MARSH CUTS RIBBON ON FAST-CASUAL RESTAURANT

INDIANAPOLIS -- Marsh Supermarkets has opened its first-ever freestanding restaurant featuring simple fare, cooked to order and served up with a splash of Mediterranean ambiance.Convenience tops the menu at the casual-dining cafe. Fax orders, an express takeout window and light-up pagers that notify customers their food is ready are part of the plan to make things as easy as possible for people to

INDIANAPOLIS -- Marsh Supermarkets has opened its first-ever freestanding restaurant featuring simple fare, cooked to order and served up with a splash of Mediterranean ambiance.

Convenience tops the menu at the casual-dining cafe. Fax orders, an express takeout window and light-up pagers that notify customers their food is ready are part of the plan to make things as easy as possible for people to buy a meal to eat in or take out.

Customers are urged to fax or phone in their takeout orders so they can pick them up after work without having to wait for them, though a seating area provides an eat-in option.

Menu items, prepared in an open kitchen, are limited to the likes of rotisserie chicken, pizza, and salads, soups and sandwiches. This might sound more like a fold-out of a store deli, but the decor of the footprint takes everything a step further, with earth-tone tiles and a central brick fireplace adding a touch of warmth. Chairs and tables, enough to accommodate 110 guests, overflow into a plant-bedecked courtyard.

Called Trios Di Toscanos Cafe and described by Marsh officials as quick-casual, the unit is meant to evoke a feeling of being in Tuscany, a region of Italy known particularly for its fresh-prepared food. Here, eat-in orders are served on china and small bouquets of fresh flowers sit on each table. Trios Di Toscanos is co-housed under one roof with McNamara Florists, also owned by Marsh.

"In fact, the beepers, which illuminate when a customer's order is ready, work in both structures. So people are free to browse around in McNamara's, which is also a gift shop," said Jodi Marsh, spokeswoman for the chain of 114 supermarkets and 166 convenience stores in Indiana and Ohio.

Marsh was quick to point out, however, that the wait for meals is not long even though most items are prepared to order.

The menu, while relatively simple from a production standpoint, shows a touch of class. For example, Tuscan salad is described as fresh baby greens topped with mandarin oranges, sun dried cherries, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and sliced pears, finished with a raspberry vinaigrette, $5.95. Top with chicken, add $2. Then there is an Italian beef sandwich, which contains marinated Italian beef topped with marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese and mild jardiniere peppers, freshly baked in the oven, $6.50.

The standout on the pizza list is pizza vento, a hand-tossed crust topped with creamy alfredo sauce, caramelized onions, spinach, cremini mushrooms and ricotta cheese. It, as well as other varieties, are available in three sizes: 7-inch, $5.95; 12-inch, $10.95; and 16-inch, $14.95.

Children, too, have lots of choices. Those include a 7-inch cheese pizza, a 7-inch pepperoni pizza, macaroni and cheese, a rotisserie drumstick with two sides, soup and two breadsticks, and a vegetarian plate. With each of those choices, they get a 16-ounce fountain beverage and a cookie.

A family meal that includes a whole rotisserie chicken, two large sides and six bread sticks is $22.50.

The family-oriented ambiance and the price range make the cafe's offerings a logical alternative to fast food, industry sources said. All children's meals are $3.50; an average check for an individual adult runs about $7 to $8; and the average price for family meals is $20 to $25, Marsh officials said.

For ordering, the format is very much like that at a Panera Bread Co. unit. Customers walk up to a long counter where an overhead menu lists what's available and employees can be seen preparing food. Customers place their orders and pay for them, and are handed a beeper which will alert them when their food is ready.

While the unit had a soft opening April 1, it got its grand opening on April 13 and since then the cafe has been full to capacity all day long, Marsh told SN. It's not possible to make a determination as to what daypart brings in the largest number of guests, she added.

Not surprisingly for a new cafe, most business at this point has been eat-in dining, but Marsh said takeout business has been good, too.

The simple menu makes it possible to feature cooked-to-order food and that was a priority to emphasize the freshness of everything, Marsh said. So is the proximity of the flower store.

"The theme in McNamara's will be changed out with the seasons, and it will carry into the courtyard and cafe. That, too, will emphasize freshness," Marsh said.

The restaurant takes its name -- in Italian -- from the fact it offers three food groupings popular in Tuscany: rotisserie entrees, gourmet pizza and soup/salad/sandwiches.

The cafe and floral shop occupy a total of 8,656 square feet, with about 5,000 dedicated to the cafe's prep and seating area.

Located in a northeast suburb of Indianapolis, the cafe is also near a new lifestyle market format Marsh opened in late January. This cafe's launch may be just the beginning, because chain officials are entertaining the idea of expanding the concept.

"If this pilot location goes well, we may expand this new concept throughout the Midwest," said Don E. Marsh, chairman and chief executive officer, in a statement on the day of the grand opening.

The cafe is operated by Crystal Food Services, a Marsh subsidiary. With the acquisition of Crystal Enterprises in 1994, and the merging of it with its then-catering department, Marsh became the largest caterer in Indiana.

Then one year later, the chain acquired Martz & Associates Food Services. At that time, a stock analyst with Raffensperger, Hughes & Co., an Indianapolis brokerage firm, said, "Marsh's latest acquisition is part of the company's strategic plan to get into higher margin, service-oriented business so they don't have to go head-to-head on price with the likes of Meijer and Cub."