SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY

ALBANY, Calif. -- The food-service department of Andronico's Park and Shop here has had a chance to spread its wings in the retailer's newly remodeled, store in San Francisco.Andronico's, a five-unit independent, has been in business in the Bay Area for nearly 65 years. Its four stores in the East Bay have an upscale image and a long reputation for high-quality fresh foods. They've all been remodeled

ALBANY, Calif. -- The food-service department of Andronico's Park and Shop here has had a chance to spread its wings in the retailer's newly remodeled, store in San Francisco.

Andronico's, a five-unit independent, has been in business in the Bay Area for nearly 65 years. Its four stores in the East Bay have an upscale image and a long reputation for high-quality fresh foods. They've all been remodeled in recent years, but the San Francisco store, the retailer's only unit in the city itself, had lagged behind.

One fifth of the 25,000-square-foot store is devoted to food service now. More space has been given to food preparation, with an open kitchen in full view of customers. New features include pizza, a pasta bar and the Hofbrau, a German-inspired program where freshly roasted meats are carved to the customer's liking.

In addition, Andronico's, already noted for its top-quality prepared foods program, has added its first in-store cafe here, with seating for 50, and has expanded its European-style deli case by 12 linear feet.

That case space has allowed Dan Strongin, corporate chef and director of deli operations for the five-unit independent, to add 10 platters

to his existing line of 50 items prepared fresh in-store each day. Shoppers can choose from Jamaican chicken salad, lasagna, spinach pie and chili rellanos, all made in-store, just to name a very few of the offerings.

Despite its small size by industry standards, the remodeled unit is the largest in the chain, Strongin said. "We've always wanted to have seating in our stores, but it's been a question of space. We have the space here. That's why we've done it," he told SN during a recent morning visit to the store.

Other programs in the food-service lineup include a Chinese kitchen, bakery, specialty cheese department, sandwich bar, rotisserie, espresso bar and juice bar. The cafe is set apart from the rest of the food-service offerings, beyond the checkstands and adjacent to the store entrance. "It works better on the other side of the checkstands," Strongin said. "We always have an express lane open for people who are just buying from the deli, so they can eat their purchases in the cafe if they choose. It's also convenient for people who are just coming in to use the cafe."

And a lot of customers are doing just that, said Strongin. The cafe itself offers a limited assortment of prepared foods from the deli and bakery areas, in addition to many of its own items, such as espresso and other coffee drinks, Italian sodas, iced her-bal teas, smoothies, soda, juices, aqua frescas (a Mexican fruit drink) and the first supermarket installation of Haagen-Dazs frozen yogurt, Strongin said.

With all the food-service programs, Strongin is responsible for 750 items -- about 60 more than in the family-owned retailer's other stores. Nearly 200 of the items are prepared in-store.

So with such large volume and five stores, why not use a central kitchen? "We are nonbelievers in commissaries," Strongin said. "My favorite line is that the armed forces invented the commissary for a reason."

For customers to be confident in the food they're buying, they need to see it being produced, Strongin said, adding that in-store preparation also helps ensure freshness and quality.

Strongin said the expanded food-service operations are aimed at creating more fun for shoppers while meeting their needs.

"It's not fun to go to the supermarket," he said. "Our efforts have always been to create a fun atmosphere -- a place to sit and have coffee or where you can bring your kids and let them eat off the kid's menu while you shop. In essence, a store that serves as a community service. It has tremendous potential. We've seen other places where it works."

And seeing other places was exactly what owners Bill and John Andronico did before they launched the remodel. The brothers toured independent supermarkets throughout the country to gather ideas. Some of the stores they visited and consider models for their store, said Strongin: Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.; Bristol Farms, Los Angeles; Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., and West Point Market, Akron, Ohio.

Strongin said many of the ideas for the food-service programs came from West Point, which "is certainly one of the best operators in the country.

"The independent market is kind of a fraternal organization," he continued. "There just aren't that many out there that are financially sound and innovative, so everyone goes around and gets ideas from everybody else." Company representatives declined to say how much money was invested in the remodel, which took nearly a year to complete. However, they acknowledged it was a major undertaking to convert what was once a simple conventional store into a premier, upscale food store emphasizing fresh, high-quality perishables.

The recent recession and a particularly sluggish economy in California didn't stand in the way of the company's decision to invest in its store and turn its image upscale. Indeed, storewide sales remained strong throughout construction and sales in the food-service areas -- which fully opened in time for the grand reopening last month -- are right in line with projections, according to Strongin.

"We're hitting exactly where we projected to be and are growing, so it's only a matter of time before we reach our one-year projections," Strongin said. Although he declined to share actual sales figures, he said food service is running at about 13% of store sales, which he expects will grow to 15%. He said the current rate is about 2 percentage points higher than Andronico's other stores and about 8 points above the industry average.

He attributes the success to four months of training for the manager and chef as well as three weeks of intensive training for all department associates prior to opening. "We've been able to hasten the speed at which people are able to perform at a reasonable level, which is allowing us to keep our labor costs under control," Strongin said.

"Counter people are familiar enough with the products so we don't have the tremendous loss that you usually have when you open up an operation. Therefore, we seem to be moving toward making this a profitable operation in a rapid period. It also helps that we've sold a tremendous amount of volume." Despite his success with training, Strongin said staffing his departments was his single hardest job. "The No. 1 challenge I face is finding qualified people . . . people with even the most basic qualifications," he said. He interviewed 400 people to find the 100 he hired for his food-service operations.

Strongin brought in an outside trainer to conduct classes on product knowledge, sanitation and customer service. Videos on loss prevention were also used. Role-playing was an important element in the training, Strongin said.

"We've invested a lot of time and money in training," he said. "It's easier to train young people. It's harder to train people with years of bad habits.

"Cooks tend to want to cook. Customers are a bother to them. We need to train them that customers aren't a bother -- they're enjoyable and they pay our salaries."