NEW HYBRID MEALS STORE MAKES PROVISIONS FOR LUNCH HOUR

ST. LOUIS -- An Eatzi's-like contender has entered the meals market here, with its sights set on the office lunch crowd and a long-range aim to slowly build its evening home-meal replacement business.Officials at the 11,000-square-foot hybrid restaurant-retail store, called Provisions, told SN their strategy is to gradually bulk up their evening business via word of mouth generated by lunch seekers."Right

ST. LOUIS -- An Eatzi's-like contender has entered the meals market here, with its sights set on the office lunch crowd and a long-range aim to slowly build its evening home-meal replacement business.

Officials at the 11,000-square-foot hybrid restaurant-retail store, called Provisions, told SN their strategy is to gradually bulk up their evening business via word of mouth generated by lunch seekers.

"Right now, traffic is heaviest at lunchtime. There are so many office buildings around here," said Jeffrey Schwartz, Provisions general manager. He emphasized that foot traffic and sales are just about where he expected them to be at this time, after less than a month in business. Daily transactions are hovering between 700 and 1,000, he said.

"But we haven't even had our grand opening yet. That's set for Sept. 8. We haven't done any advertising," he said.

Ads in the consumer press and local business journals, however, are on the horizon. So are 30-second radio spots. Other plans for the near future include building a hot breakfast business on weekends, courting additional self-service meals sales and expanding into catering, Schwartz said.

Meanwhile, customers are treated to such signature items as grilled pancetta shrimp, pasta-based entrees and a menu of interesting, made-to-order sandwiches and salads.

An example is grilled chicken club on focaccia, which contains marinated grilled chicken breast, sliced avocado, tomato, crisp bacon and leaf lettuce with chipotle mayonnaise. Southwestern chicken Caesar salad and Oriental chicken salad head up the salad list. Prices for both sandwiches and salads range from $3.95 to $5.95.

A selection of meals prepared and packed in-store is also available, but the focus is on a service sandwich and salad bar and a grill where a culinary team prepares meals to order.

About half of the store's space is devoted to perishables and half to packaged nonperishables such as pastas, sauces, chutneys, and gourmet oils and vinegars.

Schwartz describes the concept, launched by three local real estate developers, as part gourmet specialty store and part meals store. He acknowledged some of the inspiration for Provisions came from seeing Eatzi's -- the attention-getting hybrid restaurant-retail store launched more than a year ago in Dallas by Brinker International and restaurateur Phil Romano -- as well as from other successful retail stores. Local observers differ on how they see the Provisions concept and on how it compares to Eatzi's.

"It's an exciting concept, even better than Eatzi's, I think. I can't believe it's here in St. Louis. They're swamped at lunch. I think the menu and traffic pattern, the dine-in seating, are all well thought out," said Eric Peabody, manager of marketing, research and development, for Bunzl USA, a major packaging distributor whose headquarters is just two blocks from Provisions.

Peabody said he was impressed by the amount of sampling and demos going on constantly at Provisions and by the level of service. He described the willingness of the culinary staff to customize an entree.

"We went over to the grill where they were also preparing fresh pasta and I asked if they could add some vegetables to their wild mushroom port wine sauce for my pasta. The chef added some grilled vegetables and I asked for a dab of cream to heavy up the sauce and he did it quite willingly," Peabody said.

But a source at a local supermarket chain, who chose to remain anonymous, said "I don't think they come close to Eatzi's. I think they're going after the corporate gift business. It looks to me like that's what they're concentrating on. They've got a huge selection of wine and cigars. I can't see going there after work to take a meal home, maybe a bottle of wine and a stogie. But they're busy at lunchtime."

Bunzl's Peabody, however, said he'd like to see such a concept -- with the nonperishable gourmet specialties minimized -- inside a supermarket.

"You could do it. Take the perimeter, the deli and bakery, which are already there, and jazz it up like this," he said.

While he's definitely targeting the HMR business, Schwartz doesn't see Provisions directly competing with supermarkets in the area.

"We're not set up to compete head-on with supermarkets. We get our produce from local purveyors so we have what's in season, not a huge variety like in a supermarket, for example," Schwartz said. While the store offers an appealing list of made-to-order sandwiches and salads and a small selection of made-in-store meals packed up and ready to go, it also boasts 800 varieties of wine and 50 to 60 microbrews. A walk-in humidor shows off 60 varieties of cigars. A gift basket section is also included.

Provisions will definitely go after the corporate gift business, "especially as we get into the holiday season," Schwartz said. But he said Provisions wants to be known as a place to buy a freshly cooked meal. Like Eatzi's, the selections at the grill are changed each day to keep customer interest up, he said.

In addition to catering to the lunch crowd, Provisions is targeting the working couple for dinner business, Schwartz said.

"Those busy people who need to get something in their stomachs by seven o'clock in the evening but don't have time to cook. We're also targeting a sector in the senior population. It's easier for them to come here than to fight the parking lot at a supermarket," he said.

Schwartz said Provisions owners decided to take a slightly different tack from other meals stores as illustrated by its wide wine and cigar selection.

"Just about everybody else is targeting the 25-to-54 age females, but we're also going after the male clientele, the fellow who wants to be champ for the day by bringing dinner home. We even have a small selection of cut flowers near the checkouts," Schwartz said.

The store offers seating for about 20 at tables and another 15 at a counter against the wall just inside the entrance. Another 20 seats are provided outdoors. A cappuccino and smoothie bar is the first element to grab a customer's eye upon entering the store. Next comes the service sandwich and salad bar, which juts into the aisle in a V shape. One side of the V features a team of sandwich-makers; the other, salad preparers. Next in line is the bakery, which offers a hearth oven and a large variety of hot, European-style breads.

The grill is against the back wall. There, next to the grill, is a large selection of value-added, single-serving meats ready for grilling. There's also a fresh pasta station at that location.

Near the pasta station, a self-service case offers single-serving meals, made and packed in store.

The wine selection, the microbrews and the walk-in humidor line the last aisle in the traffic pattern. The center of the store is devoted to packaged gourmet items.

Schwartz said Provisions owners -- Michael, Bill and Jim Koman -- traveled around the United States visiting a number of retail stores and restaurants before they settled on how Provisions should look and operate. Eatzi's was one of them. So was Emily's Markets in Phoenix.