RICE BREAD: RAINBOWS FOR KIDS, ARTISANS FOR PARENTS

HOUSTON -- Rice Epicurean Markets, this city's oldest family-owned supermarket chain, is targeting young consumers -- and their parents -- with a new bread line, officially introduced at all eight of its locations.Along with a collection of European-style artisan breads and rolls for the adults, the 60-year-old company is indulging the area's youthful sweet tooth with the PB&J Corner, a new baked-goods

HOUSTON -- Rice Epicurean Markets, this city's oldest family-owned supermarket chain, is targeting young consumers -- and their parents -- with a new bread line, officially introduced at all eight of its locations.

Along with a collection of European-style artisan breads and rolls for the adults, the 60-year-old company is indulging the area's youthful sweet tooth with the PB&J Corner, a new baked-goods section in each supermarket designed to cater specifically to the unfledged shopper. This addition to the bakery has been decorated with toys, stuffed animals and playful tablecloths in hopes of attracting children to the unusual selection of breads and pastries being offered.

Kids will be able to pick and taste a selection of items ranging from peanut-butter-and-jelly bread, which is made with grape jelly bits and peanut butter chips, to shrunken bagels designed for little mouths. There will be loaves of rainbow bread as well as cupcakes and cookies, and Rice Epicurean officials anticipate that the PB&J Corner will open additional sales opportunities through its direct appeal to children.

"What we hope will happen is that once kids start seeing other kids with rainbow bread in their lunchbox at school, they'll run and tell their parents that they want rainbow bread," said Douglas Dick, vice president of food-service operations for Rice Epicurean Markets. "Then once they're in the store, the parents might catch a glimpse of the [new adult line]."

In addition to the juvenile edibles that Rice Epicurean hopes will attract children to the bakery section, the adults who accompany them will be bombarded with a selection of 26 new European-style artisan breads and seven types of rolls. Prices for the new line vary, with some with unique ingredients costing up to $2.99; others are selling for the same average price as a quality white bread.

Some of the unusual flavors offered are cranberry walnut, Tuscan peasant, sunflower seed, English toasting, corn rye, scali, sundried tomato and prosciutto, and fig and walnut. So, while junior is tasting a piece of rainbow, mom and dad can sample some more mature offerings for themselves.

"We've decided to go much heavier on the sampling than ever before, with the idea that one taste of these unusual products will bring people back for more," said Dick.

With this increased emphasis on sampling, Rice Epicurean officials sought to create an even larger effect by designing new fixtures that are a departure from the standard wicker-basket setup so familiar to consumers throughout the years. According to Dick, all eight Rice stores have installed a new, more modern formica grid system for the presentation of their new bread line, which is also present in the PB&J Corner. The grids will be easily adjustable, accessible and, more importantly, said Dick, new and intriguing to the shopper's eye. Each new bread will also be accompanied by a large, framed picture of the loaf itself, posted on a wall behind the display case, that provides a detailed explanation of its ingredients and its creation process, so that customers can "read the sign, figure out what they want and match it up with a loaf in the [display] case," said Dick.

All the new breads are finished on-site in individual units, with three -- including the fig and walnut and sundried tomato and prosciutto -- made from scratch. Both lines have been slowly integrated into all eight Rice Epicurean Markets over the course of the past two months. So far, Dick said, the only problem they've come across involves heavy demand.

"We had originally planned on having two types of bread featured each week, and posting a calendar for shoppers to see when each type would be available throughout the months," he said. "But the response to almost all the breads was so overwhelming, we decided to offer all 26 kinds all the time."

The introduction of the specialty breads required Rice Epicurean to update its staff on artisan baking methods, as well as merchandising techniques. Not only is this the first time Rice Epicurean has sold bread specifically for children, but it is also the store's first experience with artisan varieties. In preparation for the rollout, each store spent several weeks training its bakers with the help of artisan experts called in to teach the nuances of bread baking.

Though there is strong consumer interest in the new breads, Dick does not feel there will be a negative effect on the sale of everyday-brand breads sold within the bakery, where the PB&J Corners and artisan breads are displayed.

"Artisans are a new item to our customers. I don't think they'll abandon their everyday breads, just experiment with the new ones," he said.