LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Foodland Super Market Ltd. makes no secret of how it's concocting Spam musubi or poke or laulau at a new prototype store here.
Everything's out in the open -- by design.
Wide-open production in all its fresh-food departments, a marketplace look, and a major infusion of service are hallmarks of the 29,000-square-foot replacement store that had its grand opening in May.
With those new features, Foodland is aiming to set the store apart in this small town where competition is big, officials at the Honolulu-based chain said. A Starbucks coffee bar just inside the entrance helps in that regard, too.
"We needed to look for ways to make ourselves stand out from the competition; not just from other supermarkets, but also from the Costcos, the Wal-Marts, and the Kmarts," said Jenai Wall, president of the 27-unit, family-owned company.
And it appears to be working. Wall said the company has been happy with increases in traffic since the store's opening and will roll out the look to new and remodeled stores.
Ironically, to prepare itself for the future, Foodland took a page from the past.
"Open production, and especially service departments, represent a swing of the pendulum, back in time to when people would go to the butcher shop, and then the bakery, and florist, and other stores for whatever they needed. Shopping was more interesting then," Wall said.
"Our goal in creating this store was to make grocery shopping more fun. We hope customers will see a trip to Foodland Lahaina as something they want to do, not something they have to do," she added.
The chain hired a Honolulu architectural firm, AM Partners, to help do the job.
Wall said Foodland and AM Partners decided that one way to distinguish itself, create some excitement and also underscore freshness was to "bring the back room out front."
"People like to see their food being prepared and it also creates an opportunity for customers to interact with associates," Wall explained.
The fresh-seafood department is an addition at the store here and the deli and produce departments are proportionately larger than they were at the store this one replaces. The former store itself, situated across the street, was only half as big as this one.
Here, in the seafood department, customers get to see associates making one of their favorites: poke (pronounced poh-key).
"It's raw fish, cubed, in a variety of marinades -- very popular here. Customers can see our people cutting the fish into chunks, putting them into giant mixing bowls and adding the other ingredients, such as soy sauce, sesame oil or green onions and seaweed," Wall said.
Made from sushi-quality fish, poke is eaten raw. It's such a local favorite that it makes up 20% to 25% of total seafood sales on average company-wide and that percentage rings true at the new store here, said a company spokeswoman.
The fact that Foodland makes 20 varieties of poke available every day is a fair indicator of how popular the item is, Wall said. Two of the top poke favorites at this store are ahi (tuna) and crab, she added. A length of at least 6 feet in the seafood display case shows off poke, which is sold by the pound.
At the deli -- an island with a workstation in its center -- customers can watch associates preparing a whole repertoire of local favorites, such as laulau, which is made from meat or poultry, and rice rolled into a steamed luau leaf. A luau leaf looks like a huge leaf of spinach, Wall said. Laulau and chicken long rice (chicken served with rice noodles) are staples on the deli's hot menu.
"Bento" meals, which are complete meals consisting of meat or chicken with a side of rice, packed in a rectangular container, are also prepared here in full view of customers. So is Spam musubi.
"Spam musubi is made from Spam [canned meat manufactured by Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn.], cooked in sugar and soy sauce, and then placed on rice and wrapped in seaweed. I know it sounds strange, but it's a favorite," Wall said.
As popular as hot dogs in New York or tacos in Texas, Spam musubi is a mainstay for chilren's lunches, the Foodland executive explained. They're larger than pieces of sushi. Built around a slice of Spam cut from a loaf, the resulting musubi piece is a rectangle measuring about 3 by 2 inches, Wall said.
At about $1 each, Spam musubi is selling at a rate of 400 pieces a week at the new store.
"We here in Hawaii have the highest per-capita consumption of Spam of anywhere in the country. I think it's a hold-over from World War II when meat was scarce, but people just love it," Wall explained.
Other top-selling items here are poi, a taro-based starch that's served as a side here, and sushi. Foodland has contracted with a local sushi company to supply this store. The best-seller in the sushi category is the California roll, a Foodland spokeswoman said.
The fresh message is particularly insistent in the produce department, where even the washing of fresh vegetables is done in front of customers. The whole prep area is out in the open.
"You can see them rinsing grains and vegetables and trimming things, getting them ready for display," Wall said.
"When customers see that, their perception is that those vegetables were picked this morning," said Robert Domingo, a partner in AM Partners, who was studio director for this store's design.
The meat department, too, with full service, underscores freshness.
"You can see the butchers cutting meat and packaging it. And, in the bakery, the main oven has been brought right out in front of the customer. There, they can see bread or cakes being put in or taken out of the oven or placed on cooling racks, which are on either side of the oven," Wall said.
But the open production is just part of it. A new marketplace-look has been achieved by giving each department its own facade.
"Instead of feet upon feet of cases, we broke everything down into smaller segments. Even in the dairy department, we added thin, vertical elements to create sections," Domingo said.
The sections were then given fanciful names such as "The Milky Way" and "Eggs Actly."
"And in the bakery, we made the oven, encased in bricks, the focal point of the department," he added.
Domingo pointed out that Foodland wanted to change its identity, to bring the "human quality" back to the supermarket.
"We know people like to shop in boutiques and we felt one way we could stay in front of the swinging pendulum was to emphasize each department as a little vendor like you would see in a marketplace," Domingo said.
But even so, with every department having its own identity, Foodland is not missing the opportunity to cross merchandise products. For example, ingredients for a featured recipe are merchandised together in the meat department, Wall said.
Fresh peppers and onions from the produce department and packages of noodles, for instance, would have a place alongside the poultry display if a chicken casserole were the week's featured recipe, she said.
Domingo stressed the importance of the well-identified, full-service departments in creating interaction between staffers and customers.
"The meat department is no longer in the backroom with a hole punched out of the wall and a little bell to ring to get someone's attention. The butcher is right there so you can tell him how thick you want your steak cut," Domingo said.
"And in the bakery, kids can watch the cake decorators at work."
Wall said she wanted to make the customer's shopping experience feel different than it does in a traditional supermarket. While the marketplace look has been adopted by some independent supermarket chains on the mainland, that hasn't been the case in Hawaii, Domingo said.
"This is a different look for a supermarket in Hawaii," he said.
He and Wall pointed out that the look also emphasizes the locale. "Being a local company, we wanted to build on our roots and some of the architectural features reflect that. For example, we have plantation-style roofs over some of the departments and the names of the departments reflect that we're local, too," Wall said.
"The deli is called 'Kamaaina Kitchen.' Kamaaina means local. It's used to refer to people from here," she added.
And Domingo said the use of gooseneck lamps under the soffits in some departments hearkens back to the days when Lahaina was a whaling town.
Overall, the lighting is softer than in the previous store here, Domingo said. Catching natural sunlight via skylights and using "earthy" colors and a lot of natural wood are intended to create a warm and comfortable environment, too, he said.
Domingo said AM Partners used neutral colors in flooring materials and fixtures so as not to distract customers from the colors of products themselves.
Produce displays, the first element in the fresh-foods aisle, present the first touch of bold color. And here, in this store, the floral department has been separated from produce and set at the front of the store, against the front wall, just beyond the checkout stand.
"Here, floral is a destination product," said Domingo, explaining that people are apt to run in to buy just a bouquet or a lei.
The latter, a string of fresh flowers that's worn around one's neck, is not just for tourists, Foodland officials said. Indeed, they're a big deal for any special occasion here, said Sheryl Toda, a Foodland spokeswoman.
They range in price from $15 for "a standard orchid and carnation lei to up to $25 for more special ones," Toda said.
One type of lei made from a special, nicely scented vine, is popular for extra-special occasions like a prom or a wedding, Toda said. But leis are so popular that a woman might be given one by her date in much the same way a bouquet would be given in other parts of the United States. Foodland's store here sells about 60 leis a week, she said.
The scent of flowers upfront in the store, the aromas of fresh-baked products wafting from the bakery's prominent oven and fresh-brewed cappuccino from Starbucks all combine to make an inviting ambiance. And that is exactly what Foodland officials had in mind when they made plans for the store here, Wall said.
"I'm a mom with two kids and I know what it's like to have to shop. I wanted to give people a place they would want to come back to."
Anchoring the fresh-foods aisle with a Starbucks has proved to be a good move, Wall said. She pointed out that the store here lies close to a large resort area.
"Starbucks definitely sets us apart in this market, and just as it does in other communities, it creates a place people want to go to. I think visitors anywhere have got to the point where they want to find out where the nearest Starbucks is," said Wall.
"Visitors [to the island] come to our Starbucks and hopefully come into our store, too. I think it has helped our traffic," she added.
This is Foodland's second linkup with Seattle-based Starbucks. The first, on another island, went into a store that was renovated a little over a year ago. Both are lease agreements, Wall said.
"It's working. We talked with them about multiple locations in the beginning and they didn't have a location here where there are a lot of tourists. So it's good for both of us."
Foodland faces Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway as its primary competition here. Two local, family-owned chains have units nearby as well. While Lahaina itself has only about 3,000 residents, retailers draw customers from the entire western part of the island of Maui.
Foodland officials knew that their store here was getting dated, Domingo at AM Partners said. The neon, tube lighting around the soffits was definitely passe, he said. So was the preponderance of self-service cases.
"We came to the realization that we could set ourselves apart with a distinctive store design. And we also recognized that design was an important part of the package of goods and services we could offer our customers," Wall said.