FRESH APPROACH

APPLETON, Wis. -- In its newest store here, Copps Corp. is transforming its deli concept to pursue the fresh meals business, breaking with tradition in a market where tradition carries a lot of weight.Compared to other Copps units, the deli department in the Appleton unit is expanded in size. Its list of food programs has been broadened dramatically, with both the full-service and self-service sides

APPLETON, Wis. -- In its newest store here, Copps Corp. is transforming its deli concept to pursue the fresh meals business, breaking with tradition in a market where tradition carries a lot of weight.

Compared to other Copps units, the deli department in the Appleton unit is expanded in size. Its list of food programs has been broadened dramatically, with both the full-service and self-service sides of the business getting more attention.

New ventures for the deli include a panini sandwich grill, a specialty sandwich program, a coffee bar, a salad bar, a fresh pizza program and a sit-down dining area, according to Kurt Krahn, director of deli and natural foods for Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis.

"It's a big change for us, because our delis heretofore have been pretty traditional, Wisconsin being a pretty traditional market," Krahn told SN. "So, we're experimenting with this stuff to see how our customers respond." Most of the company's experiments have the same desired result in sight: to build the business of providing meal solutions, and not just ingredients.

"It's something that has a lot of room for growth," Krahn said. "We're going to start putting together meal ideas and meal options, ala Boston Markets." The timing is apparently propitious; the cutting-edge food-service chains don't yet have a stranglehold on that business in Copps' trading area.

"We've just started getting the Boston Markets into our area, and I don't see their parking lot full of people," Krahn noted.

Krahn said he plans to promote more meal options in the deli. Still, Krahn said, he is going to have to look carefully at options before launching headfirst into new meal concepts.

"The issue now is whether or not we try to work with an outside company on some of the component parts, or whether we look to develop our own," he said. "We're starting to see some of the salad companies coming out with the various fixings.

"We've always done mashed potatoes and stuffing. From a labor-saving standpoint, we're trying to find some ways to trade-off here.

"If we're going to be producing center-of-the-tray-entrees, we've got to start outsourcing ingredients or products, rather than making all of it. Our labor is just going to go through the roof."

Labor is an unavoidable concern, Krahn said. "We're anticipating that with this type of operation, our labor will be higher. We paid people a little bit more, in order to find qualified people. We hired more full-time people." He added he is not sure how labor costs will ultimately play out at the new store.

"We run labor very heavy in the beginning, because we want to give the customers just an outrageous impression of customer service," he said. "We were very fortunate in this market because we found employees with prior food-service and deli experience." This particular store presented an ideal opportunity to go for the meals market, because there are no fast-food restaurants nearby. What is nearby is a cluster of other retail stores and small businesses that offer plenty of potential for the store's take-out meal program to try to exploit.

The deli is placed near the checkout registers, sharing the slot in the traffic pattern across from the bakery. And like the bakery across the aisle, the deli has boosted the self-service section substantially.

"We've just about tripled the amount of self-service case space we have in the majority of our stores, to improve our ability to meet that grab-and-go convenience demand," Krahn said.

The self-service area consists of 28 square feet of in-line case space, two 12-foot island bunkers and an 8-foot island bunker.

The self-service counter sits at the head of the deli department in the Appleton unit. However, full-service more than holds its own. Krahn estimated that about 60% of the deli business is full-service, and the rest is self-serve.

The full-service area includes 32 feet of casing, which includes salads, cheeses and meats; two 6-foot-long sandwich prep stations and a 6-foot pizza prep station.

One specific goal of the major revamp of the deli is attracting the lunchtime crowd, as well as shoppers looking for a dinner to take home. An indication that Copps may succeed can be found in the sit-down eating area, Krahn said.

"We're already having tables jamming up during the lunch period," he said. It currently has 18 seats, but that may be expanded soon.

"People are looking for a place where they can come and grab something. We're getting sit-down customers actually shopping in the store, who are grabbing something out of the deli, sitting down, and then continuing on their shopping tour. We also have people who are coming in off the street just to grab a bite to eat."

Copps new specialty sandwich program is part of the bid for lunchtime business. Two sandwiches are featured daily, and the selection is rotated on a weekly basis.

The specialty sandwich selections are on the ambitious side for Wisconsin, he added. One example is smoked turkey and Havarti on a French bun, as opposed to what Krahn calls "your standard 6-inch type sub." Sandwich prices range from $2.99 to $3.99, which is a competitive range in the market, he said.

Capturing the business here with specialty sandwiches won't necessarily be easy. Movement is not as good as Krahn originally hoped, because the whole concept of specialty sandwiches is relatively unfamiliar to Copps' shoppers, he said.

"Our customers are not used to seeing this type of variety available," he said. "We've kind of knocked them off their feet."

On the other hand, the panini sandwich program is doing very well. Sales average 80 to 100 a day, he said. Those retail for $2.99 per wedge.

The Appleton unit is the second Copps store to feature a salad bar, but the new bar, located next to the sit-down seating area, is larger by far than the first one, Krahn said. The salad bar features approximately 40 different items, with four different soups.

Another fresh idea for Copps offered at the new store is an active deli kitchen within full view of the customers. An earlier Copps format offers a partially exposed kitchen, but this one shows everything but the dishwashing area.

The Appleton store also revived an older program for Copps, fresh pizza, which it had abandoned.

"The company had gotten out of [fresh pizzas] about five years ago, just because the sales had gotten real soft on it," Krahn explained. But the company decided pizza could play an important role in providing answers to the question of what to eat for lunch or dinner. What's more, Krahn said, with the new program, he now believes he can lure customers away from the frozen pizza aisle.

"Basically, Wisconsin is a huge pizza market. So, we've gotten back into the fresh pizza business with half-a-dozen unique, more gourmet-type variety pizzas, like a gourmet vegetable, a barbecue chicken, a shrimp and pesto variety.

"This is something above and beyond what shoppers are going to go over to the frozen food department and find in a four-for-$10 promotion," he said.

Chicken is another popular deli component that is important to the new Copps format. Krahn said there is room for growth with chicken dinners.

"We haven't tied [the chicken] in as much with component parts, out of either the salad case or the hot case. That's something we're going to be moving into."