DON'S HOLDS FOOD COURT; SUCCESS REIGNS

MENOMONIE, Wis. -- Customers see everything but the kitchen sink in a new food court at Don's SuperValu Foods here.A new high-visibility, high-activity food court offering "a tremendous variety" of ready-to-eat food is stirring up business for this single-unit independent, according to executives at Don's and SuperValu, the wholesaler that supplies it.Don's launched its food court at the grand re-opening

MENOMONIE, Wis. -- Customers see everything but the kitchen sink in a new food court at Don's SuperValu Foods here.

A new high-visibility, high-activity food court offering "a tremendous variety" of ready-to-eat food is stirring up business for this single-unit independent, according to executives at Don's and SuperValu, the wholesaler that supplies it.

Don's launched its food court at the grand re-opening of its 38,000 square-foot store, renovated last month. Formerly 22,000 square feet, the space was expanded into the parking lot.

As a result, the deli and bakery have "at least a couple hundred items we didn't have last year," Karis said. In fact, foodservice before had consisted only of fried chicken and a few store-made salads.

The sales increases in deli and bakery after the revamp sound impressive. Deli sales are up 226% from last year and bakery sales are up 33%, according to Brad Karis, store manager.

The Minneapolis division of SuperValu helped the retailer decide how to lay out the food court -- and, most important, what to offer, Karis said.

SuperValu's advice was based on data gleaned from "consumer needs analyses," a lot of which were done via telephone surveys, said Bill Poirier, area marketing director for SuperValu's Minneapolis division, who was directly involved in the revamping of the store.

The Eden Prairie, Minn.-based wholesaler has its own market research department, and also contracts some of its research out, Piorier said.

"This is true niche marketing. We carefully surveyed this store's market and found, for example, that there's a big market for pizza and it wasn't being satisfied. That's why we put emphasis on pizza, and we also found there was a need for Chinese food. So we went with a wok on a larger scale than we might have at another location," Poirier said.

Conversely, this particular retailer has gone light on Mexican food. "We found that Mexican food is popular here, but the needs were already being met," Poirier added. There is a Mexican restaurant just across the street from the store.

Don's brought the cooking activity into the open to catch the customer's eye and to underscore how fresh the fare is, Karis said.

The preparation station faces customers as they enter, with a grill, a wok, and a deep fryer taking center stage, he said. "It looks like you've walked into a short-order diner." In fact, a canopy over the grill identifies the court as Don's Diner.

"We've taken down walls so customers can watch their food being prepared. The sink is the only thing we hid. It's behind a half wall," Karis added. What customers do see is their hamburgers grilled, their pizza dough tossed and their Chinese entrees stir-fried.

"We'd always done well with fried chicken, but we decided we wanted to offer enough variety so customers could get something different every day; and we also give them the option of eating it here," he said.

Seating at moveable tables and chairs accommodates about 30, and there's a line-up of stools at the "Jitters & Shakes" coffee and malted bar. There's more seating on order.

"We'll nearly double it with more tables and chairs, and I already have put picnic tables outside," Karis said. He estimated that sales are about evenly divided between eat-in and take-out.

Pizza figures big in the store's new image, and it comes in 30 varieties. "We have everything from a Reuben pizza to a taco pizza, and we make all the toppings fresh," Karis said. Crusts made from frozen dough are stretched in-store to add some "theater," Karis added.

Many of the store's customers are college students, big consumers of pizza, Poirier said. A University of Wisconsin campus is within walking distance. "They just walk across the parking lot to get their lunch here," Poirier said.

For that reason, too, an extensive reach-in case is filled with salads, sandwiches, and sodas. "They can grab a piece of pizza and then a salad and get out of here in a hurry," Karis said.

But there's a careful balance of service and self-service in the food court, he stressed. "We found that there are people who want to be waited on, even if they are in a hurry," Karis said.

"Our bakery case is basically self-service, for example, but we have employees there to help also," he added.

While many retailers with food courts say their business is divided fairly evenly between lunchtime and early evening, Karis said lunchtime sees the most business by far at Don's.

"We're looking at how to increase evening business though, and I think meal suggestions may be the way," he said, adding that a meal built around fried chicken or rotisserie chicken is a possibility.