WESTBURY, N.Y. -- Things are cooking at King Kullen Grocery Co.'s newest store, and the chain is making sure customers know it.
Pizza made from scratch is the centerpiece of a full-blown cafe at the 60,000-square-foot, from-the-ground-up unit that opened last month in Commack, N.Y.
"The cafe at Commack has more of an identity, without question," said Tom Cullen, vice president of government and industry relations for the 48-unit chain based here. Some other King Kullen stores have hot food, but the variety is limited, and there's seating for no more than 10 to 20 people at them, he said.
Open production of brick-oven pizza -- a first for King Kullen -- and grilled panini sandwiches underscores the freshness and high quality of all the food selections in the cafe and adds character to the hot-food program, Cullen said.
At Commack, 60 to 70 eaters can be accommodated at wooden tables and chairs in a 2,500-square-foot area just to the left of the store's entrance. And the hot-food programs have been brought under the umbrella of "Kullen's American Cafe."
A full-color, oversized insert touting the new items at Commack with color photos, invites customers to "Sit down, relax, eat and enjoy. American Cafe. Our self-service cafe offers a daily international menu."
A self-service hot-food buffet, self-service hot sandwiches, calzones, stuffed breads and a from-scratch bagel station are also key elements. So is a traditional deli featuring Boar's Head meats and cheeses.
A very open environment in the cafe, with low-profile display cases, shows off the brick oven the pizza is made in, and enables customers to see white-clad associates preparing a large variety of food, Cullen explained. The pizza station is dubbed "Kullens Pizza Company."
Establishing a pizza program with credibility was a major consideration in the planning of the hot-food program at Commack.
"We actually hired a man just to make pizza for us. We make the dough and press the pizzas in-store. It's unique. Customers love it," Cullen said.
The full-color insert in the store's ad circular points out that "pizzas are made fresh on the premises and come with a variety of fresh toppings you won't be able to pass up."
Other selected King Kullen units offer hot pizzas, but they are made on parbaked crusts sourced from outside, Cullen explained.
The pizza station is the focal point of the cafe, with associates tossing dough, grilling panini, and building made-to-order submarine sandwiches. It is one of the cafe's stations that offers made-to-order service.
Pizza even plays a starring role in another first for the chain -- a hot breakfast program -- according to Don Kirby, the chain's director of deli and dairy.
"Our breakfast pizza gets rave reviews from our customers. We sell as many slices of it in the morning as we do other kinds at lunchtime," Kirby said. While cheese pizza and pepperoni come in first and second as best sellers, King Kullen's breakfast pizza is a strong third.
The breakfast pizza slices each feature a sunny-side up egg sitting on top of ham and American cheese. The fried-egg pizza is not a King Kullen original, but it is a standout in the chain's marketing area. "I actually saw it in another market, in a supermarket," Kirby admitted.
Overall, the pizza program at the Commack store, with its emphasis on quality, is meant to distinguish the store from the competition, Kirby said.
"Pizza is part of just about everybody's operation, but we wanted to set ourselves apart. So we got a man with pizza parlor experience to make our pizza. He had his own pizza shop in the past," Kirby said.
Panini sandwiches, a first at Commack, also were introduced to give the cafe added panache. They are $4.99 each. "But they're huge," Kirby said. "They're three-quarters the size of a whole sub sandwich. We have special bread made to our specifications for the panini."
Activity at the panini grill, the pizza station, and at a grill where meats are prepared for both the hot buffet and the service deli case complements a lineup of self-service displays in the cafe.
Some of the self-service cases are refrigerated, and some are heated, but all are replenished frequently during the day, Kirby pointed out.
Thirty feet of self-service display includes refrigerated, tiered cases that hold individual, prepacked salads and wrapped sandwiches. Thermal shelves offer hot sandwiches -- ham and egg in the morning, and such varieties as sausage and pepper and meatball later in the day.
About one-third of the self-service lineup is a steam table for the hot buffet, which features four to six entrees and a variety of side dishes each day. The buffet is changed for each meal period of the day. The pricing is by the pound: $3.99 for lunch and $4.99 for dinner.
"We're looking at the idea of making it an international buffet with a different country's items each day of the week. For example, on Monday, we might have two or three Greek items and on Tuesday, Chinese or something else," Kirby said. Chicken and ribs are mainstays on the steam table and a variety of items such as calzones, garlic knots and a variety of stuffed breads are always available at the pizza station, he said.
Kirby pointed out that the combination of open production and self-service has sprung from a formula designed to spotlight freshness and quality, and yet keep labor intensity down.
"We're going more toward self-service cases for hot food in all our stores. We've been retrofitting for it. That's because there's an increasing demand for self-service; people may not want to stand in line to order what they want, and also it's good from a labor standpoint," Kirby said.
He pointed to an octagonal self-service warmer in the cafe that displays rotisserie chicken in dome-top containers. In other King Kullen units, rotisserie chickens and sides are sold at
the service deli.
"[At the other stores], you have to have one person [at the chickens and sides] all the time," Kirby said.
"Right now, we're retrofitting for the self-service chicken warmer in all our stores. At those, a customer can just grab a chicken and some prepacked sides and not have to wait," he said. He added that he can quickly sell 20 to 30 chickens from the self-service warmer in relatively little space and without an associate.
"That's doing very well for us at Commack. It's great," he said.
On the buffet, too, self-service makes it easier to change product for the different parts of the day, Kirby said. On the other hand, chilled grilled chicken and roasted vegetables and other entrees and sides are offered in 24 feet of service deli case, where they're sold by the pound.
At this point, no meals are prepacked and chilled for quick pick up. He said it's important to gain customers' confidence by letting them see that the food is prepared on the premises.
"While a lot of retailers have looked to commercial manufacturers, we've looked for people with restaurant experience," he said, pointing out that at least 98% of the prepared food in the cafe area is made right there.
That also will be true at other stores as the chain rolls out the American Cafe to other units, he said.
He added that, in King Kullen's estimation, recruiting people with restaurant experience to prepare food daily in-store is the best way to maintain a top flavor profile.
"The food doesn't taste like it was made in a plant," he said.
On the other hand, he conceded that with freshly prepared items made each day in-store, shrink can be a serious problem. "But we keep close track of what sells. Documentation is very important," Kirby said.
Keeping close tabs on what sells and what doesn't enables the chain to offer a large variety of items with minimal shrink, he said.
At Commack, customer convenience has been a major consideration. That shows in the variety of product offered, the addressing of all meal periods with different items, and in making it easy for the customer to get in and out quickly, Tom Cullen said.
"Offering breakfast, lunch and dinner is unique to this store. Whether people want pizza, or a chicken, or meat loaf, or a meal, they can get what they want. It starts in the morning with such things as egg sandwiches and pancakes," Cullen said.
He also talked about the from-scratch bagel program, which also is considered part of the cafe. It's visible from the seating area, and has its own cash register.
A hot coffee bar and separate register at the bagel counter gives the bagel shop -- called "The Bagel Company" -- the feel of a separate unit, Cullen said.
"On weekend mornings, people can come in, get their coffee, and bagels and the newspaper and just pay at that one place. Separate registers make it easy for customers. And that's particularly important because of the size of the store," he said.
"We're in a mall. We want people to see that we have seating. It's a good place for them to take a break," Cullen said. He added that "the cafe is doing very well," and that a form of cafe will go into all new stores.
"This whole store is one of the formats King Kullen will use for new stores in the future, based on size, demographics and geography,"