FOOD COURT VERDICT: TRY IT DIFFERENTLY

DALLAS -- Retailers are disappointed with the performance of their food courts, but they're not about to call it quits.Some have given up on trying to do their own programs and are bringing someone else in to do it, or are giving their own programs some serious tweaking.That's what Jonessco Enterprises, a consulting firm here, discovered in a recent survey of 50 retailers who have food-service operations

DALLAS -- Retailers are disappointed with the performance of their food courts, but they're not about to call it quits.

Some have given up on trying to do their own programs and are bringing someone else in to do it, or are giving their own programs some serious tweaking.

That's what Jonessco Enterprises, a consulting firm here, discovered in a recent survey of 50 retailers who have food-service operations with food courts.

Buck Jones, president of Jonessco, was a panelist at the annual food-service conference of the Food Marketing Institute and the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association held last month in Rochester, N.Y. He told conference attendees that, without exception, the retailers surveyed said they were getting less than expected out of their food courts.

"I think it just comes down to the fact that running a food-service operation is a whole lot more complex than they had thought in the beginning," Jones said in a post-conference interview with SN.

Responses from the retailers ranged from "we're very disappointed, but things are better than they were five months ago" to "we're losing our shirts," Jones said.

Those surveyed ranged, he said, from operators with branded franchises to those who are using only their own programs and those who are trying a combination of brands and their own programs. The operators all have been in the business for a while, Jones said.

"We talked to at least one who, after trying to make his own programs work for two years or so, is going to bring in brands," he added.

The amount of seating offered and the emphasis on eat-in or carry-out differed among the respondents. Those surveyed also ran the gamut in size and the number of units in which they have food courts. Both large chains and independents were represented.

While Jones declined to give specific names of retailers, he said the survey, conducted in May, included many who are well-known in the industry for their food-service and food-court efforts.

Even though they are less than happy with their food-court results so far, most respondents said they intend to continue to try to make the concept work.

"Only five to eight at the most said they're getting out of the business altogether, and that was because of certain circumstances like a buy-out or a restructuring of capital," Jones said.

"There's a definite perception that this is the way to go," he said of supermarket food-service. "It's just finding the right way to do it for their particular market. They want to give their customers this service somehow, even if it means bringing it back in a different format."

One challenge is finding a way to let customers know that eating in-store is a viable alternative to eating somewhere else, and another is finding what you should offer them to eat, Jones said.

"Just because you're offering fried chicken, doesn't mean your customers are going to buy it," he said, adding that those who are making progress with their food courts are those paying tremendous attention to the customer base at each of their units.

"What are their shopping patterns? What's their income level? What do they eat? "Do they want to take it home with them or sit down there and eat?" are important questions, he stressed.

"A lot of it is trial and error. It depends on whether the retailer has the capital and the commitment to stay in long enough to find a way to make it work," Jones said. Some of the ones that don't are looking at renting out space to food-service experts, he added.

Jones said, however, that the survey that turned up the unanimous "we're disappointed" response included some who have already done that.