FOOD SERVICE IS SAID TO RELY ON IMAGE

ATLANTA -- Atmosphere and image are reality, when it comes to successful supermarket food-service operations.That theme was stressed repeatedly by retail panelists during a seminar at the Food Marketing Institute and National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association food-service conference held here recently.The panelists showed color slides of their operations that emphasized their images reflect

ATLANTA -- Atmosphere and image are reality, when it comes to successful supermarket food-service operations.

That theme was stressed repeatedly by retail panelists during a seminar at the Food Marketing Institute and National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association food-service conference held here recently.

The panelists showed color slides of their operations that emphasized their images reflect reality.

Participants were Bob Baxley, director of deli food-service procurement and marketing, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio; Carol Moore, director of food service, West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, and Tom Violante, owner of Holiday Food Center, Royal Oak, Mich. The panel was moderated by Jack Allen and Tom Pierson, professors of food marketing at Michigan State University, East Lansing. Baxley focused on H-E-B's Chinese kitchen, which is the first element customers see in one of the company's newest stores. It features a prep station where food is cooked continuously.

The chain is currently downsizing the holding wells for hot food, he said. Instead, it will cook food in even smaller batches and hold it for less time, boosting the image and reality of freshness.

"We also brought the fresh food departments together," Baxley said, showing a slide of the company's second newest store, a format that will be replicated wherever it is practical to do so. Baxley also pointed to associates wearing gloves and hairnets, a part of the "clean" message.

H-E-B's prototype fresh layout is newly constructed. But the other panelists showed how, in a relatively small, existing space, they also make customers think "freshly prepared food."

West Point does it via its cafe and its open "performance kitchen." While neither is right at the front of the store, chalkboard messages are there to remind consumers that food is being prepared on site.

The signs also often show humor. Moore showed an example of a chalkboard sign used in a teaser campaign about the impending launch of a panini program. The sign asked, "Panini. Isn't that the great Italian tenor?"

After piquing the customers' interest for a week or two, West Point

put up a sign describing the grilled, Italian sandwiches just prior to introducing them. At Holiday Food Center, a remodel has pulled the produce department up front so the customer walks right in among farm-stand-type tables laden with fresh products. Besides making a strong statement, the move has quadrupled sales in that department, Violante said.

"It's the same produce department. The same manager. Just the presentation is different," he added.

"Things like this heighten the level of positive involvement for the customer," said food marketing expert Pierson. "Customers are not entering a store and looking at a row of shopping carts and bags of salt and water softener. They're looking at FOOD. In most supermarkets I've been in, the first thing that faces you are cash registers or something task-oriented. It's the leading-edge retailers that are finding a way to show you fresh food quickly."

Violante also underscored the necessity of putting quality first, before retail price.

"I asked our bakery manager to create a pie that tasted great and he said he couldn't make a top quality pie that we could sell for under $10. But he made one, and we settled on a retail of $8.99. Now, we're selling more than we did of the one we had before, which was $3.99. [In one] week, we sold 200 of the quality pies" for $8.99 each, Violante said.

Baxley said H-E-B's sandwiches, such as roast beef and brie on a croissant for $4.99, speak of quality. So do H-E-B's olive bars, with 18 varieties. "People don't seem to have any trouble paying $5 a pound for them," Baxley said.