KING KULLEN HEATS UP

WESTBURY, N.Y. -- King Kullen Grocery Co. here is making a case for hot food.Pure and simple, it is this: More couples are working. They want something quick to take home for dinner. Deli traffic between 5 and 7 in the evening is building. So why not cater to what the customer wants to eat at that hour?The chain is already moving in that direction.At its most recently opened store in Levittown, N.Y.,

WESTBURY, N.Y. -- King Kullen Grocery Co. here is making a case for hot food.

Pure and simple, it is this: More couples are working. They want something quick to take home for dinner. Deli traffic between 5 and 7 in the evening is building. So why not cater to what the customer wants to eat at that hour?

The chain is already moving in that direction.

At its most recently opened store in Levittown, N.Y., where a new format bunches fresh food departments together, the service deli features an 8-foot hot case. Another new store with a similar format, in Massapequa Park, N.Y., offers even more: 12 feet of hot foods.

And since these two stores opened, a hot case has been added in an existing store on Staten Island.

"This is the direction we'll be taking in the future," said Don Kirby, director of dairy and deli for the 48-unit chain.

It's precisely the opposite of what many chains and independents have done recently. An increasing number have opted to cut out or cut back on hot food and expand chilled entree sections in order to guard against shrink and to be able to "stay more easily within food safety guidelines," as one retailer put it.

King Kullen, in fact, had tried out a variety of foods served hot about eight years ago with limited success, and then abandoned the concept altogether until now. "I think we were just ahead of our time," a King Kullen source told SN on a recent visit to the chain's Levittown store. "There's a good market now for ready-to-eat foods and we're doing very well with them. We'll put steam tables in wherever it's feasible."

Meanwhile, King Kullen has been offering a variety of chilled entrees, and sales of those are growing dramatically as busy consumers look for almost or completely table-ready food. That has spurred the chain to try hot items again, a King Kullen source said.

And the list of hot entrees is growing.

Now, in addition to fried and rotisseried chickens, the three stores offer six to eight entrees such as lasagna, stuffed peppers and Hawaiian chicken and three or four hot side dishes daily.

Variety is important, a store source told SN. "We have a menu of about 15 entrees and we rotate them at least every other day so customers won't get bored with what we've got," he said.

Most of the items are sourced frozen from outside, a departure from King Kullen's earlier, limited hot food program from scratch. "It was too complicated and labor-intensive. Now we let someone else do it, but we're very careful to take on only a product that's tops in quality," the source said. "It can take years to find a particular product we want that meets our standards."

But the ribs and rotisseried chickens are store-cooked, and most salads and a variety of quiches are made in-store.

On the day SN visited, items on the hot table included chicken cacciatore for $5.99 a pound; baked ziti, $1.99 a pound; sausage and peppers, $3.99; chili, $4.59; fried chicken breasts, $3.99; barbecued spareribs, $3.99; and stuffing and mashed potatoes, both $1.99. Signs behind the deli counter, where a large variety of chilled entrees and salads are displayed, signaled the availability of additional hot items not seen on the steam table. For example, some signs read, "steamed vegetables, $7.99 a pound; egg plant parmigiana available hot or cold, $3.99 a pound; chicken cutlets, available hot or cold, $4.99."

In the midst of such variety, chicken still remains a top favorite, particularly a newly introduced program featuring brand-name rotisseried, marinated chickens available in three-varieties: lemon pepper, barbecued, and regular. They're $1.99 a pound.

"They're doing great," said Madeline Petrizzo, deli manager at the store SN visited. "I've been going through three cases a day."

The rotisseried birds, cooked in view of customers, were loaded onto trays in the hot case more than once during SN's visit. Customers asked about the different varieties, and around 5 p.m. a crowd clustered around the hot table, several ordering a rotisseried chicken.

A King Kullen source said the chickens are doing so well that "we'll be getting them into all our stores as soon as we can within the next few months."

"I think they're popular not only because they're good, but people feel rotisseried chicken is healthy," the deli manager added, noting that grilled chicken cutlets, displayed chilled in the service case, are also a best-seller. "They just fly out of here," she said, pointing to a long dish of the cutlets which, with grill marks seared into them, looked like they had been cooked on an outdoor grill.

"That's because I cook them in a cast-iron pan with ridges on the bottom. There's no oil. I think people see those as particularly healthy."

Since there's no seating in King Kullen's stores, the prepared foods lineup doesn't constitute a food court per se, but it's apparent that the retailer is aiming to give customers a very wide range of eating possibilities. A line of four heart-healthy salads, including Oriental chicken and rice salad, is the newest addition to King Kullen's deli offerings.

In the 34-foot European-style service deli case, salads are displayed together, and chilled entrees such as meatballs and stuffed cabbage are placed together. A 2-foot, wedge-shaped case, joining two lengths of European-style curved glass case, holds six to eight everyday-type desserts such as rice pudding, chocolate pudding and jello, all priced at $1.99 a pound.

A mix of geometric shapes and sizes of containers adds interest to the long case. Commodity salads, and specialty salads, such as Carolina coleslaw, are offered in different-sized white or neutral-colored rectangular dishes.

The lineup is accented with two huge, round ceramic bowls, one piled high with spinach salad complete with whole egg halves and whole pieces of bacon for $2.99 a pound. The other large, round bowl was heaped with Greek salad and priced at $1.99 a half pound.

The deli's store-made tuna salad and chicken salad, both $3.99, have prominent spots in the deli case, too.

There's also a limited selection of quick meals available for those customers who don't want to wait to be served. In a 4-foot, upright self-service case, recently introduced store-made quiches occupy the first two shelves.

All four varieties -- ham, bacon, spinach and broccoli -- were priced at $5.99. The 1.25-pound, family-sized quiches, however, are sometimes featured in the chain's ad circular at $4.99. "They've really taken off. I make at least 30 of them three times a week," the deli manager said.

Sharing the self-service case with the quiches are hero sandwiches in two sizes in see-through clamshell containers. Alongside them are two-serving containers of potato salad and macaroni salad.

If these varieties don't give customers enough ideas, King Kullen staffers are on hand for suggestive selling. SN observed a staffer helping a customer make a complete meal with the items on the steam table. As the deli associate wrapped up a rotisseried chicken for the customer, he asked, "Would you like some potatoes and stuffing to go with that?" The answer was yes.

Everything about the fresh food area of this newest store is customer-friendly.

Upon entering the 48,104-square-foot store, customers are drawn to the left into the fresh food departments, the first of which is the produce department. Crates of fruit and vegetables are displayed on slanted, wooden tables.

The deli counter runs along the right, and across a wide aisle from it are the bakery service counter and a lineup of self-service bakery cases.

The seafood department follows the bakery at the end of the aisle.

The floor space between the bakery and deli looks particularly wide.

"People say they like to shop here because, for one reason, there's plenty of room," said a deli staffer.

Three cheese islands -- one for domestic cheeses, one for specialty cheeses and one that holds primarily cooking cheeses -- are set at an angle between the bakery counter and deli counter. That gives the appearance of more floor space than if they were lined up, cutting the aisle in half.

Customers have plenty of room to back up and get a good view of the extensive variety of items, hot and cold, in the 34-foot length of deli cases.