COURTING THE CUSTOMER

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Beit Bros. Supermarkets here is coming into summer with expectations that its food court will post its best sales and profits yet.The food court's sales, and more recently its profits, just keep getting better, and hot weather pushes sales up -- even sales of hot food, said Nathan Beit, co-owner and vice president of the two-unit independent."When the weather's hot, people are

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Beit Bros. Supermarkets here is coming into summer with expectations that its food court will post its best sales and profits yet.

The food court's sales, and more recently its profits, just keep getting better, and hot weather pushes sales up -- even sales of hot food, said Nathan Beit, co-owner and vice president of the two-unit independent.

"When the weather's hot, people are less inclined to cook. They don't want to heat up their houses. I guess they figure they'll let the supermarket do that," said Beit, adding that the company also has geared up for summer by advertising a graduation meal package and a picnic pack.

Hot-food sales and traditional deli sales combined now constitute 10% of total-store sales. That's up from the 3% to 4% mark before the advent of the food court. Then, the store had only a traditional deli with rotisserie chickens as the sole hot food on the menu. Sales of those chickens have soared.

"We used to sell 70 to 80 rotisserie chickens a week at this store. Now, it's closer to 400," Beit said.

Two years ago, the Beits, who had been operating what they describe as a 1970s traditional supermarket, decided to take a new tack with a food-court program -- Fresh Focus -- developed by their major supplier, Supervalu. The whole look of the store and its mode of operation have changed and the owners are happy with the results. Sales have grown steadily and profits, though hard-won, have begun to inch up, Beit said.

"It didn't happen overnight. It took us a good 12 to 18 months to begin to see any profit at all. It was entirely new to us. We're grocers and this was like going into the restaurant business. We had a lot to learn."

Over-production and over-staffing were profit stoppers in the beginning. And it was no snap to get the timing of production right, Beit said. For example, having enough product ready to sell when the customer is in the store, without preparing it hours too early, was a key piece of learning that took some time, he said. His food-court staff prepares food fresh for each of three meal periods during the day: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"A lot of it was trial and error. But with Supervalu's system we started seeing a profit a lot earlier than we would have without it. They talk about planning what you're going to sell before you produce it, and how to price things."

An important part of the Fresh Focus program is Supervalu's formulas that simplify the costing of complex products like full meals that include a couple of side dishes and dinner rolls, according to Beit.

"It's easy to produce something that costs $4 and sell it for $2, but you won't be in business very long. What we try to do is find the balance and the Fresh Focus program helps us do that. The program's a good fit for us," Beit said.

The Beits decided to take the new route for several reasons -- to differentiate themselves, for instance, and to boost their "fresh" image -- but ultimately they wanted to "win back some of the market share that we've lost to food service in recent years," Beit said.

"The Mom who stays home and makes all the meals isn't there any more. She's been getting Chinese takeout or maybe the drive-through at McDonald's. We're fighting back. We want her to buy meals from us."

Indeed, McDonald's is an obvious competitor, located within sight of the Beit Bros. store here. So are units of Subway and Dunkin' Donuts. And then there's competition for grocery shoppers -- units of ShopRite/Wakefern, Elizabeth, N.J.; Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.; and Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass., lie only about 3 miles away.

The crux of the food-court concept developed by Supervalu brings together an ensemble of high-margin prepared-food elements -- most of them ready-to-eat -- designed to bring customers into the store more frequently, said David Klein, area marketing director for the Minneapolis-based wholesaler.

"While sales of low-margin items in other parts of the store typically decrease for a while when a Fresh Focus program is installed, the higher margin the perishables bring makes up for that and for labor costs in those departments," Klein said.

The Fresh Focus program is aimed at boosting profits for the whole store, but it takes more than a year of fine-tuning to get the program itself running smoothly, Klein explained.

"For one thing, you have to cycle through all the seasons and holidays in that first year so you'll know what to expect."

The wholesaler developed its Fresh Focus program in 1993 to help independent retailers respond to consumers' increasing demand for ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods, Klein said. By now, Supervalu has installed the Fresh Focus food courts in 60 retail stores nationally. It provides market analysis to the individual retailer to help decide what elements to incorporate in the food court, does the store and concept design, helps source appropriate equipment and then trains the retailer's employees.

At Beit Bros., tearing down walls to open up production areas and creating more interaction between customer and associate was part of the metamorphosis. And Beit emphasized the value of Supervalu's training when it comes to maximizing sales in the food court.

"They gave us a full week of training in Minnesota. Eight of us actually worked in a food court in a store out there that had Supervalu's Fresh Focus program," Beit said. That was after hours of classroom training, he added. Beit also proudly pointed out that all but one of the employees who went through the initial training are still with Beit Bros.

In his opinion, the most important ingredient in the whole process has been staff development, Beit said. The training played a big part, but beyond that, the people themselves are the secret to success.

"I'm fortunate that the strength of our company has been built on the personnel we have. There are plenty of textbooks that tell you what to do, but you absolutely need the follow-through of the personnel who want to make the sale, who want to make things happen," Beit said.

He pointed out that sales goals and other goals are constantly being set and then department heads and their associates decide how they're going to meet them. Demos and frequent announcements over the store's public-address system are a routine part of the selling process.

"At the end of the week, we often ask ourselves where we'd be if we hadn't done those extra things," said Beit. He estimates that demos and PA announcements alone hike sales 5% to 10%.

Klein stressed that Supervalu's Fresh Focus program is based on instilling a selling mentality in the store's department heads and their associates.

"It's important that they understand the value of this method, that they understand the fresh departments are all businesses within a business. It's important that they keep the total store in mind, too. We encourage them to think in terms of their department's contribution to overhead," Klein said.

When Beit Bros. and Supervalu decided to launch a Fresh Focus food court in this store, the retailer undertook a major remodel that included the addition of 10,000 square feet to its existing premises.

More than a quarter of the Beits' store, now 28,000 square feet, is devoted to the traditional deli and the food court, complete with 8 feet of hot-food service counter that features a meal of the day, a bank of rotisserie chickens, a 12-foot pizza and made-to-order sandwich bar and a trendy coffee bar. Another 16 feet of refrigerated self-service case offers refrigerated meals and components.

Beit said that of the prepared foods he offers, approximately 25% are made from scratch on-site. The others are assembled from components or brought in ready to heat or to sell. A particularly important element of the hot-food program is a meal of the day, always priced at $4.99, he said. Portioned for one, the complete meal includes an entree, two side dishes, and a dinner roll.

"Taco salads on Tuesdays and fish on Friday are big hits. We're pretty consistent with that menu from week to week because customers want to know what meal is available on what day. They know Tuesday is taco salad day, for example," Beit said.

"We rely on the repeat customer. So quality and consistency are particularly important. Our philosophy anyway has always been that we wouldn't sell anything we wouldn't take home and offer to our families."

All Beit Bros.' fresh departments are bunched into one wide power aisle. Produce and the bakery are positioned across the aisle from the deli and the hot-food counter.

Since space is limited, most prepared foods are served for takeout. There is little seating available -- only 12 people can be accommodated at counter seating in the coffee bar.

"If we had more physical space, I'd create additional seating so customers could comfortably spend more time here. Comfort helps sell more product in foods-to-go. Now they mostly take the food and leave, but if they could sit down and eat in peace, and maybe watch CNN in the corner, they might decide they want dessert, or they'd remember they needed to pick up milk and other things. Or they might ask a friend to meet them here," Beit said.

His food-court team has become very enthusiastic about selling, and the enthusiasm is catching, Beit said. It has sparked the other departments to try new merchandising tactics and think of ways to boost their own sales.

"It's definitely contagious. Once one gets clicking, they feed off each other. It's like being on a winning team. All of a sudden, everybody comes to the plate and is doing a little bit more," Beit said.

The latest example is the meat-department's initiative.

"They're cooking sausage and peppers and lasagna, packaging them up, and displaying them in the fresh-meat case beside the sausage and ground meat. They saw how well we're doing with cooked, prepared foods, and they wanted to be part of it," Beit said.

And where are meat-department associates doing the cooking? In the deli. Such cooperation between departments is a major ingredient in the Fresh Focus program, Beit and Klein agreed.

Beit's family started out in business in 1908 as beef-cattle producers, and later opened a slaughterhouse and processing facility. Then they opened a meat market, which evolved into a full-service grocery store here in eastern Connecticut.

"We've been through a lot of stages of growth and this food court is the next step up," Beit said.

Within the next year and a half, he expects to put a version of the Fresh Focus court into the company's second unit, which is located about 35 miles away, in Dayville, Conn.