NOB HILL SET TO COOK UP CAFE, MENU EXPANSION

GILROY, Calif. -- Nob Hill Foods here has turned up the burner on hot meals with a scheme for an expanded menu, open production and cafe seating that will go into all new stores and most remodels.After a test run in one existing unit, the enlivened hot-food program, which includes carving stations and seating for 40 at tables and chairs, was installed at two new stores that opened in the fall. More

GILROY, Calif. -- Nob Hill Foods here has turned up the burner on hot meals with a scheme for an expanded menu, open production and cafe seating that will go into all new stores and most remodels.

After a test run in one existing unit, the enlivened hot-food program, which includes carving stations and seating for 40 at tables and chairs, was installed at two new stores that opened in the fall. More openings are in the works for this year, said Jim Oteri, senior vice president of the 27-unit chain.

The meals area, called "The Courtyard Cafe," lies between the traditional service deli and the bakery. It has its own cash register and a beefed-up selection of ready-to-eat items that includes meats roasted on-site in view of customers.

The expanded hot-food program, which Nob Hill calls Hot Meal Express, is all service. It features whole meals, although components also can be purchased separately.

"Basically, it's a Boston Market setup. It's all service. We offer a tri-tip dinner, corned beef, roast turkey, things like that. All are served with two side dishes, and there's a special of the day," said Oteri.

Meals with two side dishes and a roll or bread are $5.99, and the special is $4.99. Six to seven entrees and 11 side dishes are available each day. Chilled, prepacked versions are not available.

"We want to win them over with the hot food first," Oteri said. He added that the chain might add chilled meals sometime in the future.

Nob Hill has offered a limited selection of carry-out hot food in its delis for several years, but the stores did not provide seating and did no on-site cooking. Those elements, and a separate cash register, are new for the chain.

Oteri said that almost immediately after hitting the ground, the Hot Meal Express format hit a sales volume above what was expected. "After just weeks in operation, it's ringing up $12,000 to $15,000, which is at least $3,000 above projections," he said.

The program will be featured in new-generation stores that will average 55,000 to 57,000 square feet, Oteri said. Existing stores range from 27,000 to 50,000 square feet, and whether they will be retrofitted for the cafe and Hot Meal Express program depends on space available and on demographics.

"We'll install them where we are doing a good sandwich business now," Oteri said, explaining that stores that sell a lot of made-to-order sandwiches are usually situated in areas where there is a density of offices and small retail businesses.