IT'S MEAL TIME

Retailers are trying harder than ever to make it easier for shoppers to pick and buy prepared foods out of the deli.Supermarket deli and food-service executives are experimenting with more product sizes, more variety and more than one place in the store to pick products up.They told SN that they are packing up a "meal of the day" for two into a neat package to make the daily decision of what to eat

Retailers are trying harder than ever to make it easier for shoppers to pick and buy prepared foods out of the deli.

Supermarket deli and food-service executives are experimenting with more product sizes, more variety and more than one place in the store to pick products up.

They told SN that they are packing up a "meal of the day" for two into a neat package to make the daily decision of what to eat less taxing. Or they're breaking the meal packs down, pulling the side dishes away from the entree and instead packing entrees and sides all in single-serving containers to give customers a freer hand to mix and match.

And the list goes on. Retailers said they are offering price breaks on family-sized meals; adding more prepared foods self-service; displaying desserts in the deli case; building fuller meal programs around existing successful entrees such as fried or rotisserie chicken; adding chilled, ready-to-heat products to existing hot food programs, and increasing the variety of items offered each day.

"Supermarkets are beginning to realize the potential in carry-out foods. For those who are getting seriously into it, it's plus business," said Stephan Kouzomis, president of Entrepreneurial Consulting, Cincinnati, and a prepared foods trend watcher.

At this point, while most retailers are still heavily into experimenting, a crucial question emerging is how best to present the meal in the store.

Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., for example, tried packaged whole meals last year, but without much success. The chain was packing a chef-prepared entree with two sides in a three-compartment container. Now it offers all items separately in single-serving packages.

"We're aiming to accommodate the whole family's taste buds. The kids might not like the same side dishes that the parents like," said Gianfranco DiCarlo, director of food service at the 140-unit chain.

"We want to make it easy. If Boston Market can do it, so can we," said Tom Hughes, director of marketing at 14-unit Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa.

What follows are some food-service executives' latest experiments:

Kathy McDade

director, deli merchandising Harvest Foods Little Rock, Ark.

We've added three types of ethnic foods in the last year: Italian, Mexican and Oriental.

We have a few home-style entrees like beef stroganoff and pot pies, but they don't do as well as the ethnic items in our areas.

Our biggest challenge has been finding products that taste great that aren't priced too high. But manufacturers are offering better products and they keep working on them.

Two years ago I couldn't find an ethnic line we would want, but now there's better quality and new products that make it easy for us. For example, we're buying a fully cooked fried chicken that we offer in the self-service case where we don't have a hot food program.

I've been putting a prepared food in our ad every week for the last year. It's important to keep telling people you have it and to offer it in as many ways as possible. We're also cross-merchandising Italian bread from our bakery with the items in the self-service case.

Phil Grasso

VP, deli, food-service operations Ingles Markets Black Mountain, N.C.

We're putting more focus on a whole meal. We more heavily promote our "mega meal," which is a family-sized meal built around a whole roasted chicken or eight pieces of fried chicken. And the way we're merchandising it, in a half-sheet cake container, looks great.

We've also just recently begun offering more choices in chicken meals. For example, a quarter chicken with a roll and two vegetables for $2.99 and a dinner with half a chicken for $3.89. Right now those are from the service counter, but we may expand it to the refrigerated case.

We added an antipasto salad. Those salads are selling very well. Even where we have salad bars, those salads go fast. It's quicker to pick one up than to go to the salad bar. And it's a meal.

Tom Hughes director, marketing Clemens Markets Kulpsville, Pa.

For the first time, we're offering refrigerated meals and meal components. We launched our program on March 13 and put it into all our stores simultaneously. The big feature is a meal of the day for two people. It's $9.95.

At the same time we introduced the meals for two, we launched a whole menu of single-serving sides and entrees. We post a menu for the whole month so customers know what's going to be available. We have 27 varieties of entrees. They're made at our central kitchen and delivered fresh every morning to each of our stores.

We did this because we've acknowledged that the trend is there. People want to take a meal home. Boston Market's success has been a wake-up call.

Gianfranco DiCarlo

director, food service Harris Teeter Charlotte, N.C.

We made a paradigm shift from offering a whole meal to packaging both entrees and sides in individual servings because we found that that's what our customers want. They want to pick up the components separately.

So that we can offer top-quality, fresh prepared foods in all our stores, that have never been frozen, we've partnered with some small regional manufacturers to supply us with entrees and sides made to our specifications.

We're about to add some ethnic items, including Italian. And I'd serve those Italian entrees to my mother; that's how good they are.

We hold frequent focus groups to find out what customers want. And we found our customers wanted the option of ethnic foods as well as the rural American cooking that we have.

Nancy Rand

deli director Quillin's La Crosse, Wis.

We've started building dinners around a rotisserie turkey breast. It serves four. You get a 2.75-pound boneless breast, four baked potatoes, a pound of coleslaw and four dinner rolls for $12.99.

And we display it in the whole-bird, bubble-top container, with the potatoes wrapped in gold foil right in there. It looks great.

We're also building a dinner around our roasted chickens. Not only does the customer get a whole meal, but we get a better margin with a dinner built around them. The margin goes up more than 5% when we add a pound of potato salad, four rolls and a cherries jubilee salad.

Right now we're working on expanding a value-dinner-of-the-day menu. We had been offering a meat loaf dinner with corn and mashed potatoes and a roll for $2.99 from our hot service case. We want to maintain the $2.99 on all the value meals, so we've decreased the portion sizes and substituted some vegetables. We did this after hiring a food-service adviser who pointed out our portions were too big and that we shouldn't be selling meals without taking at least a 60% margin.

We've experimented with different menu items with our regular-priced dinners and found that pork chops go great here, but Mexican food didn't do so well. Next will be menu boards. I think they're a necessity.

Steve Nelson

director, deli B&R Stores Lincoln, Neb.

We've introduced a family-sized meal built around baked and fried chicken at our Super Saver stores, and we'll expand that to include other entrees, the homey-type foods like meat loaf maybe. We're doing this because we are in the food-service business whether we like it or not; so we want to compete with the Boston Markets.

We also added desserts in the service deli case to complete the meal idea. In our conventional stores, we'll be adding whole meals, too, but we don't know exactly what yet. We're trying to get feedback from our customers right now to see what they want.

We've also changed some of our vegetables to a higher quality product such as fresh mashed potatoes that we get from a regional supplier.