LOCATION IS EVERYTHING

WOODBURY, N.Y. -- Customers can barely get through the doors at the new Sutton Place Gourmet here before someone tries to feed them.Just to shop, customers must traverse a gauntlet of scones with lemon curd, guacamole corn chips, grilled teriyaki beef, sourdough bread, oil-cured olives and blueberry pound cake, to name a few offerings. The noshing opportunities seem endless.Not only do samplers roam

WOODBURY, N.Y. -- Customers can barely get through the doors at the new Sutton Place Gourmet here before someone tries to feed them.

Just to shop, customers must traverse a gauntlet of scones with lemon curd, guacamole corn chips, grilled teriyaki beef, sourdough bread, oil-cured olives and blueberry pound cake, to name a few offerings. The noshing opportunities seem endless.

Not only do samplers roam the aisles and departments offer plates of frequently changing samples; if customers linger at the cheese, deli or juice counters, sales associates are likely to offer a chance to taste any item, as well as information on its origin, flavor, and serving suggestions.

Meat counter clerks advise on marinated grilling times and point out fliers explaining why the store stocks Certified Black Angus beef. Prominently displayed catering menus for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur signal an understanding of the area's significant Jewish population. A preferred shopper program gets prominent placement at the store's front desk, where a secretary handles customer queries.

Departments are illuminated with tinted theatrical lights placed by a designer who's studied color psychology. And each section displays photos and biographies of department managers.

"When our customers return, we want them to know the people here so they can ask, 'What's the difference between these two salamis, Sam,' " said Betsy Garside, SPG's director, relationship marketing.

All of it adds up to savvy marketing, which is a key component in SPG's grand scheme to become the main New York-Washington corridor gourmet home-meal replacement retailer.

While they intend to instruct, SPG's strategists also hope to amuse.

"We wanted an environment that was festive and literally entertaining," said SPG president Tom Johnston. "We have a destination that's fun to shop in, where food is fun, food is delicious, food is fast."

Fast perhaps, but not fast-food, and not fast-food prices, either.

The commitment to gourmet home-meal replacement here is impressive: 21,000 square feet designed around meal solutions, with scores of marinated ready-to-cook, cooked-to-order, heat-and-eat and grab-and-go entrees. In addition, SPG gathers meal ingredients -- fresh pasta, house-brand sauces, cheeses and appetizers, for instance -- together in one-stop cooler islands.

While the store contains traditional high-quality bakery, pastry and candy sections, the stars are the meal replacement components.

"What we have is a store that is culinary-directed,"said Johnston. "Everything has been thought through by our chefs, so we can present total solutions for dining at home."

The store marks the merger of Sutton Place Gourmet's prepared food expertise with Hay Day's way with produce, juices, marinades and sauces. It's the first store built since the companies combined in 1995, and one of three prototypes to appear this year -- others are set to open shortly in Reston and McLean, Va.

"We've been able to incorporate the best of Hay Day with the best of Sutton Place Gourmet, taking some things from column A and others from column B. This is the first store of many to go forth as the new Sutton Place Gourmet," said Johnston.

Sales are ahead of expectations, according to store manager Chris Snell. Johnston said that consumer response at this location may accelerate SPG's expansion plans.

"Usually, we would wait a little while to see how we do in a site where nobody knows where or who we are, but the response is so overwhelming that we might be a little more aggressive on opening another store or two on Long Island," Johnston said. Philadelphia is also being considered.

SPG will seek out sites next to top-notch merchants who already attract traffic, he said.

The Sutton Place Gourmet unit here is located on a five-lane road about 100 yards from a giant Pathmark; and adjacent to two small strip centers with a butcher, cheese shop, fish shop, bagelry, sandwich stop, fresh produce stand, Chinese restaurant and pizzeria. An Edward's supermarket is also close by.

The impact has already hit at least some food-retailing neighbors. "Weekdays, we do pretty much the same business, but on weekends, they're killing us," said an employee from a competitor's shop.

The store's physical heart may be its brightly lit, movable produce department, but its driving force is the "traiteur" (defined by the store as a department where restaurant-quality meals -- and advice from on-staff chefs -- are featured). The department is an SPG hallmark, where customers can buy meals cooked to order and consult with chefs about creating a dish not on the menu.

"This is a real working kitchen, where the chef talks to customers and is not just there to be seen," said Johnston. At least one chef from a staff of nine is on duty at all times.

Two long intersecting coolers wrap the traiteur's open kitchen area, with chefs at work over the stoves at the rear. Customers can order off the bistro or pizza menus above the kitchen, help themselves to soup, and browse the 30-odd entrees, salads and side dishes arranged in the case.

"We've been very pleased with the traffic so far," said Snell. "The traiteur typically takes time to put together a customer base. People are reluctant to spend money if they don't know what the food is like, but so far, we're doing very, very well."

The bistro menu offers two size portions daily of selected entrees cooked to order, like brochettes of marinated lamb and vegetables for $5.75 and $7.50, or beef marinated in a puree of sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, pine nuts and garlic for $6.95 a pound or $20 for a whole roast. Each meal includes a starch and vegetable, and extra side portions cost $1.95.

Prepared food prices ran from $3.79 to $12.99 per pound. Beef brisket and pulled pork were priced at $11.99, spinach lasagna at $9.99, chicken cooked on a restaurant-quality French Rotisol rotisserie at $3.49 and quinoa salad with ginger at $6.95, the latter a testament to Hay Day's marketing strength.

The gourmet department also addresses the health-conscious among its customers with a line branded "Nutrition in No Time." The items are designed by the company's nutritionist with lower fat, salt and sugar content. At least one entree and two sides are always available, marked in the case with orange cards bearing the "Nutrition in No Time" brand.

Customers can also order Caesar salads tossed to order ($3.25 and $5.50.) Up to 50 pizzas (priced at $6.95 and $7.95) are cooked to order daily in a wood-burning oven where chefs also roast vegetables and fish. Pizza menus have been distributed locally, but there was no promotion inside the store, except for the oven's flames.

Near the traiteur are two open coolers stocked with premade salads, quiches, enchiladas, shepherd's pie, pot pies, meat and vegetarian chilies, stews and soups packaged for take home, at prices from $5.95 for small individual quiches to $10.95 for a 24-ounce chicken pot pie.

The store is roughly octagonal in shape. The entrance is flanked immediately by a coffee shop/ice cream parlor on the right and a housewares department on the left. The center of the store is dominated by the produce section, and the other departments are arrayed along a meandering wall. After the coffee shop on the right comes a juice bar, cheese, charcuterie, deli, meat, traiteur, seafood, bakery, pastry, and candy.

To execute the marketing scheme, SPG sought out knowledgeable workers. Some have worked at Dean & Deluca and Balducci's, two well-known New York gourmet retailers.

"We are staffed with professionals on the floor, people who come out of restaurants, hotels or private catering companies, or aspiring food professionals" who try to create the educational experience key to SPG's marketing, said Johnston.

At a cheese counter stocked with at least 150 varieties, a clerk discussed a cheese's flavor when chilled vs. room temperature. More than 20 types of cheeses were displayed in an on-site aging case, while the rest were divided between precut cheeses in a cooler and uncut at room temperature.

"People are tasting and learning about what we have, and we're providing total solutions, giving people the whole package," said Garside.

By mid-afternoon on the weekday SN visited, business was brisk at the traiteur and as well at the bakery and cheese counters. At the deli counter, a clerk said business was strong from 11 a.m to 2 p.m., with bursts again in late afternoon and early evening.

Twelve deli sandwiches, among them the "President's Choice" hero made with ham, roast turkey and swiss cheese, and "Cosmo's Garden Vegetable Ciabatta" of grilled vegetables, provolone cheese, sprouts and arugula on ciabatta bread, were priced on the menu from $4.99 to $5.99.

The deli adjoins a professional charcuterie section selling fine meats, cured and smoked fish, duck rillettes, trout mousse, sausages, caviar and pates. Prepared white tuna salad sold for $8.99 per pound and a "lite" version for $6.99.

The coffee/ice cream bar with counters and seats also serves as an early morning take-out spot.

"Even though the store isn't open at 7 a.m., we have regulars coming in for coffee and pastry who also pick up a salad or sandwich to take with them, and they're literally back on the highway in minutes," said Snell. Premade sandwiches are generally gone by 11 a.m.

At the juice bar, customers pick from a variety of freshly squeezed products, like the 18-ounce tropical juice "Molokai Cooler" for $3.25, and "Give Me Life," a mix of spinach, lettuce, parsley, celery, kale and carrot juices for $1.99 for 14 ounces, or $2.29 for 18 ounces.

Even the produce section -- anchored by a 1950s tractor, with fruits and vegetables stacked on movable cases -- incorporates meal solutions.

Near the artfully displayed produce, a long cooler is stocked with plastic containers of value-added vegetables, like spinach and broccoli florets at $4.99 for one-half pound and haricot verts at $9.99 a pound.

In the fresh fish and meat areas, clerks reported marinated items were selling faster than fresh, an indicator that SPG is indeed attracting meal solution customers.

"We also try to teach them about how to handle and cook these meats," said a clerk. Sirloin kabobs were priced at $7.99 per pound, chicken kabobs $5.99 per pound, marinated London broil $6.99 per pound, marinated duck breast $10.99 per pound and marinated veal $15.99 per pound.

Marinated Chilean sea bass in ginger sesame vinaigrette was priced at $9.99 per pound, and marinated pieces of sole or salmon in garlic, oil and Italian seasonings cost $15.99 per pound. Fish and meat sales were slower than hoped, perhaps due to the success of the traiteur, speculated one in-store source.

Nine types and sizes of pasta sauce shared space in one cooler with boxed fresh mushroom fettucine, basil linguine, and ravioli, a selection of appetizer cheeses, marinated roasted vegetables, and a hollow round of parmigiano reggiano filled with wrapped chunks. Near by, bottled sauces were displayed with dry pasta, olive oils and vinegars.

A few feet from a rack of corn, potato and vegetable chips, a cooler held 16 dips and salsas packed in 8 and 16 ounce sizes, priced from $3.79 to $4.99, among them chile tequila dip, black bean dip, Southwestern mayonnaise, hot Southwestern salsa, and black bean and corn salsa.

"We don't think of ourselves as being in the supermarket business," said Johnston. "We're really a specialty food store, so we like locating near supermarkets. Even though we're all competing against each other, we feel we have something unique to offer."

But in this prototype, SPG has definitely staked its claim as a competitor in the meals business, and is demonstrating the kind of marketing expertise that food industry consultants are telling more mainstream operators they'd do well to aspire to.