A DIFFERENT MIX

SEATTLE (FNS) -- Fast, fun and fresh are just some of the reasons consumers seek out salad bars at their favorite retailer. However, too often the fixture's selections become dull for repeat purchasers, high maintenance squeezes profits and shrink becomes a burden for operators.Using innovation in presentation, one independent Thriftway operator, here, has designed a unique fresh offering that is

SEATTLE (FNS) -- Fast, fun and fresh are just some of the reasons consumers seek out salad bars at their favorite retailer. However, too often the fixture's selections become dull for repeat purchasers, high maintenance squeezes profits and shrink becomes a burden for operators.

Using innovation in presentation, one independent Thriftway operator, here, has designed a unique fresh offering that is key to the local Northwest spirit. The three-unit Thriftway group's version of the salad bar opened late last fall in its newest Admiral Way location. To date, the concept is "exceeding projections," according to Dave Berto, general manager.

"Everything in our stores is all about flavor," said Berto. "We have had a lot of success with customers buying organics and baby leaves."

As a result, a build-your-own salad station using a wide variety of fresh greens was just a likely outgrowth for the produce department.

Salad ingredients on the Salad Garden stand range from the traditional greens -- romaine, red leaf and green leaf -- to flavorful selections of arrugula and radicchio. Complementing the greens are baby carrots, sliced peppers and mushrooms, along with thinly sliced radishes, cucumbers and English cucumbers. These accompany cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes and bean sprouts. And the list goes on.

Organic baby romaine, baby spinach, spring mix and Alfalfa sprouts are also part of the display's offerings. Mixes of vegetables are prepared for consumers, in stir-fry, fajita and braising greens combinations.

Priced at $6.99 per pound, the Salad Garden has reached 6% to 8% of total produce-department sales, said Berto.

Seasoned croutons, made in the unit's bake shop, and sunflower seeds are included for additional crunch alongside four custom salad dressings that include Ranch, Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette and blue cheese.

According to Berto, Ranch is the most popular of the dressings, and is chosen by shoppers 40% of the time. "That surprised us," he said, adding that each dressing is signaturized to give it extra character. "While our dressings may be familiar, we add our own different taste, however."

Flavorful fresh ingredients, careful presentation and adherence to food-safety principles were the guiding goals in developing the Admiral Way Thriftway's version of the salad bar.

"The flavors literally burst in your mouth," said Berto. "We strive to source truly exquisite fresh greens for the Salad Garden. It takes a commitment, a good degree of discipline and strategy behind the Salad Garden to make it successful."

To get the Salad Garden off to a good start, the chain had its corporate chef make culinary suggestions that would offer customers something different from what they might see at a traditional salad bar.

"We sought to put together things that we thought the customers would like, as if they could get fresh greens from their garden," said Berto.

The operator established a committee to determine if all the great ingredient ideas stemming from the corporate chef would be feasible to execute in a supermarket environment. The committee then established a list of items that fit into the section's profile and established standards for the concept and its ingredients.

"In this business, we get used to hearing that freshness comes first. We hear it so often that it can be neglected," said Berto. "With the Salad Garden, freshness and flavor are the key to success. We have to be vigilant."

After getting the green light, the Thriftway group's corporate chef put together drawings of how the innovative salad selections would be displayed in-store.

The Salad Garden is located within the produce department, which is the first department shoppers enter. The display is positioned in front of the unit's produce work room. Despite the positioning -- and the visibility, since they can be seen over a half-wall trimming and cleaning produce items -- associates are not assigned to the Salad Garden.

However, on SN's visit to the unit produce personnel were all too happy to help customers with questions.

Salad Garden selections are contained in sundried terra cotta crockery that was commissioned by the market from a local artist. A waterfall fountain is positioned in the middle of the display, creating a pleasant-sounding fresh-image space.

"The product is the centerpiece of the display, but we have managed to offer a presentation that is consistent with the quality," said Berto.

The equipment for the display includes a 16-foot refrigerated case. The terra-cotta containers used on the Salad Garden display hold temperature and transfer the cold to the ingredients very well, said Berto.

"With the refrigeration in the case and the chilling of the terra cotta there is a thorough transfer of the chill," he said.

Food-safety issues were always central in the planning process. In developing the concept the operator questioned the use of tongs. "With good food-safety practices and [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point] programs we couldn't imagine putting out incredible, delectable offerings, and then inserting tongs that could be moved from product to product or dropped on the floor," said Berto.

Here, the retailer got very creative: the tongs were tossed aside and disposable gloves were chosen.

To introduce the disposable-glove plan to consumers, the Thriftway group installed demo personnel at the Salad Garden over a two-week period to give instructions on how to use the gloves and how to dispose of them properly.

"Over the time the Salad Garden has been open, we are aware of only one customer who was disenchanted with gloves," said Berto. Indeed, during SN's visit every customer using the Salad Garden during the dinner rush on a weeknight seemed to be adept at using the gloves and disposing of them.

"Everyone, including the health department, loves the glove usage," he said.

Indeed, the health department was heavily involved in the design of the Salad Garden, said Berto. "We brought them in as our partners. They were in on the planning phase of the project and what we were doing and how we believed we would accomplish our goals. We have found that when we bring the health department in on the early phases of projects they tend to look at the big picture."

The health department evaluated the effort and helped to develop aspects of the plan, including the protocol for cleaning, the use of gloves by customers, the use of purified water and disposal of product after one day, when it loses its freshness.

"With their involvement in the process we created a healthy, nutritious environment," said Berto.

The retailer has written a comprehensive procedural manual, with the help of the health department, and has implemented a training program for the associates specifically responsible for the Salad Garden.

Signage is central to instructing customers how to use the Salad Garden. At the far right side a huge hand sign points to the special clear disposable salad bowls and gloves, urging patrons to "Please select your container and glove here." At the far left of the bar another finger sign tells customers to "Select your favorite salad dressing here."

Lids for the salad bowls are available alongside the dressings. A basket for easy glove disposal is situated at this far end of the Salad Garden.

A chalkboard hanging on the wall over the Salad Garden station and the adjacent work room opening gives customers instructions on how to assemble an incredible green salad. Here, experimentation is promoted: "Mastering The Green Salad. 1 -- select a variety of greens for texture & flavor. 2 -- add garnishes for color & taste. 3 -- toss with favorite dressing."

Signage is also employed to tout the reverse-osmosis water-filtration system used in the misting system and in the display's waterfall, along with the special steps Admiral Way Thriftway takes to ensure that all the Salad Garden ingredients are safe and ready to eat -- vendor-cut and washed greens are preferred for inclusion in the Salad Garden.

"Where we can identify vendors with product to fit our specifications for food safety, we prefer to use vendor-supplied items," said Berto. "Why run the risk of contamination in-store? Preparation in-store has no magic. We want flavor, service and high quality. We want our in-store staff serving the customers with high-quality product. We have found the most direct route to our desires is with vendor-supplied items, where they can do the job better than we can."