FORWARD, TO THE PAST

SALT LAKE CITY (FNS) -- Of its 1,558 stores across the country, American Stores Co.'s The American Store is one of a kind.Unique in its purpose, location, design and merchandising, it is rapidly nearing profitability after only three months in operation, according to Dennis Larson, director of marketing and operations.Conceived and developed to have a "wow" effect on customers, the store's decor has

SALT LAKE CITY (FNS) -- Of its 1,558 stores across the country, American Stores Co.'s The American Store is one of a kind.

Unique in its purpose, location, design and merchandising, it is rapidly nearing profitability after only three months in operation, according to Dennis Larson, director of marketing and operations.

Conceived and developed to have a "wow" effect on customers, the store's decor has the look of an urban American store in the 1910 to 1930 era, while the merchandising is all 1990s, with the emphasis on fresh, convenient meal solutions, articulated most particularly in the form of Il Sansovino to Go, an upscale serve/self-serve restaurant within the store that by itself accounts for 40% of sales, reported Larson.

Besides Il Sansovino to Go, other meal-solutions categories include value-added meats/ seafood, premade sandwiches and salads, and take-home, homemade pastas and sauces. All together, these categories account for 45% to 50% of total store sales, estimated Larson.

At 14,200 square feet, with about 7,000 square feet of selling area, the store is "definitely the smallest food store" the $19.1 billion company operates, said Dan Zvonek, director of public and investor relations.

On the ground floor of the recently completed American Stores Center, The American Store is located within a curved portion of the 25-story, 610,000-square-foot headquarters building and is essentially round, as opposed to the standard rectangular/square shape, noted Larson.

"The main purpose of The American Store is to provide a fun place to shop and eat for both our own employees and for the entire downtown Salt Lake business community, as well," said Zvonek, adding that by the end of August some 1,850 employees had moved into the $100 million building.

The store's soft, non-fluorescent lighting, rustic-looking shelving, signs and fixtures, and cobblestone flooring are designed to be reminiscent of America in the early part of the century. "It's not any particular place or city; rather, it's more of a general Americana atmosphere customers may have seen in movies or remember from their childhoods," said Larson.

The store is a "showplace" for American Stores, said Larson, noting that its concept and design were developed solely by American Stores staff.

The wide range of Italian entrees it serves and the name Il Sansovino itself stem from Valter Nassi, vice president of restaurant operation and restaurateur. It is named after Monte Sansovino, Nassi's birthplace in Italy's Tuscany region.

Nassi, a restaurateur of worldwide renown and experience, is the originator of all the recipes used in Il Sansovino to Go, as well as in Il Sansovino, the private club owned by American Stores, which is located on the second floor of the headquarters building.

Il Sansovino is formal and elegant compared with the informal To Go version.

Il Sansovino to Go represents a major portion of the store space-wise as well as sales-wise. With the service restaurant at 1,800 square feet, the glass-enclosed kitchen area at 1,000 square feet and the self-service seating area at 1,600 square feet, it represents more than 60% of the total selling area.

The eating area has seating for 104. The tables and chairs are of dark stained wood and are spaced over a white mosaic tile floor, giving it a "very Greenwich Village feel," said Larson.

Also located in the eating area is a Chicago Hot Dog cart that serves hot dogs each day until 2 p.m. "People from Chicago helped us to get the right neon green [colored] relish," Larson told SN. "A lot of customers say 'wow' when they see the cart and that all the details, such as the relish, have been attended to," said Larson.

An ordinary company cafeteria, Il Sansovino to Go is not. No tray racks to follow here. Patrons may follow their own course among hot entrees such as eggplant parmesan, meat lasagna, or pizza by the slice; an antipasta table with a choice of 12 cold salads and two hot dishes; a made-to-order pasta bar, offering three pastas and two sauces of the day; made-to-order sandwiches; two soups of the day; an Italian dessert and gelato bar; and a fresh fruit juice bar featuring a variety of smoothies.

In addition, there are a couple of grab 'n go cases providing ready-made sandwiches, salads,and pastas.

Most items are about $4.99 a pound, with an average lunch ticket generating $3.50 to $6, said Larson.

Larson estimated that about half of the Il Sansovino lunches served each day are to American Stores employees, with the rest being sold mostly to other downtown workers.

In early June, after a month of operation, Il Sansovino to Go was serving 700 to 900 lunches each weekday. By the end of July, that total had grown to 800 to 1,200, with dinners numbering about 300 each day, reported Larson.

Officials projected that eventually Il Sansovino to Go will have a rotation of about 160 hot and cold entrees. There are now about 70 entrees in use.

A wider variety of choices to offer customers was what American Stores chairman and chief executive officer Victor Lund wanted to see at Il Sansovino to Go.

Larson explained that Lund was referring to KAP's Kitchen & Pantry, an experimental store operated by American that closed this spring after two years in a Salt Lake City suburb.

KAP's, like The American Store, also stressed convenience and quick meal solutions. But unlike The American Store, its restaurant was more of a traditional cafeteria and served only a handful of entrees, which were offered day after day.

One legacy of the KAP's store, however, which is available at The American Store, as well as in most of American's other stores, is the value-added, ready-to-cook meats and seafoods.

The American Store offers a variety of marinated and seasoned meats and seafoods in its self-service meat case. During the summer, for example, in the store's weekly in-store flier, marinated boneless, skinless chicken breasts and bacon-wrapped fillet mignon were promoted as being "ready for the grill" at $3.49 and $6.99, respectively.

While Il Sansovino is an important focus for The American Store, there is much to see in this American Stores showcase.

Customers walk past the outside flowers to enter, only to be greeted by more flowers and the immediate feeling that the glare of the typical 1990s store with metal and chrome fixtures has been replaced by the comparative gentleness of varying sizes of naturally stained wood shelves, tables and boxes.

All these wood display pieces were made exclusively for the store by The American Store-owned mill in Payson, Utah, Larson told SN.

Alderwood was stained in light colors for most of the display fixtures, which include boxes of several sizes, tables and shelving. All the fixtures have been nicked, gouged and otherwise distressed to depict age and wear.

Brick flooring, along with the softness of spotlights and specialized lighting in a recessed black ceiling, helps to create "the outdoor open market atmosphere of years ago," explained Larson.

A weathered-looking post with arrows etched with Salty Dogs Seafood Cos., Vinnie's Meats and Block 57 Garage, lets customers know that they are not in a typical grocery store and that they can expect the unexpected.

With about 16,000 stockkeeping units, the store carries a wide range of traditional and non-traditional food-store merchandise, especially in the Oriental, Hispanic and Italian categories. Large ethnic food sections, with oils, vinegars, pasta and sauces that are not normally seen in Salt Lake City, help to bring back the "melting-pot feeling" of the early 1900s, he said.

"We wanted to show that we could achieve that goal of serving both our employees and the community with a lot of flare," Larson said. "We were striving to create a 'wow' atmosphere, because if you don't have that, you won't keep today's customers," he explained.

With no aisles, the store invites shoppers to wander. On their way to the back of the store, they'll see three produce cases, topped with canvas awnings, giving an open-air, Old World feeling. Their shiny metal sides are covered with blue and yellow painted wood to take shoppers back in time, said Larson.

Potatoes and onions are displayed on beds of burlap in old-style vegetable crates. Melons and squashes are displayed in apple baskets placed on their sides.

To emphasize freshness, apple baskets are used inside the produce cases, not only for apples, but for a lot of the summer fruits, as well.

Tables topped with varying sizes of boxes are used for freestanding displays of teas, coffees, imported Italian sauces and oils, tomato-themed Italian ceramics and seafood platters. Old produce crates are used to display dried fruits and vegetables and dried soups.

Passing by the restaurant, shoppers next encounter the full-service meat and seafood counters, as well as the live lobster and crab tanks. Here the flooring changes from cobblestone to hardwood. Past the health and beauty care shelves and pharmacy is the grocery department, which is merchandised with freestanding wood shelves set at angles along the wall, which is mostly floor-to-ceiling windows. Merchandise is of the traditional categories, such as paper products, cereals, bottled juices, canned fruits and vegetables, breads, condiments, dairy and frozen.

"If you are interested in a fresh, value-added meal or if you're more a Lean Cuisine person, we can satisfy you," said Larson. Pastas are something that The American Store specializes in. In the grocery section, a customer can buy the standard American-made brands, but on a 9-foot shelf across from the meat department customers can find Italian brands, such as Da Vinci, DiCecco and Agnes.

These brands can be found in very few other stores in all of Utah, said Larson. Other food-store exclusives for The American Store are the Hallmark Cold Crown line, which is sold in little drawers along the wall near the front of the store by the one-hour photo department.

In with the traditional grocery section is the most valuable item in the store -- a Model T Jewel Tea Co. delivery truck. It is fully restored and the bed of the truck is used to display American Stores label artesian water.

The store seems to be impressing both customers and American Stores management. The guest books at the front and back entrances of the store are predominantly filled with comments of the "wow," "cool" and "awesome" variety.

One comment went so far as to call The American Store the Harrod's of Salt Lake City. Larson was especially pleased with this compliment since the English store is known for surrounding customers with "incredibly neat stuff," he said.

With no aisles and a lot of the merchandise arranged in clusters on tables or on carts, or in crates or in boxes, The American Store is striving for that same type of "eye-teasing, something everywhere you look" aura, said Larson.

The look of The American Store's exterior may also evoke thoughts of Harrod's. Designed with an English store front in mind, the area features red painted woodwork framing windows and glass double doors. Gold paint is used to trim the red wood and proclaim The American Store name above the doors.

The doors are held open during store hours -- Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- with an abundance of potted flowers arranged on the ground, on benches, on carts or in boxes stacked on their sides.

The back entrance, which at 24 feet wide is about twice the width of the front entrance, is also painted red and is likewise trimmed with gold.

Just as its design is out of the ordinary, so are The American Store's grocery carts. They are much smaller than normal and are more like the walkers used by disabled persons in that they are essentially a wheeled frame to which can be attached one or two handheld grocery baskets.

"Because most of our business is done during work hours, most of our customers are in the store to eat and to maybe pick up a few things they need," said Larson. "Customers are generally not doing their weekly shopping trips and there would not be room for regular size carts anyway."

For American, the 1990s has been a time of suburban expansion, mostly in the form of food/drug combination stores in the 40,000- square-foot to 84,000-square-foot range. The possibility of additional The American Stores "has not been ruled out," however, according to Zvonek, who noted that American continues to operate a significant number of urban stores.

"We always intended to make money and to grow the concept if it proved successful," said Larson. He reported that sales have increased about 20% since the opening in May. He attributed the growth to word of mouth, since The American Store has done no advertising.