NEW PRICE CHOPPER UNIT BOASTS LARGE PRODUCE AREA

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- A new Price Chopper here is home to a 19,000-square-foot produce department, boasting the largest selection of fruits and vegetables in the Metro Kansas City area.Opened Aug. 14 by McKeever Enterprises, a local corporation which owns several other Price Choppers and Country Marts in the area, the new 92,000-square-foot store is housed in a former Wal-Mart building.It is an upgraded

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- A new Price Chopper here is home to a 19,000-square-foot produce department, boasting the largest selection of fruits and vegetables in the Metro Kansas City area.

Opened Aug. 14 by McKeever Enterprises, a local corporation which owns several other Price Choppers and Country Marts in the area, the new 92,000-square-foot store is housed in a former Wal-Mart building.

It is an upgraded version of the former 55,000-square-foot Price Chopper which, until the new unit opened, stood across the street. The produce department there was a mere 3,000 square feet.

The reasoning behind such a big department is two-fold, according to Alan McKeever, co-owner and operator with his father, John, and brother, Gary. "We attempted to continue one of the strongest produce departments in the [Kansas City area]," he said. "And we upgraded it."

McKeever and Alan Chapman, spokesman for the Kansas marketing firm Wilson Chapmanalso pointed out that consumers in the "health-conscious" 1990s are looking for this kind of selection. "It's where the future is," Chapman added.

The produce staff had to be doubled -- from 14 to 28 -- to run the department, which is about 20 percent bigger than its closest competitor, another McKeever store here which measures about 89,000 total square feet, said Chapman.

Shoppers entering the produce department, slightly to the right of the entrance, first encounter the department's value-added section, which measures about 600 square feet, and features a working crew of five.

"The department is led off by a value-added presentation/ preparation area," McKeever said. "We did not even have a value-added section in the old store."

In the new store, consumers have their choice of fresh-cut salads and fruits, including melon balls, fruit-kabobs, guacamole, fruit trays and cheese-filled celery sticks. Officials said they are still waiting to determine if the department can maintain its profitability while maintaining its current staff size. "We may have over hired, but we'll have to see," said Alan McKeever, co-owner and operator with his father, John, and brother, Gary.

But produce supervisor Richard Smith believes the department will be able to carry the weight. "There will be no problem," Smith said. "We're doing quite a bit more volume, about $30,000 a week."

Despite the department's size, McKeever is conservatively estimating it will account for a 12-percent sales distribution, which he said is roughly the industry average. He expects the distribution to "equal that of the other store," but was quick to add, "we really don't know what the upside will be."

Following another industry trend, a large salad bar between the deli and produce department is attracting a larger lunchtime clientele, produce manager Paul Marra said. "We have a lot of business people coming in," he added. The former store offered a smaller, traditionally-shaped rectangular salad bar with about 25 items to choose from, but the new bar is a "horseshoe-type" bar, measuring about 10 feet wide and about 16.5 feet long on each side of the U-shaped structure. Consumers have their choice of about 72 different salad items, as well as two soups and 11 types of salad dressings, Marra said.

The salad bar staff prepares many its own items, and emphasizes bite-sized portions, Smith said, because "that's what the people want."

There is not only a stress on quantity, but on being open-minded about variety, as evidenced by the department's stock of about 446 items, McKeever said. "We will try everything that's out there."

The department includes exotics and other hard-to-find items such as Fuji and Gala apples, baby vegetables, exotic roots such as terra and yucca, cactus leaves and edible flowers, according to Marra.

Though these are not big sellers, the store attracts a more diverse clientele because it carries such rare items, he added.