RICH ON PO' BOYS

HOUSTON -- The decision to outsource fresh-prepared items is often made based on the desire to present the best possible product to customers. At the same time, retailers save on labor, promote product consistency and create a point of differentiation from competitors.The key to success is to find items that fit the bill. Gerland's Food Fair stores have selectively embraced this strategy with great

HOUSTON -- The decision to outsource fresh-prepared items is often made based on the desire to present the best possible product to customers. At the same time, retailers save on labor, promote product consistency and create a point of differentiation from competitors.

The key to success is to find items that fit the bill. Gerland's Food Fair stores have selectively embraced this strategy with great success, said Rodney Benefield, director of deli and bakery for the 16-unit independent chain.

"Our first attempt at co-branding was with Krispy Kreme [doughnuts] and that was tremendously successful," he said. "So we started looking into other areas where co-branding would fit."

Enter Antone's Famous Po'Boys, a quick-service sandwich shop in this city that has been providing their signature sandwiches to Houston-based Randalls Food Markets and local units of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. Earlier this month, Gerland's welcomed the entire line of Antone's signature label products. Now, at the close of their first month on Gerland's shelves, the po'boys are selling at an average of 35 per day.

"We've been very pleased with the results so far," Benefield said. "It's a good match for us and we expect sales to continue to increase."

Ben Litalien, president of Antone's, said a big part of their po'boys appeal is their shelf life.

"There is virtually no produce on the po'boys which makes them extremely shelf stable," he said, adding that the sandwiches are made at the company's central commissary, located behind their headquarters in Houston. From there, trucks deliver the orders to their retailer accounts.

The po'boys are made in ten variations, from standards like turkey, roast beef or ham and swiss, to some original, specialty concoctions like the "Piggy," made with ham, hard salami, dried onions, oregano, spicy sauce, mayo, jalapeno jack cheese and dill pickles; or the "Nature Boy," with its combination of taboulleh, mayonaisse, feta cheese, lettuce and red onions.

In addition to the sandwiches, Gerland's is carrying a full line of Antone's private-label goods including bottled water, pre-packaged salads and side dishes like pasta florentine and taboulleh, cookies, their signature Chow Chow sandwich spread and "potato cheepz." Prices for the sandwiches here range from $3.29 to $3.99.

Benefield said the retailer looked into other companies in the area who could provide a similar service but Antone's program really stood out from the crowd.

"We really liked the name recognition and the product that Antone's was offering," he said. "Plus we've been able to convert the time we used to spend making sandwiches to time spent assisting our customers."

Prior to bringing in Antone's, Gerland's prepared their own sandwiches fresh each day. "Once we got into it, we decided to make Antone's our primary source for sandwiches," Benefield said. "We still make some sandwiches, but that's really just for special requests."

Antone's occupies space in the deli's reach-in, refrigerated cases in Gerland's units. The area is completed by a sign headlined 'Grab'n Go Po'Boys!' and featuring the Antone's logo and a description of each sandwich in the case. The actual size and location of the deli departments varies from store to store, said Benefield.

"On average, the supermarkets will sell 30 sandwiches a day, but that number has been growing from month to month," said Litalien. "Some have sold over 100 in a day."

Similarly, Exxon Company USA was looking for a fresh, deli-style sandwich to carry in their Tigermarket convenience stores located at some Exxon gas stations. According to officials at Exxon, they sourced Antone's for their Texas locations because they expected the sandwiches would be well received by their customers in that market. The po'boys can be found in refrigerated cases in the food-service area of the stores in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Litalien said plans are underway for the construction of a new commissary to accommodate Tigermarkets near Nashville.

While Antone's has been a part of Houston culture for 35 years, it has only operated under the Antone's Famous Po'Boys banner since 1996, when investor Neil Morgan purchased the rights to the name and five freestanding units out of bankruptcy. Litalien said he partnered with him to repackage the concept for expansion.

Of the five acquired units, one was relocated and one was closed, due to leasing agreements and poor sales, respectively. The relocation gave them the opportunity to build according to their new prototype and has since become their top-grossing location.

"Sales are in excess of [$750,000] per year, out of roughly 1,700 square feet," said Litalien. "Not bad for a cold sandwich shop."

Antone's has since opened 12 other stores under the prototype format, in addition to remodeling the two original units.

Litalien said there are four more Antone's units under construction and they anticipate opening between 12 and 20 in total this coming year. They are also working on building new commissaries to accommodate Tigermarkets in other areas and plans are being made for the po'boys to debut in San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co. as well.