DIERBERGS UPGRADES SANDWICH PROGRAM

ST. LOUIS -- Deli officials at Dierbergs supermarkets are feasting on double- and triple-digit sales increases after they updated the chain's grab-and-go sandwich program.Total sandwich sales are up more than 10% this year compared to a year ago, according to one official at the 20-store chain. Sales of focaccia sandwiches alone are up a whopping 400% above last year's sales. Focaccia sandwiches last

ST. LOUIS -- Deli officials at Dierbergs supermarkets are feasting on double- and triple-digit sales increases after they updated the chain's grab-and-go sandwich program.

Total sandwich sales are up more than 10% this year compared to a year ago, according to one official at the 20-store chain. Sales of focaccia sandwiches alone are up a whopping 400% above last year's sales. Focaccia sandwiches last year represented only a small category, and they didn't get a great deal of support at the stores, the official said.

"I'm pleasantly surprised," said David Calandro, Dierbergs' director of deli and food service, noting the company didn't do much discounting to achieve the boost. "We knew the focaccia sandwiches would sell well. A lot of restaurants were advertising focaccia sandwiches. We have a great product."

Around here, consumers have a lot of places to go for a sandwich. It seems that everywhere Dierbergs has a supermarket, Panera Bread Co. has a restaurant. Quick-service operator Subway has a number of units here, too, Calandro noted.

With their stores surrounded by busy sandwich establishments, deli officials knew it was time to make their own sandwich menus better.

"We had a lot of competition," Calandro said. "Panera is a good competitor. We had analyzed our entire sandwich program, and felt it was a little flat. We wanted to take our sandwiches up a notch."

To build a better sandwich, food-service officials started with the bread. They replaced French-style baguette rolls with Asiago brioche sub rolls, and concocted four new sandwiches -- the All American, the Mesquite Combo Club, Little Italy and Philly Beef Classic. Foot-long sandwiches retail for $6.99, and the six-inch versions sell for $3.79. Soon after the subs came out, Dierbergs followed up with a line of gourmet-style sandwiches made on focaccia bread. The hearth-baked, Italian-style flatbread is made with cheeses, Italian seasonings, sun-dried tomatoes and black olives baked into the crust. Retailing for $3.99, the sandwiches -- California smoked turkey, beef and gorgonzola, Tuscan chicken pesto and roasted Italian veggies -- can be eaten cold, or heated in the microwave and enjoyed warm.

The subs and flatbread sandwiches are all displayed in refrigerated self-service island cases in the delis. A couple of varieties are made in store kitchens, though most sandwiches are prepared at the chain's central commissary and delivered daily.

To promote the programs, officials went all out with big banner signs in the stores, new packaging, new labels and radio, print and Web site advertising. Sandwiches were sent to local deejays to encourage them to sample the wares -- and talk about them on the air. While most product launches are accompanied by a similar promotion package, Dierbergs took some unprecedented steps to push the sandwiches. At all stores, Dierbergs conducted weekend demonstrations. The gourmet subs were cut up and offered to consumers over a three-day period. Associates gave away samples of the focaccia sandwiches over two days.

"We've never demoed sandwiches before, and we got a lot of good response that way," Calandro said.

Not surprisingly, the majority of sandwiches are sold at lunch time. Shoppers take them home, or back to the office or to the front of the store, where Dierbergs has a sit-down dining area, equipped with microwaves, napkin and condiment stations. Some customers also pick up sandwiches for dinner, Calandro said.

Next on his to-do list is a bundling project. Calandro figures if restaurants can sell combination meals, so can Dierbergs. The chain is developing a soup-sandwich combination package, to consist of a smaller version of the sandwich with an eight-ounce cup of soup made to be reheated. Dierbergs plans to introduce the combos this fall or winter, with retail prices to be determined.

"We've been to restaurants and seen people buying [combinations]," Calandro said. "We haven't done that before."