EPICUREAN EPITOME

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- As supermarket meal executives prepare to travel to Los Angeles for the newest of the industry's annual pilgrimages -- FMI MealSolutions -- many are planning to look in on local retailers for tips on the latest meal trends.No. 1 on many lists is Bristol Farms.This operator of small, fresh-oriented stores has for many years been adhering to most of the principles currently in

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- As supermarket meal executives prepare to travel to Los Angeles for the newest of the industry's annual pilgrimages -- FMI MealSolutions -- many are planning to look in on local retailers for tips on the latest meal trends.

No. 1 on many lists is Bristol Farms.

This operator of small, fresh-oriented stores has for many years been adhering to most of the principles currently in vogue in the supermarket meal category. From its satellite commissary production system, to its reputation for attentive customer service, quality goods and extensive product demonstrations, to its volume -- its six locations, from 15,000 to 28,000 square feet, rung up $95 million in fiscal 1997 -- Bristol Farms has established itself as one of the meals standard bearers for the Los Angeles market.

"Bristol Farms has been doing what has been dubbed 'home-meal replacement' for a long time," said Charlie Bergh, Bristol Farms' vice president of perishables.

The 16-year-old company, which has added three stores since 1994, when the company was purchased by investment group Kidd, Kamm and Co., was founded by Irv Gronsky, who Bergh credits for the quality image the stores have established among Los Angeles residents.

"He believed there was room in the marketplace for high quality and a very high level of service, and that by offering the very best food and very best service in a really friendly, pleasant, enjoyable, even entertaining environment, there was room to do a share of the retail food business here," said Bergh.

Now Bristol Farms is building larger stores -- from 22,000 to 28,000 square feet in the newer stores in the same fresh format.

"What we have is a format that has a lot of fresh food in it, a lot of things that are ready for immediate consumption, and a lot that are there for the person who wants to prepare their own meals," said Bergh.

The company's extensive research on why consumers shop at Bristol Farms has uncovered the obvious: food service and produce. That, combined with the intense customer communication and food-as-fun factor, keeps them coming back, said Bergh.

"We've been in the home-meal replacement, take-home-and-sit-down food business for so long, that we've found what brings people back is the high level of service and the high level of activity that goes with that. There's always something going on in the store. Some people call it the 'Disneyland of food retailing.' "

All the stores are known for large service delis, sit-down restaurant/cafes that operate as extensions of the delis, and large food-production kitchens behind the scenes. In addition, all operations provide catering services, which keep the kitchens busy and extend Bristol Farms name recognition for quality ready-to-eat food.

The two commissary stores, the original Rolling Hills Estates location and Manhattan Beach store, provide many of the soups, dips, sauces and other ingredients to the other stores. But in general, with an executive chef at each location, Bristol Farms tries to prepare food as close to the selling point as possible.

"We make all our salad and sandwich production at the store as opposed to making them centrally and shipping them to the stores, because we want them to be made this morning for purchase at lunchtime," said Bergh. Nearly half of the meal purchases -- in fact, most of the prepared food except for deli meats and cheeses -- are produced either in-store or at one of the stores that serve as commissaries. "It's a big commitment, but that's what it takes to have the kind of food we offer. That's what has built this company."

Recently, the company has started introducing carving stations, where freshly cooked roast beef and whole turkeys are brought from the kitchen and carved to order for sandwiches in front of the customers. And about two months ago, they introduced the company's first juice bar in the south Pasadena store, a possible prototype for other stores.

In the design of the next store, set to open in Newport Beach around March 1998, Bristol Farms will introduce their Italian island, where a variety of salads -- Caesar, Greek and spinach, among others -- will be prepared to order, as will a variety of pasta meals served with a number of sauces. The open production island, a departure for the company, will also include a pizza station, a grill for preparation of chicken, beef or seafood toppings for salads, and an olive bar.

The stores sell few traditional grocery items, predominantly imported and specialty products. "You're not going to find all the standard pack grocery items here. Our customer is here for fresh food primarily. They'll do their dry goods shopping at a standard supermarket," said Bergh.

What shoppers do find is produce sections as large or larger than many in supermarkets, floral departments, large service bakeries where crusty bread and fine pastries are prepared, seafood and meat departments that focus not just on high quality and exotics -- kangaroo, wild boar and emu are regulars in the meat section -- but also on a range of value-added product like marinated cuts, ready-to-cook meat loaves and seasoned kabobs. "While some of these things may not technically fit the description of home-meal replacement items, they're very close because they're very convenient and easy to prepare," said Bergh.

And while sushi stands are becoming more common in supermarkets, they are usually operated by contract providers, whose employees work with a limited variety of raw fish. At Bristol Farms, the in-store departments are likely to offer such restaurant-level offerings as sea urchin, eel and octopus.

In addition to their deep commitment to service, Bristol Farms stores are known for their ability to move expensive products through savvy marketing and constant demonstrations and sampling.

"We believe very strongly in demos," said Bergh. "While they may be a very expensive form of marketing, they are the most effective on-going trial of new products. All of our demo people are owner/partners; we don't use outside companies to do demonstrations in our stores. We also demo extensively throughout the week to gain some trial of new products."

Bergh said frequent contact with customers allows Bristol Farms a short-cut when developing new recipes and programs. "Customers have to talk to our people to make a purchase, so it's not difficult to introduce new products. Our people are trained and encouraged to sample products to our customers and not wait for them to ask. They're encouraged to say to people, 'We have something new today. Would you like to try it?' "

Bergh said he believes that ready-to-heat and ready-to-cook offer the greatest growth potential for Bristol Farms, as opposed to product sold hot, but that might be because the cafes and restaurants already do a booming business. "Most of the product we sell comes from the refrigerated case for reheating, or is meant to be eaten cold, like salads.

Each store offers catering as part of the companywide food-service program. The same in-store food production teams cooking for the delis and restaurants handle the catering, which makes the fluctuations of the catering business easier to absorb. "You may be doing $5,000 in catering sales per week, but all of a sudden you can get a $7,000 bump, so you have to have some flexibility built into program. It does take a special talent for catering, but we have enough people in food service so that when a big order comes in, we can do it."

And while catering and sit-down meals are smaller pieces of the Bristol Farms puzzle, officials are committed to them both "It's an opportunity to sample our food to customers that may not be Bristol Farms shoppers," said Bergh. "If they come to our restaurant, try the food and like it, I believe over the years those people become Bristol Farms shoppers. The same is true with catering. We'll be catering an event where 80% of the people may never have been at a Bristol Farms and they like the food and find out it comes from our stores, they now know us by our food. The company has gained some regular customers because of the exposure from both catering and the restaurants."

Bergh said the Bristol Farms success isn't replicable everywhere. "An area has to have a certain set of demographics to support a Bristol Farms. We offer very high quality with a very high level of service. You'll find twice the number of folks working in one of our stores compared to a supermarket; a 45,000-square-foot supermarket would take about 100 people to staff; our 28,000-foot stores take anywhere from 200 to 220 to staff. As we go forward, we'll only put these stores in areas where the median income and density is right."

As Bergh suggests, staffing these culinary stores isn't easy. "We interview a lot of people when we open one of these stores. We're looking for people who want to work around food and be around people. You don't find fully experienced people to fill all of those slots, so we end up training a lot of them ourselves."