CHANGING OF THE GUARD

AKRON, Ohio -- West Point Market here is marshalling its forces and pushing out walls in a renewed vow to give its customers the fresh, prepared foods they're looking for, in a setting that's up to the minute.The upscale, single-unit retailer has carved a niche for itself with high-margin specialty items, a huge roster of fresh prepared and ready-to-prepare items, and exemplary customer service. The

AKRON, Ohio -- West Point Market here is marshalling its forces and pushing out walls in a renewed vow to give its customers the fresh, prepared foods they're looking for, in a setting that's up to the minute.

The upscale, single-unit retailer has carved a niche for itself with high-margin specialty items, a huge roster of fresh prepared and ready-to-prepare items, and exemplary customer service. The dramatic physical changes now underway are intended to carve that niche even deeper, officials said.

More open production, made-to-order sandwich and salad stations, a greatly extended line of chilled, prepared foods in the deli, a trendy tea room, a wine bar, an olive oil tasting bar, and the return of the rotisserie with modern flare, are just some of what's happening.

"We're denying our birth [as a grocery store in 1936] and re-inventing ourselves to meet the needs of our customers. But, of course, we've been doing that all along. This is our ninth expansion and 24th remodel and it's still exciting. If I hadn't invested in change, we'd have gone out of business in the mid-70s," said Russell Vernon, who has led the family-owned business since 1960.

The current hub-bub of renovation and expansion began last month, shortly after Vernon, owner and president, signaled he would retire September 30 and turn over the reins of the family-owned business to his son, Rick, and Larry Uhl, whom he recruited last year from the restaurant industry.

Vernon helped engineer the current changes which are designed to further boost margins as well as give customers what they want. It's done by offering a carefully balanced combination of fresh foods and high-margin specialty and gift items, a formula Vernon has honed over the years. [see "Having What They Want," SN, August 23, 1999].

While he's less involved in store operations, Vernon -- now chairman of the board -- is not leaving the business. Indeed, he will confer on a regular basis with son Rick, who is now chief executive officer, and Uhl, who is president. Both men will report directly to Vernon.

"I hired Larry to help us get to the next level. He comes from Au Bon Pain and has a background that includes other extensive food-service experience that is valuable to us," said the elder Vernon.

Uhl and Rick Vernon will have equal responsibility for day-to-day operations, but Russell Vernon will be responsible for boosting one facet of the business -- the customer-service level that has won the company renown in the retail industry -- even further.

"I'm going to be concentrating on service and on training. Since I'll have very little involvement in actual operations, I'll be able to spend more time on the floor. Talking to customers face to face is something I've always done, but this gives me more time to do it," he said.

Vernon added that he will be tweaking West Point's training program.

"We already have good training, an intense period of orientation to immerse associates in our culture. But we're going to revisit them in 30 days," he said, stressing that instruction will be ongoing, and sometimes personalized.

He will also be doing more traveling, and "that means more new ideas will be coming back to West Point Market," said Larry Uhl.

Vernon's travels have spurred much of the innovation that has become a permanent part of West Point over the last decades. Indeed, it was after a visit to Zabar's in New York that Vernon introduced the first prepared, ready-to-heat foods in West Point's deli. That was 22 years ago. And Vernon's inspiration for an olive oil tasting bar, soon to be set up, came upon seeing one recently that drew tremendous customer interest in a market in California.

Giving the prepared-foods category more space and variety is one of the most important facets of this newest renovation. The deli counter will be increased in length by 15 feet and variety in chilled, prepared foods will be upped about 25%, said Rick Vernon. The deli counter will be configured differently, too, with a new V-shape replacing the straight line counters. That will make more of the production area visible, including a rotisserie, something that West Point had way back and then abandoned.

"The difference will be in merchandising and the look of the unit itself. We're leaving no guess as to how fresh the chickens are. They'll either be sold quickly or chilled right away. No heat lamps keeping them warm. We'll be doing some exotic things on it, too, like quail," said Uhl.

The rotisserie will give West Point the opportunity to offer hot food in the deli, which it hasn't done before, and perhaps attract more dinner customers, Rick Vernon pointed out. Since there's not much room to expand, most of the renovation involves re-configuring for more efficient use of space. The deli line-up will flow right into the entrance to the cafe where the first thing customers encounter will be a salad and sandwich station.

The store's cafe will be expanded by moving it to a different wall which will be bumped out into the parking lot. Seating for 70 in the cafe will almost double what was previously available.

The space where the cafe previously had been situated will be turned into a tea room.

"I think that's one of the most exciting additions, and our customers can't wait. It'll be the first time we've offered bulk tea, and there will also be bulk coffee and jams and shortbreads. We'll serve traditional tea type things like scones. It'll be like a tea room in Britain," Vernon said.

In keeping with the company's strategy to reduce space for traditional grocery items in favor of perishables and high-end specialty and gift items, the space that was devoted to frozen foods will be reduced from 64 feet to 16 feet and dairy space will be doubled from 12 feet to 24 feet.

In fact, the frozen line-up was the first to be dismantled last month, leaving only four doors of frozens. Additional dairy cases went into that area.

"We're increasing dairy space to make room for more lines of yogurt, and juices. Our customers have been asking about those. We also want to add fresh pasta," Rick Vernon explained to SN.

The reconfiguring and construction will be done a little at a time since the store will remain open throughout the transition. After November first, it will come to a stop until after the holidays. Resuming the work in January, the retailer expects the physical changes to be completed in the early spring of 2001.

The combo of Rick Vernon, who grew up in the grocery business, and Larry Uhl, who has systems experience and a corporate financial background, creates the ideal management team to take the company into the future, Russ Vernon said.

Uhl elaborated on what he brings to the business.

"My corporate experience complements Rick's. He grew up in the business, and has a view of it from the inside out, working in virtually every department, and I can use what I know about food-service systems and corporate operations. I think Russ wanted the advantage of having an outside-in perspective from me," Uhl said.

"Perishables do make up more than 50% of West Point's sales right now, and a big piece of that is made-from-scratch prepared food," he added.

Rick Vernon knows West Point's particular operation from the ground up, literally. He was scrubbing floors and bagging groceries at West Point as soon as he turned 16. That was 22 years ago. And interestingly, it was his father's fervor that kept him in the business, Rick said.

"My father was an inspiration. I saw how wonderful it was to have a job you love. I, too, think its the best business you can be in. The whole world's right here," he said.