CUSTOM FIT

LIVONIA, Mich. -- Here in the industrial heartland transformed by Henry Ford's genius of mass production, bigger is usually thought of as better.After all, Big Three auto executives call the suburbs that ring Detroit home. Kmart's corporate headquarters is in nearby suburban Troy. Mighty Kroger located its Michigan headquarters right here in Livonia. To suburban Detroit locals, the rewards of mass

LIVONIA, Mich. -- Here in the industrial heartland transformed by Henry Ford's genius of mass production, bigger is usually thought of as better.

After all, Big Three auto executives call the suburbs that ring Detroit home. Kmart's corporate headquarters is in nearby suburban Troy. Mighty Kroger located its Michigan headquarters right here in Livonia. To suburban Detroit locals, the rewards of mass production, distribution and merchandising are all around.

Yet in the shadow of a massive Kroger store here, three independent grocery retailers have launched Anthony's Old World Market, a modest, low-tech store designed almost entirely around fresh foods, which they hope will provide a format to compete successfully with the retail behemoths.

The store specifically features fresh meals, and its originators hope it will prove to be too flexible a format for the big guys to defend against.

Goliath, the thinking goes, meet David.

A local triumvirate of supermarket veterans are gambling not on massive stockkeeping units and interdepartmental rivalries, but instead on customer service, consumer satisfaction and fresh meals.

Anthony's may appear to be entering its battle against the giant at a disadvantage, considering its modest 15,000-square-foot space. But if the customer line that snaked through the mall waiting to get in on a rainy March day is any indication, Anthony's is off to a solid start.

And what did those customers line up for? Co-owner Steve Caramagno says it's all about meals.

"Originally, we were going to go in with the emphasis on produce," he said."But we performed a market analysis at this location and what came back was that the demographics of this area showed the customers were looking for a store to go where they could grab a meal -- lunch, breakfast and dinner -- with 'run-in, pick-it-up, go-home convenience.' This is a high-income area with dual-income families, so we completely changed the plans and put the chef right up front."

Anthony's meals section is so far up front that customers hit the department right after being funneled past a gourmet coffee station and the floral department.

They're met with an unavoidable series of cases and islands, starting with a 16-foot service case of traditional deli-prepared foods, followed by Papa Tony's Diner, 12 feet of hot case behind which chef Richard Wroblewski and staff cook in the open.

Also in the fresh-meals array at the start of the store is a 36- foot-long service deli and, across the aisle, two 6-foot-by-12-foot islands for salads, cheeses, sandwiches, pitas and foccacias.

Chefs are stationed up front at all hours, whipping up weekly meal specials that sell at top prices for supermarkets, or even some restaurants. Veal scaloppini with artichokes, tomato concasse and fresh basil, served with salad, vegetable, rice pilaf and bread, for instance, goes for $12.95 per serving. Linguine with clam sauce and vegetarian mostaccioli, two of six daily pasta dishes, served with salad and garlic bread, are priced at $5.95.

A significant feature of Anthony's niche is giving the chefs enough flexibility to provide ad hoc meal solutions for consumers in a cooperative atmosphere.

"One of the nicest features is the chef is out there talking to the customers all the time," said Caramagno. "He can answer all their questions. They can call in the morning and say 'I'd like a roast beef dinner with carrots, potatoes and a salad at 6 p.m.' and he'll have it ready for them to pick up at then.

"And they don't have to stick to the menu. If we have it in the store, we'll make it for them."

"If someone asks for something out of the ordinary, I'm happy to do that for them, so this place goes beyond a menu," said Chef Richard Wroblewski. "If someone requests something off-the-wall, I can do it; I have a whole store to work with -- all kinds of fresh produce and vegetables that I can use at my discretion."

In fact, the store's dedication to meals and service is reflected in the cooperation between departments. When Wroblewski wants to try out a new bread for his weekly menu, the baker is ready to oblige. And when one of the cooks needs an armload of exotic vegetables, he can stroll over to the department to pick up what he needs. The transfers between departments are handled on paper, and profits are shared.

"We're pretty tight here, and everybody cooperates with each other," said Wroblewski. "We take care of business any way we can. Our main focus is the customer. Customer service is number one, and if we don't have something, we'll get it."

With those chefs in toques working away under customer scrutiny, Anthony's owners are signaling their focus on prepared-to-order meals that are ready to eat. Already packaged ready-to-go hot meals -- there are four daily lunch specials like turkey with mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy, spiral sliced ham and roasted chicken -- are available for those too pressed for time to even order their meals.

"My concept in having a pick-up menu is to get people to come in to see what else we have," said Wroblewski. The store is mailing menu flyers, distributing them to local businesses and stuffing them into grocery bags. "If people are already shopping in the store, we hand them a menu," he said.

The menu for the first month of operation included tournedos of beef sauteed in a wild mushroom sauce of morels, shitakes and buttons with fresh cream for $13.95, broiled orange roughy for $10.95 and chicken piccata for $8.95. All of the above are served with a choice of garden salad or coleslaw, vegetable and a choice of baked potato, rice pilaf or french fries.

Caesar salad and garden salad are priced at $4.95; grilled chicken Caesar, chef salad and antipasto salad are $6.95. Vegetarian fettucine primavera is priced at $5.95; ziti baked with sweet bell peppers, Italian sausage, garlic sauce, and mozzarella and parmesan cheese at $7.95; and chicken alfredo and fettucine Antonio, grilled chicken, artichokes, sun dried tomatoes and black olives in a garlic basil cream sauce go for $8.95. All pasta dishes are served with a garden salad and garlic bread.

"I'm doing about 30 to 40 dinners a night," said Wroblewski. "In my opinion, that's not a bad day coming from a market setting. I think our business is going to snowball into something bigger than what we imagined."

Wroblewski said he came up with his menu mix and prices after conducting a little market analysis of his own on the local Italian restaurants.

Giving the chef leeway to operate, and selling quality rather than savings, are essential to the meals operation, Caramagno said.

"I've been to all the FMI and NAWGA shows about home-meal replacement: I know you can't run this kind of place like a supermarket, you need to run it more like a restaurant," said Caramagno. "And just like they don't have reduced Big Macs at McDonald's at nine at night, we can't close the hot-food line or sell it at reduced prices at seven or eight at night. We've got to have the station manned and the food hot and ready to go -- and that's what we're striving toward."

Caramagno, a former director of sales and retail operations for Foodland Distributors, a division of Kroger Co., co-owns Anthony's with Ronald Kohler and Raleigh Wilburn, owners of Oakridge Markets on the east side of Detroit.

While two more Oakridge Markets are on the drawing board, they will be the last of that format. The store of the future, Caramagno said, is Anthony's.

Results in the store have been extremely encouraging -- although most of the floor space is given to produce, the meals, deli and bakery departments have been leading sales. But according to Caramagno, the partners weren't waiting for sales results before their next move: the next Anthony's is already under construction in the northeast suburban area of Hazel Park-Madison Heights.

Indeed , the five-year plan calls for an aggressive growth of eight to 10 new stores in the area.

"This is the future, [Kohler and Wilburn] feel,"said Caramagno. "They realize that the competition with superstores -- the Super Wal-Marts and Super Kmarts, the 65,000-square-foot Krogers and Farmer Jacks -- make it tougher and tougher all the time for an independent to sell groceries. You have to find your own niche, and we think we have found ours."

While Anthony's does have a small frozen-food section for frozen pasta, filo dough, cakes, ice cream and novelties, a wine and beer department and a small specialty-foods section, the rest of the store is all meals, deli, bakery, meat, floral and produce.

At this point, Wroblewski's menu of six entrees, six pastas and 14 side dishes changes weekly. A restaurant-quality rotisserie roasts not only chicken, but also ribs and duck; "anything we can put on a rotisserie, people really like the concept," said Wroblewski.

Twelve-inch pizzas range from $4.95 for a plain to $6.95 for a vegetarian pesto to $13.95 for a 12-topping, build-your-own pie. And 12-inch-by-6-inch foccacia sandwiches are precut into about 10 portions and go for about $3 per slice.

In the prepared-food and deli sections, Wroblewski intermingles Southwestern chicken loaf with chipotle peppers, and chicken breast stuffed with wild mushrooms and cornbread, with eggplant lasagna and pastry-wrapped baked apples.

Wroblewski calls the format a combination of gourmet deli and white-tablecloth takeout restaurant.

Many of the deli salads are outsourced, in what Caramagno calls a two-tiered system. Signature-brand salads are sold in the deli, while the more upscale come from the meals department. Customers choose between Chef Francisco soups in the deli for $1.50 per serving, and Wroblewski's red pepper bisque at $3.98 per quart.

Future plans include an ambitious catering menu for office functions and, eventually, for banquets up to 300.

"Right now I have a staff of four for meals, including a pastry chef who splits time with the bakery. It's a very time-consuming process but I think it's going to pay off in the long run for us," Wroblewski said.

Caramagno is prepared for an evolution in the format.

"It's going to be a learning process for us. We'll probably find a happy medium down the road in about five or six months, but it's going to take a while to see what we will finally be. We'll have to change a few things and learn as we go."