RETAILERS FIND EAGER CUSTOMERS FOR COMFORT FOOD

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- Call it a sign of the times. Right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, food industry observers predicted consumers would cut down on restaurant visits, reduce overall spending and seek out traditional food that reminded them of simpler times.They were right. Around the country, smart retailers have been quick to respond to the demand, though the switch has been somewhat more

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- Call it a sign of the times. Right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, food industry observers predicted consumers would cut down on restaurant visits, reduce overall spending and seek out traditional food that reminded them of simpler times.

They were right. Around the country, smart retailers have been quick to respond to the demand, though the switch has been somewhat more difficult for specialty food sellers, whose extravagant, premium-priced offerings might be seen as a bit out of touch with present realities.

Zagara's Specialty & Natural Foods is just one of the many retailers in this upper tier of operators who've had to face the sudden shift in customer demand. Sensing the mood change, and responding to specific requests from customers, the chefs put their heads together and developed some new dishes: Shepherd's pie for grab-and-go cases, double-crust apple pie in the bakeries, even hamburgers and tuna melts at the revamped Mexican cantina.

"There are a lot of people who want to buy comfort food," said Chris Mentzer, food-service merchandising manager for the four-store chain, a division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif. "We started doing shepherd's pie, something we've never done before. People asked for it and I laughed. We hesitated. We sat on the recipe. I thought, I can't put a mashed potato pie in my case."

But he ultimately did. Prepared in a nine-inch pie shell, shepherd's pie contains ground beef, onions and seasonings. Mashed Yukon gold potatoes are piped attractively on top. The item retails for $7.99.

"You can feed five for $7.99," he said. "It's a price point they can afford."

Shepherd's pie has become so popular, it has the potential to become a "Z" item -- a logo reserved only for the retailer's signature products. Since rolling it out in October, Zagara's has sold 150 to 200 of the 32-ounce pies in a week.

"We can't keep them on the shelves," said Sean Joseph, a food-service supervisor.

With a crew of 25 chefs, Mentzer acknowledged that getting everyone on the same page fast was difficult. "It came down to execution," he said. "We took our time."

Other changes were easy. The staff moved a perennial favorite, chicken pot pie, to a higher profile spot, across from Hot Entrees Du Jour, and now it's the top-selling grab-and-go item, Mentzer said. Zagara's sells about 500 chicken pot pies a week. The company also recently introduced a vegetable pot pie ($6.99 for a 16-ounce pie).

In Chef's Fayre, red meat is selling briskly for the first time. One of the new items in this service department, which offers 24 linear feet of prepared foods, is grilled flank steak, at $12.99 a pound.

"We couldn't sell red meat out of this case [before]," said Mentzer. "We just introduced grilled flank steak and it's selling well."

A selection of simple vegetable dishes rounds out the red meat: steamed broccoli, red potatoes and carrots and whipped potatoes, made with Yukon golds. All new items, they retail for $4.99 a pound.

Before introducing a new item, the staff develops recipes, tests them and costs out the new dish. Regardless of quality, certain dishes don't make the cut because of price, Mentzer said.

A big change can be seen in the inviting cafe here, warmed up with a terra cotta-and-gold color scheme and working fireplace. In addition to enchiladas and other south-of-the-border favorites, the Mexican cantina sells American-style hamburgers, cheese steaks, grilled reubens and other popular sandwiches. Several customers asked for them, so Zagara's developed a sandwich program, using the grill in the Mexican cantina station to make them.

"It took us two weeks to turn around," Mentzer said. "It was driven by the local lunch crowd. It was hard to do because it's not what we do. But if we didn't do it, they'd go somewhere else, so I didn't fight it."

At this particular store, Zagara's sells about 200 sandwiches a day -- all the stores combined sell 1,200 to 1,400 sandwiches a week, Mentzer said. Indeed, on a recent weekday, SN observed lines at the cafe at lunch time.

The all-American sandwiches complement the Mexican fare. Zagara's recently took over the program after seeing disappointing results from a vendor who supplied the Mexican menu, Mentzer said. Since the retailer assumed the operation a couple of months ago, sales have increased 50%, Mentzer said. The best-selling lunch choice is the chicken enchilada platter, which consists of two enchiladas, rice, refried beans and multi-colored tortilla chips ($6.99).