RUSSO'S SUPERMARKETS CATERING TO LOCAL CHARITIES

CHESTERLAND, Ohio -- Russo's Supermarkets here has put charity and promotion on the same menu with a pre-Super Bowl event that spotlights its catering department.The event, its first Food Fest of the year, will carry on a tradition the retailer began four years ago when it initiated the in-store event to help local charities raise money. Since the first occasion, Russo's has helped nonprofit organizations

CHESTERLAND, Ohio -- Russo's Supermarkets here has put charity and promotion on the same menu with a pre-Super Bowl event that spotlights its catering department.

The event, its first Food Fest of the year, will carry on a tradition the retailer began four years ago when it initiated the in-store event to help local charities raise money. Since the first occasion, Russo's has helped nonprofit organizations raise a quarter of a million dollars, officials said.

Here's how it works: Local organizations -- small ones that may have no formal fund-raising departments -- request that Russo's throw a Food Fest to benefit their organization. Then, the nonprofit group sells $15-per-person tickets to the Food Fest which features a menu agreed upon by the organization's leaders and Russo's executive chef.

"We supply everything: the food, the labor, the chairs and tables. The charity gets the entire $15 per person from their ticket sales," said Kathryn Lowe, director of marketing and public relations for the four-unit independent.

The fests, scheduled for a Sunday night after hours in a Russo's store, include several food stations positioned in the fresh departments. Usually, there is a self-service hot food table with three entrees and side dishes positioned near the deli, a dessert table in the bakery, and an appetizer table set up just inside the entrance.

"It's a fairly informal affair. We encourage people to walk around the store so they can see what we offer. That's why we have the food stations set up in different areas of the store. It's more of a grazing experience," Lowe said.

The catering department supplies the food which is either prepared in-store or at the retailer's central kitchen. All departments, particularly the deli and bakery, as well as the floral department which supplies the center pieces, get involved.

"We see this as a way to accomplish three things. We're supporting the community which has supported us so well since our first store opened in 1932. We're bringing new customers into our stores, and we're showcasing our catering department, and our bakery, and showing people the store," said Lowe.

This first Food Fest of 1999 will carry a Super Bowl theme with wings and pigs in blankets and dips set out on the appetizer table right inside the door. "We'll probably also have sauerkraut balls, too, just because it's so near the beginning of the year," Lowe said. She explained that eating sauerkraut balls at the New Year is a necessity for Midwesterners. It ensures their good luck for the year, she said, like black-eyed peas do for Southerners.

The Russo's Food Fest coming up will benefit a local community organization that is raising money for playground equipment for a middle school and an elementary school. The organization has chosen to have an Italian-themed menu, Lowe said. So they will be choosing from such chef-prepared items as stuffed shells and rigatoni with meat sauce. Some of the more exotic choices are bow-tie pasta with chicken and Alfredo sauce and penne with grilled chicken and pesto-cream sauce.

Lowe said one of the all-time favorites on the Italian menu is bow-tie pasta with Alfredo sauce and julienned vegetables.

The dessert table positioned in the in-store bakery always includes -- in addition to cookies and pastries -- Russo's signature cassata cake, Lowe said. She explained that the cake is a Russo's version of an Italian sweet that's made of white cake, custard, whipped cream and fruit.

To keep the Food Fests from cutting into the retailer's selling time, they're always held in the evening on Sunday, a day on which Russo's stores have always closed early.

Lowe said the idea for Food Fests was born because Russo's felt a responsibility to the community and also because for years the company had been bombarded by requests for contributions to charity groups. Creating a Food Fest, rather than donating a fruit basket or a gift certificate or other lone item for a group's fund-raising event, has paid off over and over, Lowe said.

"By bringing in all those people, up to 300 at a time at a Food Fest, we're showing them what we have to offer every day, and there are other ways we get publicity out of the event," Lowe said. She explained that for one thing local newspapers write about the events and sometimes people who have attended write letters to the editor of local papers thanking Russo's.

Also, as guests leave the Food Fests, Russo's makes sure they get a little package that contains the Russo's newsletter, circular, a catering menu, a pizza menu and information about the in-store bakery.