LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. (FNS) -- The fresh food flair of Nature's Northwest's new store is serving as a prototype for all future food-service departments, offering specialty items and services that seek to accommodate both mainstream and specialty market shoppers.Definitely beyond bulgar and tofu-based salads, Nature's Northwest strives to hit the mark with natural food meal solutions aimed at the palates

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. (FNS) -- The fresh food flair of Nature's Northwest's new store is serving as a prototype for all future food-service departments, offering specialty items and services that seek to accommodate both mainstream and specialty market shoppers.

Definitely beyond bulgar and tofu-based salads, Nature's Northwest strives to hit the mark with natural food meal solutions aimed at the palates of this Portland suburb.

"We are looking for a comfortable awareness for middle America which is inclusive," said Stan Amy, president. "With this store we have developed a lifestyle store, meeting the needs of a quality-conscious consumer. We are finding strategies to broaden the market.

"We offer quality foods, not from a purist position. People need different things at different times of the year or different times of their lives," he said.

The store, owned by General Nutrition Centers, emphasizes the quality aspect by dedicating more than 40% of the 43,000-square-foot store footprint to perishables.

Shoppers enter into the store's fresh foods power aisle, called the Market Hall, an open space with high ceilings and a sunlit interior. Each fresh department was constructed to provide shoppers with a definite understanding of their function. The result is a visually compelling area that neither overwhelms nor intimidates, according to officials, who add that the Market Hall uses right angles to break up the space into individual "shoppe-like" departments.

The square footage of back room areas has been drastically reduced in the prototype unit, and food preparation activity has been moved up front, further reinforcing the fresh message. "We turned our process inside out, we have nothing to hide from how we process produce to how we make sausage," said Amy. "We let our customers in on the process of bringing fresh food to their tables."

The in-unit preparation of the food-service department is assisted by Nature's Northwest's 10,000 square-foot commissary located nearby.

Within the food-service area, a "What's For Dinner" section groups meal solutions inside two multideck cases positioned to create a nook. Within the "What's For Dinner" cases, each item is categorized as ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat or ready-to-cook. Any department that contributes products to the meal gets credit for that portion of the sale, since the store's scanner technology at the front end is capable of breaking down individual components of the meal.

Serving as the centerpiece of the food-service area is an aromatic wood-fired oven with a rotisserie. Pizza, panini and grilled items are produced by in-store chefs, and displayed behind full-service cases.

Out of this same wood-fired oven -- operated by one "Chef Adia" -- comes one of the store's signature products: an alder planked salmon. This store-branded item consists of salmon cooked in the wood-fired oven directly on an alder wood plank. The fish, plank and all, is overwrapped ready for customers to take and reheat at home. The plank has been "branded" with the store's logo to create a memorable impression on customers.

A demonstration kiosk is anchored within the food-service area to aid customers who need assistance in assembling fresh meal options. Offerings are presented in a poster-like "menu" that gives customers suggestions for each meal component: center-of-the-plate, sides, salad, bread, wine and even flowers. Two menus, rotated weekly, are presented in the prototype unit from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day. These menus can be easily recreated by customers by selecting from the "Sides & Such" and "Center of the Plate" offerings within the "What's For Dinner" cases.

The food-service area is also home to Nature's Cafe, a combined service/seating area that features slow-cooked items under the slogan "Slow Food Fast."

"We take the time to prepare the food, so that our customers can take the time to savor," said Amy. "They are prepared the way you would if you could."

Leaving the food-service area and moving back into the Market Hall power aisle, customers next find the bakery. Under the direction of a master baker named only "Gunter," hearth-baked, artisan breads are produced using an on-site oven. The bakery produces 18 to 20 varieties in-house every day. "People will make a trip to our store just for the bread," said Amy. Indeed the chain took third place in a recent review of crusty breads conducted by Sunset Magazine. High-quality pastry items are also produced in-store by Nature's Northwest bakers.

A beverage bar serves coffee beverages, juices, smoothies, pastries from the bakery and confections. On one side the tea selections are co-branded "Tazo at Nature's." The area is 75% exposed so that preparation, again, is highly visible. This area backs onto the cooking school, which has a dual function: During the day, it serves as a seating area, and is converted into a mini classroom at nights when the school is in session.

The deli and sushi bar round out the Market Hall tour. According to Brian Rohter, vice president and general manager, most of the meals selected by customers in this department are in grab-and-go form, utilizing both the store's service and self-service cases. For example, on the day SN visited the store, the counter offered 13 SKUs of prewrapped sushi, as well as made-to-order items courtesy of the sushi chef who was present. Cross merchandising was also in evidence, with the case displaying related grocery items, such as seaweed and miso.

The unit enjoys a strong lunch trade and customers make good use of the department's dedicated cash register to pay for their salads, entrees and sandwiches, according to Rohter.

All the stations in the Market Hall that require food preparation are staffed by professionals, added Amy, who said that Nature's Northwest operates as more of a restaurant when it comes to placing employees. "We look at developing products with an eye on preparing food," said Amy. "We hire chefs with that knowledge."

In introducing new items, the in-store chefs make products and let customers sample the possible introduction creation. That way the chef gets immediate feedback, Amy said.

Meat, seafood, cheese and specialty foods are completely separate from the fresh-prepared area. Customers wanting to purchase seafood or specialty smoked meats, or peruse the vast cheese selection, must first walk through the store's Wellness Center.

Within the meat department, which resembles a Tuscan kitchen, a full hood and grill system operates in full view for customers, who can watch in-store chefs prepare items destined for the 8-foot self-service, multideck heat-and-serve case directly outside the service area.

"These chefs have learned to cut meat and they can answer questions on preparation," said Amy. "They have a pent-up creativity."

The chain makes it own sausage. With 50 different varieties on the menu, on any given day up to 25 varieties are available in the case of the new prototype. "The chefs are constantly coming up with new ideas," said Amy.

Each unit's meat department submits recipes which are circulated to each of the chain's units. With sausage recipes, for example, six new items might be produced ready for customers to sample and vote. The winning recipe would become a part of the everyday list. This same competition program is expected to include the chain's Cafe line in the near future.

"To make perishables work it is critical to have change," said Amy. "We have a high commitment to the purchasing function in compared to our volume. This allows us to have people focused on their function. They have to have a passion and we give them a creative outlet."

Acquired by GNC two years ago, Nature's Northwest banded with the vitamin-chain giant because of a common mission, according to Amy. "It seemed to be the next evolution, to offer natural foods in a supermarket environment," he said. "To execute that, we used both company's strengths."

The new concept had been worked on before the merger, according to Amy. Early returns have exceeded expectations by a magnitude, said Amy. "So far the direction is right, we want to make sure we have the right tools," he said.