Holiday dinners are earning a place for themselves at the table.Some supermarket chains started to get serious about selling prepared dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas several years ago, but in many cases their programs have been accompanied by persistent growing pains.Now, holiday meal programs are beginning to hit their stride, said deli executives interviewed by SN. They said that they expect

Holiday dinners are earning a place for themselves at the table.

Some supermarket chains started to get serious about selling prepared dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas several years ago, but in many cases their programs have been accompanied by persistent growing pains.

Now, holiday meal programs are beginning to hit their stride, said deli executives interviewed by SN. They said that they expect their latest program refinements to pay off with sales increases and better profits this season.

Most of the deli directors also said they expect to see growth for the category well into the future.

Except for a smattering of independents who've used scratch preparation to carve a niche for themselves, retailers told SN they have found that sourcing cooked birds and their accoutrements from outside is the way to go.

Even some who used to assemble the meal components at the stores are now bringing in complete dinners from the outside. That switch, they said, has served up a better bottom line.

Deli executives are also tweaking their menus this season, taking a cue from program hits and misses last year. Some have taken their side dishes and entrees upscale. Others are adding varieties of dinners at different price points, in order to grab a bigger, more diverse piece of the market.

In addition, some supermarkets are touting dinners this year with bigger ads, prettier brochures and in-store banners.

Changes to the meals program at Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif., helped the chain push sales up a full 20% last year. One of the most significant changes was largely philosophical -- having the temerity to order enough products.

"We just weren't afraid to order plenty," said Michael Acuna, buyer-merchandiser for service deli for the 327-unit chain.

"It's a mistake to be too careful, to bring in just what you think you'll need for call-in orders. Walk-ins make up 10% to 15% of our holiday dinner sales. We made announcements in-store. We sold dinners without fear of running short of product to fill advance orders," Acuna added.

Another retailer, Busch's Valu Land, Ann Arbor, Mich., had a 30% increase last year over the previous year, and expects a hefty jump again this year as the meals program continues to gain momentum.

"It's word-of-mouth each year. People are finding out we can make them a dinner that's as good as they could do themselves," said Dan Courser, vice president of perishables for the nine-unit independent. Busch's makes its dinners from scratch, roasting the turkeys in-store and producing side dishes at its own central commissary.

Success stories such as these indicate that, in most parts of the country, the holiday meal category is growing steadily. And even in areas where the dinner market appears to be saturated, deli executives said they will continue to offer holiday meals because their customers want them.

"It's still a growing category for us and I think it will continue to be, because people have less and less time to prepare a meal," said Carroll Brown, corporate vice president of food-service operations for 131-unit Randalls Food Markets, Houston.

Brown said that he expects sales to climb 5% to 10% over last year, and last year's sales were up 8% over the year before.

To give dinner sales a push this year, Randalls will turn up the volume on advertising. It will also increase the emphasis on side dishes, Brown said.

Meanwhile, Kash n' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla., is aiming for a 20% sales increase this year by adding a new, upscale dinner to its present selection, said Meredyth Williams, head deli buyer for the 100-unit chain.

Vons, too, is adding a deluxe turkey dinner and a deluxe boneless, spiral ham dinner at its 33 Pavilion stores.

The additions are designed for the smaller dinner party, with four to six people, Vons' Acuna said. With a retail of about $10 more than Vons' regular holiday dinners for eight to 10 people, the deluxe dinners have "very upscale" sides, he said.

"For example, they have our special 'harvest stuffing,' which is loaded with Italian sausage and mushrooms and we've done something different, too, with the yams and cranberries. And the escalloped potatoes that come with the ham have lots and lots of sharp cheddar cheese in them," Acuna said.

Not everyone is building on previous successes for this season. Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., is keeping a low profile on holiday dinners this year, having been burned by growing competition and the difficulties of making meals profitably.

"They're not big money-makers for us, but by now our customers expect us to have them. We offer the meals more as a customer service. If they can't get them here, they'll go somewhere else to do their shopping," said Rick Piccinini, director of bakery-deli for the 94-unit chain.

Save Mart's holiday dinner sales have declined since its biggest holiday dinner year in 1992, "because since then everybody has jumped into the business here," said Piccinini, commenting on other supermarket chains in his area.

"Now we're getting the dinners completely assembled -- from a different supplier. All we'll do is add a pie and dinner rolls to the box. It's a great labor saver and it'll free up work space," he said.

"Previously, we had assembled the dinners at store level, and we just about broke even. This year, I expect to make a little money on the dinners if everything goes like it's planned," Piccinini said.

Manufacturers are making changes by consolidating their meal components into self-contained dinner packages, ready to hand over to the customer in reheatable containers. Such convenience allows retailers to broaden their markets by taking on a variety of dinners.

Kash n' Karry is one chain that's taking advantage of that. "We've added a fresh turkey dinner. Like the one that comes in frozen, the dinner is already assembled, but the turkey has not been frozen after it was cooked," said Kash n' Karry's Williams.

"We'll also continue to carry the turkey dinner that comes in frozen, but the fresh one has a bigger bird and more upscale side dishes," Williams added. The price spread, too, is about $10, she said. Looking to cover as broad a market as possible, the chain will also offer a turkey breast dinner.

Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, also uses variety to capture more of the meal market. The meal roster includes a whole turkey, buffet ham, turkey breast, baked Virginia ham, and the most recent addition, a spiral ham dinner. Last year the various dinner prices ranged from $19.99 to $44.99. "We had an excellent year last year, and we're shooting for a 10% increase in same-store sales this year. I see this category continuing to grow," said Jack Murdock, deli operations director for the 82-unit chain.

Eight-unit B&R Foods, Lincoln, Neb., is also anticipating a positive performance.

"We expect to do a good job with our turkey dinner this year," said Steve Nelson, director of deli for B&R. He said that 6-foot banners in-store, as well as a half page in the store circular, form the backbone of the operator's promotion for the dinners program this season.

Oklahoma City-based Homeland Stores is emphasizing sides for the holiday meal package, said Debbie Hanes, director of bakery-deli merchandising for the 74-unit chain.

"We've added two side dishes -- broccoli and cheese and apple and yam casseroles -- to offer as extras with our turkey dinner," Hanes said.

The chain displays sides, which it calls "extra trimmings," in a 2- to 4-foot section in the deli self-service case.

"They're a good avenue," she said of sides. "It works especially well in the stores where we have room to thaw them and put them in a refrigerated case next to the deli," she said.

Brown at Randalls echoed that sentiment. "They're an easy extra sale [with holiday dinners]," he said.

Randalls displays a large array of sides, from stuffing to cranberry relish and casseroles, in a self-service case at least 10 feet long near the "dinner pick-up station" in each of its stores.

Giant Food, Landover, Md., has introduced a whole roster of side dishes just in time to complement its turkey dinner sales, a source at the 167-unit chain said. Gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, mixed vegetables and candied yams were added this month to complement the chain's rotisserie chicken program. Previously only baked apples and macaroni and cheese were offered. The new line-up of sides, made by a manufacturer to Giant's specifications, is prepacked in 1-pound, microwaveable trays.

"We'll definitely promote them as extras to go with our turkey dinner," the source said. Signs at several places in-store, including the meat department, will call customers' attention to the sides offered in the deli, the source added.

Sides are big business during the holidays at Byerly's, Edina, Minn., said Mary Lou Long, director of deli operations for the 10-unit upscale retailer.

"We sell lots and lots of our sage dressing and gravy. They're strong items for us. Our customers rely on us for them," Long said.

Last year, Byerly's sold 20,000 pounds of dressing and 800 gallons of gravy during Thanksgiving week. Both are made at a central commissary.

"Even when people cook their own turkey, they're afraid to make gravy," Long said.

Byerly's delis, in addition to custom cooking turkeys, offer an oven-ready turkey for customers who just don't like getting the bird ready on Thanksgiving morning. "It's cleaned and oiled and in a foil pan, all ready to be cooked," said Long.

Side dishes ARE the holiday dinner business for Fresh Fields, Rockville, Md. Officials at the 18-unit chain's corporate office could not be reached for comment. A store-level source, however, at the company's Montclair, N.J., unit told SN that the company does not offer a dinner package, or even custom-roasted turkeys, but provides everything else that goes with a holiday dinner.

Retailers are making special efforts this year to let customers and would-be customers know they can help them out with their holiday meals. Banners and ads with color photos of turkeys are part of the push.

For the first time, Waldbaum's, Central Islip, N.Y., a 92-unit division of Montvale, N.J.-based A&P, will advertise its turkey dinner with more than a line in its deli ad.

"Last year, we just had one line in our ad, but we're going to have a full page this year in our circular and we'll put a tag-line on our radio ad. It hasn't been done in this market on this scale, so why not? These dinners do well in Atlanta and Chicago and other areas," said Alan Utstein, director of deli for Waldbaum's.

Nelson at B&R Stores is going from a few lines last year to at least half a page this season to promote turkey dinners. In addition, brochures with color photos "will be everywhere in the stores," Nelson said.

At least one retailer, however, Busch's Valu Land, is not doing any outside advertising because it doesn't want to put its prices up against those of the competition.

"We're different. We make everything from scratch. Bake our turkeys and hams at store level, even whip our own mashed potatoes, but our price is up there, too. Our turkey dinner last year was $49.95. It wouldn't work to put that in an ad. People compare prices in ads and all they would see is that we have a higher price," Courser said.

"Instead, we show them what we can do. When they taste our product, they know the difference," Courser added. The company kicks off the holiday season with a "Taste of the Holidays" event the first weekend in November.

"It's an eight-hour staffed event. We set up chafing dishes and demo all our products and it gives us a chance to tie-in all departments. For example, we tie-in seafood trays and bakery products with the dinners," Courser said.