GOURMET GARAGE ENTERS SUBURBAN MARKET

SCARSDALE, N.Y. -- Like Mars and Venus, Scarsdale and Manhattan differ in many ways, and some of those differences can be seen in a comparison of Gourmet Garage's new suburban store model vs. its New York City store format.Gourmet Garage's city stores range from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, attract far more foot traffic, have concrete floors and a no-frills feeling. Company officials chose Scarsdale,

SCARSDALE, N.Y. -- Like Mars and Venus, Scarsdale and Manhattan differ in many ways, and some of those differences can be seen in a comparison of Gourmet Garage's new suburban store model vs. its New York City store format.

Gourmet Garage's city stores range from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, attract far more foot traffic, have concrete floors and a no-frills feeling. Company officials chose Scarsdale, a village of elegant homes and six-figure salaries, for the first suburban Gourmet Garage. It sprawls across 23,000 square feet and is one of the first new stores to open in a strip shopping center, anchored by a new Linens 'n Things. The construction zone outside hasn't helped customer traffic. While the Scarsdale store attracts fewer customers -- 4,000 to 5,000 people a week -- they spend twice as much money per shopping trip than Manhattanites, said Andrew Arons, the company's president and chief executive officer. Made mostly on site, the freshly prepared foods are one of the major attractions, drawing meal seekers to the city stores every day. The store in New York's West Village, for instance, sells 200 rotisserie chickens in a day. The number is lower here, but certain items are catching on fast with the suburbanites, Arons told SN during an interview at the store.

"We hope to build this up," he said.

Inside the Scarsdale store, SN observed grilled sesame chicken breasts, poached salmon, and 17 other entrees and side dishes displayed on large white ceramic and stainless-steel platters in a service case. The items like the poached salmon have developed a following, Arons said.

Cooks prepare all the dishes with re-heating and health in mind. Instead of saturating dishes with a lot of oil, the cooks use dry rubs and other healthier seasonings that hold up well in the re-heating process.

"It's not the cheapest," Arons said of the salmon, which sells for $13.99 a pound. "But you'll feel good after you eat it."

In the fall, shoppers will find new items with exotic flavors in the prepared-foods cases. The recent hiring of Tony Balderose, formerly of Balducci's, to be the company's executive chef is the start of an effort to upgrade prepared foods, Arons said.

"We're doing quarterly and seasonal menus," he said. "We'll have an incredible prepared-foods offering. We're redefining prepared foods, making it closer to a restaurant dining experience. We'll have more international cuisine. That's our way of carving out our niche."

Gourmet Garage bills itself as the place to "shop like a chef" without breaking the budget. On the afternoon of SN's visit, no shoppers wearing toques could be seen. Yet they have been known to shop here. Indeed, the store is stocked with unique fresh products, including many discovered by the retailer's European-based "food hunter," a cooking pro who scouts out unusual foods in France and other European locales for Gourmet Garage. SN observed packs of quail eggs, truffle butter, tubs of full-fat Greek yogurt with honey on the side, English cheddar with cranberries and an array of other specialty cheeses from around the world -- not exactly staples for most supermarkets. The store conducts food demonstrations every weekend to teach consumers what to do with the unusual items. Some of those customers already have the cooking know-how.

"A lot of our customers are chefs and home cooks," Arons said. "We try to create a place where chefs can market their products."

The store offers service meat and seafood counters, organic and conventional produce, fresh flowers for sale at the entrance, and a selection of baked goods, including fresh breads from some of the city's top bakeries. There's a salad and tapas bar that attracts local construction workers at lunch time. There's also an olive bar with 27 choices of olives.

"I found the more olives I put out, the more I sell them," said Arons. "People are olive crazy."

The floundering economy doesn't seem to have had much impact on Gourmet Garage. Arons in fact is encouraged by the company's overall health. Same-store sales were up 4% to 6% this year, compared to the same period last year, he said. The health of the company may bode well for the future. If all goes according to plan, Scarsdale will be the first of several suburban Gourmet Garage stores, and Arons and other company officials are looking for financial partners to support their long-term plan to open about 10 more stores in the next five to seven years.

Operating a store in the 'burbs presented the big-city store experts with new challenges, one of the main ones being to make the locals aware that the store is open. "We have a challenge here to get the word out," Arons said. "The store looks as if it's under construction. We're looking forward to construction being completed."

To increase customer traffic, Gourmet Garage recently took out full-color ads on

shiny, 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper, featuring the smiling faces of employees and coupons for featured items, including several "buy-one-get-one-free" deals. A first for the 10-year-old company, the large ads helped boost sales on featured items. Outside of small ads in the New York Times and Westchester County papers, the retailer never really advertised before, Arons said.

Associates are preparing for a birthday party of sorts. Gourmet Garage will have a reopening celebration in October to mark the Scarsdale store's first year of operation. The company plans to advertise heavily to get the word out. The timing of the party should coincide with full occupancy of the shopping center's storefronts, Arons said.