RETAIL JUDGMENT: ONE SUPREME COURT SURVIVES TRIAL BY USE

Major changes have been made recently in the Supreme Court concept, which was one of the first programs to bunch big names in fast food into a food court in a supermarket setting.Only two Supreme Courts were put into supermarkets after the concept was introduced with much fanfare in the fall of 1991, and now only the first remains. In recent months, that one, at Ball's Price Chopper, Kansas City,

Major changes have been made recently in the Supreme Court concept, which was one of the first programs to bunch big names in fast food into a food court in a supermarket setting.

Only two Supreme Courts were put into supermarkets after the concept was introduced with much fanfare in the fall of 1991, and now only the first remains. In recent months, that one, at Ball's Price Chopper, Kansas City, Mo., was leased to ARA Services' Restaurants Plus division, Philadelphia.

The other Supreme Court, in a Riser Foods' Rini-Rego Supermarket, was pulled out because of its lackluster performance, and has been replaced with what is proving to be a more successful concept run by Riser.

These most recent changes are not the first in the Supreme Court's evolution. Just months after its launching, the Supreme Court at Ball's dropped Bennigan's and Chi Chi's Mexican Restaurante from the line-up. Next, Philadelphia-based ARA Services, one of the country's largest food-service contract companies, acquired the Supreme Court concept and name from Victor Cascio & Associates, Leawood, Kan.

The Supreme Court concept was co-created in 1991 by Cascio, president of Cascio & Associates, a supermarket consultant firm, and Ira Blumenthal, a chain restaurant consultant firm now based in Atlanta. A few months after acquiring the concept and name of the Supreme Court, ARA created a new division called the Restaurant Services group dedicated to operating food-service programs in supermarkets and other retail locations. That group has since been renamed Restaurants Plus to more clearly identify it as a division separate from ARA Services, an ARA source said.

Neither officials at Restaurants Plus nor at ARA Services could be reached for comment last week. Nor did officials at Ball's respond to SN's phone calls. An industry source said ARA has added some of its own programs to Ball's Supreme Court. And an ARA source confirmed that it has made changes there. SN could not learn last week, however, whether the ARA division has plans to retain the name Supreme Court or whether it is working with other supermarket chains on food court concepts.

The Supreme Court participants who did talk to SN had positive comments about their experiences. For instance, Godfather's Pizza, Omaha, the only surviving national brand name at Ball's Supreme Court, found it to be a good testing ground, a spokesman said. And even Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, is positive about the learning experience its Supreme Court trial provided.

Asked if the recent leasing of Ball's unit by ARA has had an effect on Godfather's, Mike Clifford, director of special services for the pizza chain, said, "Things get done faster. We just have one person or group to go to now for accountability. Previously, there was a lot of bureaucracy to cut through."

Although bureaucracy may have slowed decisions and their subsequent approval, Godfather's made product changes necessary to succeed at the supermarket site, he said.

"We've been there from the beginning and still are there because we were the most successful piece of the equation," said Clifford.

"I think it's because we spent a lot of time developing products that fit the needs of those particular consumers. For example, we developed fresh-baked, topped pizza for self-service. That required modifying our formulation to give it some shelf-life."

Godfather's has no kiosks in other supermarkets and therefore never had to deal with the shelf-life issue.

"We make everything fresh to order at our traditional units, but we worked very hard to produce a quality product for self-service at the Supreme Court," Clifford said. "We added a little more oil and made other changes that keep the crust tender after a day or so in the case, and we developed a bread stick with a shelf life specifically for that location," he said, adding that fully 60% of Godfather's business in the Supreme Court is from a six-foot grab-and-go case in front of its kiosk.

The price may be right, too. A 12-inch pizza with four to six toppings retails there regularly for $9 but is often put on a two-for-$9 special, Clifford said.

Godfather's also introduced a personal pizza recently that's offered exclusively at the Supreme Court. Two 6-inch pies are packed together and priced at $3.98.

"I think we've done well there because we've put so much into it. Not just product development, but training and follow-up visits, too," Clifford said. "It didn't work so well in Ohio. I think it was probably the location," he added, referring to the now-defunct Rini-Rego Supreme Court.

Fred DiQuattro, director of deli, bakery, seafood and food service for Riser Foods, said the company, which operates 44 Rini-Rego Supermarkets, found it could operate a food court more profitably from within.

"We made a major investment in the Supreme Court but after approximately a year we began running our own program in another store concurrently and it was more successful," DiQuattro said.

Since then, the chain has rolled out its own food court concept, the Fresh-To-Go Shoppe, to eight stores, including the one that had a Supreme Court.

"I have no fault to find with Victor Cascio or with ARA Services. They were good, and we thought we had picked the right store. The demographics were right, but several factors kept it from working," DiQuattro said. One was a local ordinance that limited the amount of seating the store could install, he said.

The overriding profit-eater, however, was labor. "The concept called for cooking to order. There were limited hot cases and very limited self-service. A customer ordered something and we cooked it right then." Chefs as well as a food-service manager had to be hired, which ate into profits, DiQuattro said.

Since severing ties by mutual agreement with ARA, Riser has doubled its space for self-service in the unit. And while it has cut labor costs 50%, the chain has managed to maintain the "theater" of fresh cooking.

"Animation is very important. Customers can see the food being prepared and if they want a special pizza made we'll make it. The self-service cases aren't just out there by themselves. We have our people interacting with customers," DiQuattro said.

Asked what positives he learned from the Supreme Court, DiQuattro said, "Their organization. The way they do inventory and ordering. And their trainers are excellent.