MEALS CONCEPT EXPANDS TO NEW AREAS

ROGERS, Ark. -- A hybrid restaurant/specialty market launched and refined here by the man who helped pioneer Wal-Mart's supercenters has met with so much success that it's proceeding to the next item on the menu -- expansion.The second location, with more space, variety and a bigger agenda, recently opened in Tulsa, Okla., and three more will debut this year. Glenview, Ill., a Chicago suburb, is next

ROGERS, Ark. -- A hybrid restaurant/specialty market launched and refined here by the man who helped pioneer Wal-Mart's supercenters has met with so much success that it's proceeding to the next item on the menu -- expansion.

The second location, with more space, variety and a bigger agenda, recently opened in Tulsa, Okla., and three more will debut this year. Glenview, Ill., a Chicago suburb, is next with a May opening.

Business in Tulsa has exceeded what he expected, said Richard Donckers, who served as vice president of food retailing at Wal-Mart until he left in 1993 to form his own consulting company.

Changes wrought from experience at the first location has brought about a bigger variety of prepared foods, including more comfort foods; a much larger selection of produce and specialty grocery items; more seating; and an expanded service salad counter and made-to-order sandwich station.

"It's not that we've added to the variety of sandwiches we're making -- we have 18 signature sandwiches -- but we've enlarged the space for that part of the operation by about 40%, and we've increased our service salad counter from eight feet to 14 feet. We toss salads to order, in a big bowl, so now with the added space, we can have two lines going at the same time," Donckers said. "It's all about service."

The whole atmosphere is decidedly interactive. Whether they approach the bakery or the chef's prepared-foods case, customers most likely will be offered a taste of something. In fact, associates are told they should be offering samples all the time, said Donckers, who has always been a strong proponent of demoing.

A tone of warmth and service is set immediately by a coffee/espresso shop just inside the door where comfortable seating, tantalizing pastries and associates stand ready.

The only problem that has arisen since the Tulsa store opened on St. Patrick's Day is traffic control, and that will require some tweaking, Donckers stated.

"The line for sandwiches gets long in such a short time, we have to put up those ropes to keep the line going and then put a couple of our people out there as expediters," Donckers said.

"We're already talking about moving the soups maybe to the deli. Right now, they're at the center island, and it gets very crowded there. We figure if we move the soups, it will take some of the pressure off that area."

Production of some items, too, like Thai crab balls and New England crab cakes, has had to be cranked up significantly because they were selling through before the evening rush began, Donckers said. So was quiche.

"Quiche does very well for us, including a low-carb quiche. We left the crust off," Donckers explained.

When he launched The Market at Pinnacle Point in Wal-Mart's corporate backyard four years ago, Donckers did not expect the concept to be embraced with quite the degree of enthusiasm it has been.

It seems that the old real-estate maxim of "location, location, location" does indeed count for a lot.

"There's nobody else around doing what we're doing. The uniqueness and the quality of our products are the key because people view us as the [one] place to find the unusual item and the gourmet-type items," Donckers said.

That's part of the strategy. Quality products and excellent service are a given, but Donckers and his business partners seek sites meeting certain criteria and located in the central part of the country where gourmet shops don't abound.

The Tulsa store is situated in an upscale residential section of the city, near the Southern Hills Country Club where the U.S. Open is played some years. Just across the street is the largest medical center in Oklahoma. Two office towers, too, are within easy walking distance.

Donckers and his partners have been listening to their customers as well.

"We had people asking us for more produce items. So in Tulsa, we've upped the selection by 75%," he said. "And they do use us, too, as a convenience [store] sometimes, to pick up milk or ice cream on the way home from work. So we've expanded the dairy section."

Customers' constant quest for variety is being met. At the Tulsa store, the center island's prepared foods number about 108 daily -- including appetizers, entrees and desserts -- compared to 50 at the original Rogers location. Low-carb items are being added, and the recent positive press that ginger has received is on Donckers' radar screen, too.

"Nutritionists are pushing ginger, saying it's good for digestion. We'll jump on that by somehow promoting ginger products -- bottled sauces, ground ginger, also fresh ginger in produce," Donckers said.

If all this sounds a bit like EatZi's, that's no accident. The hybrid restaurant/meals store pioneered by Phil Romano at Brinker International, Dallas, in the mid-1990s played a big role in Donckers' inspiration for the concept. So did some New York City great-food landmarks like Balducci's, Dean & DeLuca and Zabar's. A little of the feeling of H. E. Butt Grocery Co.'s Central Market is incorporated, too, Donckers admitted.

"It's a very complex concept though, and one we probably would not franchise out because we want to have control of it."

That's certainly been a factor in locating sites for the stores coming up. Aside from being in upscale residential sections with office complexes, and ideally a medical center nearby, the locations must be within driving distance or a short, direct flight from his office in northwest Arkansas, Donckers told SN.

In addition to the soon-to-be-opened Glenview store, construction is under way in Des Moines, Iowa, and in Leawood, Kan., for stores scheduled to open later this year. The size of all will fall somewhere between the first store's 15,900 square feet and the Tulsa site's 22,300 square feet.