CLEARED FOR TAKE OUT

On a recent Friday night, Marcia Isakson stopped at her local H-E-B in Austin, Texas, and picked up a rotisserie chicken, macaroni and cheese, fruit salad, biscuits and a gallon of iced tea for a family meal that cost $12. But, she never left her car.Rather, Isakson used H-E-B's new Good to Go! concept -- a full-service, dine-in cafe that also features a take-out, drive-thru window."It's the same

On a recent Friday night, Marcia Isakson stopped at her local H-E-B in Austin, Texas, and picked up a rotisserie chicken, macaroni and cheese, fruit salad, biscuits and a gallon of iced tea for a family meal that cost $12. But, she never left her car.

Rather, Isakson used H-E-B's new Good to Go! concept -- a full-service, dine-in cafe that also features a take-out, drive-thru window.

"It's the same price as taking my family out to McDonald's and it's better food for them," Isakson said. "But I probably wouldn't do it if it weren't for the drive-thru."

The Austin Good to Go! is the chain's second, and it opened with the new $34 million, 90,000-square-foot H-E-B store on Canyon Ridge Drive off Interstate-35 in North Austin. The first Good to Go! opened in H-E-B's hometown of San Antonio earlier in November. "Americans want food fast, but they don't necessarily want fast food," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio, consulting firm that works with supermarkets. He said, though early in the trial, H-E-B "is absolutely on the right path."

The retailer's program isn't all that surprising, since H-E-B has developed a reputation in the industry as an innovator in the prepared-foods arena. Good to Go! takes it one step further with the slogan "Eat in. Take out. Take off."

"Customers can experience the convenience of being able to get eat-in, take-out or drive-thru food that is delicious, nutritious and that a family of four can enjoy for under $5 a piece," Ed Howie, director of food-service marketing for H-E-B, said in a company press release.

Hype aside, the retailer hasn't said whether its Good to Go! concept will be incorporated into any of its 300 other stores.

"Right now, it's strictly a test," said H-E-B spokeswoman Kate Brown.

Good to Go! is located on the far north side of the new H-E-B, next to the farmer's market-style produce department. Although it doesn't have its own entrance, the 3,000-square-foot cafe has a distinct look from other store areas. With its terra cotta-painted concrete floor, modern fixtures and wood-and-chrome decor, it resembles a chic coffee bar more than a typical supermarket. It is bright and airy, with light pouring in through the front windows. The cafe includes seating for 65 people in the cafe, at a bar counter and on an outside patio. The cafe has its own music system so that the noise from the rest of the store can't be heard within the cafe.

Dozens of golden brown chickens spin on a large rotisserie behind the counter. Nearby, customers can watch a chef prepare Chinese entrees to order in a large wok. Other items are prepared in the cafe's kitchen, partially visible right behind the order stations.

The menu at Good to Go! is varied by cuisine and daypart, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner items -- though the menu leans toward fast-food items such as boneless "Texas tenders" chicken, hot wings, wraps, baked potatoes, salads, pizza and rotisserie chicken, brisket and ribs. It also offers Chinese entrees, such as lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, and beef and broccoli. The breakfast menu includes breakfast tacos, bagels, breakfast biscuits and doughnuts. A kid's menu includes Texas tenders, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

H-E-B also picked up another innovative food-service element by using vibrating pagers to alert customers their order is ready to pick up at the counter. The cafe's three registers and the drive-thru are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

More traditional retail components of the cafe have been retained by H-E-B, such as a refrigerated case adjacent to the counter area with ready-to-heat entrees such as pizza, sandwiches, quiches, salads and tamales. On the day of SN's visit, there was also a large selection of holiday-related side dishes such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and glazed sweet potatoes, with the Good to Go! brand name on the packaging.

Next to this case is a heated rack with rotisserie chickens and ribs. Two portable, heated rotisserie stations also are located near the store's main cash registers, offering four varieties of rotisserie chicken -- original, lemon pepper, hickory barbecue and Italian herb -- for $4.99 each.

The menu items are available a la carte or as part of combination meals. For example, the whole rotisserie chicken dinner for four comes with two sides, four biscuits and a gallon of iced tea. Family dinner prices range from $9.99 to $16.99. A la carte items range from 89 cents for a bean-and-cheese breakfast taco, to $11.99 for a slab of St. Louis-style ribs.

In addition to the regular menu, Good to Go! offers daily specials, ranging from Tuesday's pork tenderloin, to Saturday's king ranch chicken casserole, to Sunday's bacon-and-cheese quiche.

But, it's the drive-thru concept that's the most unique and innovative aspect of Good to Go! at the Austin location. Here, customers pull up to one of six bays on the north side of the store. They select items from a large menu board, which has a speaker and a stoplight. A green light goes on when their order is ready and they drive up to the window to complete their transaction, just as they would at any fast-food restaurant.

Currently, H-E-B is experimenting with drive-thru service at three locations. Two are full-scale H-E-B stores with Good to Go! operations, in Austin and San Antonio. The third can be found at a Central Market in Austin, but that site, under the chain's popular specialty-food banner, is not part of Good to Go!

At the new Austin H-E-B store, SN observed a steady flow of customers taking advantage of Good to Go!'s drive-thru option.

"It got our attention," said customer Lidia Stevenson, who was ordering Texas Tenders at the menu board. "We want to see what's different and this is definitely different. It will definitely make my life easier."

While business at the drive-thru is growing, most Good to Go! customers eat inside at the cafe, said one of the cafe's employees.

Good to Go! is staffed by 35 associates. They wear purple polo shirts with the Good to Go! logo and khaki slacks. The manager is Riando Sledge, a veteran of the fast-food industry.

H-E-B has promoted Good to Go! in a variety of ways. A colorful sign advertises Good to Go! from the outside, although it is difficult to see from the highway. Inside the store, sandwich boards promote Good to Go! and customers receive Good to Go! refrigerator magnets. Billboards along Interstate 35 also tout Good to Go! to passing drivers with the slogan "Eat in. Take out. Take off." And, H-E-B mailed out 30,000 coupons offering free Texas-sized tenders. Response to the promotion was good, said one employee.

Time will tell whether customers embrace the Good to Go! concept. H-E-B is competing with casual dining establishments, quick-serve restaurants and a growing number of other businesses fighting it out for the consumer food dollar.

"Consumers know what good, prepared food should taste like," said Ken Robb, a principal with Chicago-based Technomic and head of the company's retail practice. "They're used to getting it at a restaurant. They're not used to getting it at a supermarket. The big challenge is to convince consumers that their supermarket can do it well and can do it consistently."

Robb believes H-E-B is up to that challenge, having proven itself with other initiatives. Based on his initial impressions, he said the Good to Go! menu seems to be well priced and in tune with local tastes.

"It's a good concept with innovation and new execution we haven't seen in a supermarket to date," Robb said.

Robb praised the drive-thru concept, which he considered especially ambitious.

"Many supermarkets have found that, while consumers have an interest in what they see in the store, the idea of ordering dinner and having to park and schlep into the store and pick it up at the deli and go through the front checkout is too big a burden," he said. "H-E-B is addressing this with a drive-thru."

Good to Go! is one of the latest store-within-a-store concepts introduced by H-E-B. The new Austin supermarket also features a Nature's Harvest natural foods department; a baby store (complete with clothing); a culinary section with high-end cookware, gadgets and small appliances; and an enhanced cosmetics department. And, at Cooking Connection, H-E-B chefs prepare foods in front of customers and offer samples, cooking tips and recipe cards.

The H-E-B unit is located in a suburban, industrial area. Several large housing subdivisions are located nearby and the lights of Dell Computer Corp.'s large campus, which employs thousands of people, shine from across the road.

Good to Go! has little competition in the immediate area, although a number of fast-food and full-service restaurants are located further down Interstate 35. The Good to Go! cafe already has become a favorite hangout for students at nearby Connally High School, said customer Madelyn Snodgrass, whose teenage daughter has eaten there several times. "There's quite a lot of variety and the prices look really good," said Snodgrass, who was buying dinner there for her family.