byerly's Minnesota stores as well.
While quality is tops at both Leeann Chin in Byerly's Minnesota stores and at the Asia Grilles, the characteristics of particular dishes differ, Kersten said.
"I can comment on my personal favorite, which is Peking chicken. In the Minneapolis stores, the moisture in the sauce begins to evaporate on the hot table, creating a stickiness to the sauce.
Now, that's what people love there, but I prefer it freshly added because it's more flowing. But that's just a personal preference," Kersten said.
Using that as an illustration, he said the Byerly's that opened Nov. 4 in Egan, Minn., will have the Leeann Chin hot table in the deli just as the other Minnesota stores.
He noted Byerly's and Leeann Chin are still in a learning curve when it comes to Asia Grille. "We're learning, for instance, which chilled products hold up best and for how long in the display case," he said.