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SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Randalls Food Markets has launched a home-meal replacement concept, The Busy Chef, at a newly opened store in this upscale suburb west of Houston.Set up in the front of the store, The Busy Chef takes up about 2,000 square feet, according to a local source. Houston-based Randalls calls the operation a "home-meal solution" program in which chefs prepare "home-style meals" and package

SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Randalls Food Markets has launched a home-meal replacement concept, The Busy Chef, at a newly opened store in this upscale suburb west of Houston.

Set up in the front of the store, The Busy Chef takes up about 2,000 square feet, according to a local source. Houston-based Randalls calls the operation a "home-meal solution" program in which chefs prepare "home-style meals" and package them in heat-and-serve containers.

The program has been tested previously in stores in the Austin and Dallas markets. Randalls has hired chefs to work on the program and has developed an employee internship with the University of Houston's Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Busy Chef departments are anticipated in all new Randalls stores, said the local source. Randalls officials declined to comment on the new program.

A local source described the meals sold at the store as "not very upscale. This doesn't compare to Kroger's and Rice," the source said, referring to two competitors in the Houston market.

Pot roast with carrots, turkey legs, chicken tenders, rotisserie chicken in cajun and lemon-pepper flavored marinades and chicken fajitas were among the meals sold the day a source visited the store.

Other area sources said The Busy Chef is being hurried into market by Randalls as an attempt to get further into the meals market as Eatzi's, the hybrid market/restaurant, readies an entry into the Houston market. The expansion of Eatzi's from the Dallas market is being scrutinized by both food-service and retail executives to see if the format can be successfully replicated.

The Busy Chef is also seen as a bid by Randalls to join head-to-head competition with Houston-based Rice Food Markets' Rice Epicurean banner stores, which have developed a strong local reputation for quality fresh meals.