SERVICE IN THE COURT

STAMFORD, Conn. -- Stop & Shop Cos. is serving up a fresh food court approach for its home-meal replacement strategyThe chain is taking the new direction just a year after launching its first self-service hot buffet with limited seating at its flagship store in Quincy, Mass.Now, at its latest store, here, it has switched to service for its hot menu, and has added fresh touches that include open wok

STAMFORD, Conn. -- Stop & Shop Cos. is serving up a fresh food court approach for its home-meal replacement strategy

The chain is taking the new direction just a year after launching its first self-service hot buffet with limited seating at its flagship store in Quincy, Mass.

Now, at its latest store, here, it has switched to service for its hot menu, and has added fresh touches that include open wok cooking by an Asian chef, and a made-to-order Caesar salad station. A seating area that includes tables and chairs accommodates about 40 people.

The new approach has brought with it success so far, chain officials said.

"We're very happy with the food court numbers, very happy. It's early yet, but this is our most pleasing effort to date," said George Pauley, vice president for produce sales, procurement and perishables concepts at the 186-unit chain, based in Quincy, Mass.

SN interviewed Pauley at the store in downtown Stamford earlier this month, shortly after the from-the-ground-up store opened. The 60,000-square-foot unit is located at the edge of a two-story shopping mall that is still under construction.

The visible seating section and a well-defined service pizza station and sandwich station give the food-service area in this store a definite food-court ambiance.

The area, which occupies the beginning of the first traffic aisle, has also been given an identity of its own. An eye-catching, back-lighted sign over the service counter designates the area as "The Kitchen Table." The sign's background is bright yellow. A stylized illustration of a steaming frying pan -- The Kitchen Table logo -- is depicted in vivid blue.

"At Quincy, we called our first effort 'Buffet Today' because it was basically a self-service concept. 'Buffet' fit in nicely and 'today' meant fresh," Pauley explained.

"Our project here is basically service, more of a food court concept, and 'Buffet Today' didn't fit. We feel comfortable with the name Kitchen Table," Pauley said, adding that the idea was to connote home cooking.

The fresh-food executive pointed out the chain is finding merchandising hot food via a service counter is easier to maintain properly compared with self-service.

"We're more comfortable at this time with service hot foods," he said, because, ironically, offering hot food from a service counter is less labor-intensive. For one thing, spills are more quickly and easily cleaned up than they are at an extensive self-service table.

"Our first attempt was self-service and that was at the beginning of our learning curve. The next two [at a replacement store in Milford, Conn., and now at this one] went toward service," Pauley said.

"Self-service just presents more of a challenge in care and maintenance to us as operators. With service, keeping the presentation appears to be a little easier for us," he said. He added, however, that the self-service buffet will be maintained at the Quincy store at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, the variety of items served hot at the Stamford unit is sharply reduced from what is offered on the hot buffet at Quincy, where a 36-foot, self-service hot table presents 25 to 30 items daily. At the store here, the hot-service case is just 12 feet in length.

"We cut the variety down because, just by design of the service cases, we have less linear footage. The layout here, which is a smaller footprint, demands a somewhat lesser menu," Pauley said.

The menu includes four freshly cooked Chinese entrees, plus white rice and fried rice, which are offered daily. Meat loaf, ribs and fried and roast chicken, wings and a few other "all-American" entrees round out the hot presentation. Corn, green beans, stuffing, macaroni and cheese and three different kinds of potatoes were also presented in the case the day SN visited.

An Asian chef, Yan-Ping Liang, who stir fries at a wok right behind the counter, replenishes the service case all day long with a variety of Chinese dishes. Liang said General Tso's chicken is the customer favorite here as it is in most Chinese restaurants. That item and vegetable lo mein are regulars in the case. The other two entrees are rotated frequently, Liang said.

Pauley pointed out that the variety appears to be adequate for the market. "With the sandwich program, the panini, the Asian offerings, the pizza and the all-American items like meat loaf and potatoes we still have an extensive menu. What's important is not the number of selections on a given day, but alternating the menu to keep it interesting," he said. Some items are rotated weekly or monthly and still others, daily.

He emphasized that Stop & Shop is still experimenting. "We're in the bottom half of the learning curve. It's an early call, but nobody has indicated to us that we don't have enough variety."

Lunch business was brisk on the day SN visited the store, which was a Friday. Lines quickly formed at the pizza station and the hot-food counter. A self-service sandwich case was getting its share of business, too. Customers also were ordering panini sandwiches, which were being grilled just behind the counter.

Made-from-scratch pizza is a feature here just as it is at the chain's Quincy flagship store. Even the pizza dough is made in-store. A barrage of lunch customers, many of them construction workers and security guards who are working at the adjacent shopping-mall-in-progress, were obviously relishing the pizza. Some were buying three slices, piled high with toppings.

"It's the same pizza we designed for Quincy, with some modifications for the area. This area likes a very thin crust pizza with a substantial amount of olive oil. Every area has its own preference. The Boston area likes more of a medium to heavier crust, for example," Pauley said.

He noted that as the chain begins to plan for an additional store opening, it starts investigating what tastes prevail in that particular locale.

"You do your homework. For instance, you find pizza places in the area that have been in business for a long time, and then you buy, and you try, and you ask. That's the way you learn."

At Quincy, the first element seen in the traffic pattern is the hot buffet table, while at the new store in Stamford, a salad bar set at an angle just inside the entrance is the first sight, with the service Caesar salad station right beside it.

Store associate Concetta Polimeni, who turns out fresh Caesar salads at lunchtime and during the early evening, also greets customers as they enter the store. Her friendly greeting seems to set the tone in the food court, which was brightly lit and had a lot of traffic well into the afternoon.

A huge, colorful mural forms the back wall in the service area, and, in the seating area, poster-size, brightly-colored paintings of food adorn the walls. Just beyond the seating area, on the right side of the aisle, is the pizza station.

There, resident chef Tony Minichino -- he prefers to be called Chef Tony -- can be seen adding the final touches to such exotic varieties of pizza as shrimp scampi and deep dish egg plant.

A new case that combines service and self-service shows off the pizzas. "A number of supermarkets are using this type of case, but it's new for us. We like them because they serve two purposes. They present the product nicely and the refrigeration [in the top tier, which is a shallow, back-fed service case] provides good keeping qualities," Pauley said.

At the top of the case is an attractive array of pizzas that will be served by the slice. Then, just beneath that level of the case, are three tiers of shelves that hold whole, chilled pizzas to go.

Next to that case is another service/self-service case of the same type, displaying huge panini sandwiches on platters in the service tier on top. On the three tiers below are sub sandwiches and other sandwiches wrapped and ready to go.

"We don't break the cold chain here at all," Pauley said as he gestured toward platters of over-stuffed panini sandwiches displayed in the top tier. "The meats, cheeses and vegetables are sliced cold, the sandwiches are assembled and put back into the cold case there until they're grilled and sold to the customer," he said.

All the sandwiches in the self-service case, including whole and half subs, were wrapped in butcher paper and had "Made with Boar's Head" stickers on them. A Boar's Head logo also is used on signs that describe the ingredients in different varieties of panini sandwiches.

That's new at this store, Pauley said. Although the chain offers Boar's Head meats and cheeses in some of its other stores, this is the first time it has called attention to the name brand to this extent.

"The Boar's Head stickers and signs send a message of high quality. We're proud that we have their product and we want our customers to know it," Pauley said.

The chain has expanded its chilled, prepacked entrees and side dishes here as well.

Twelve feet of tiered case are devoted to such items here compared with 4 or 5 feet in Quincy. Some items, such as chicken wings and mashed potatoes, are packed in-store, but most are sourced from outside.

Ed & Joan DeLuca branded Italian entrees and meat loaf are featured in single-serving packages with the DeLuca label on them. That's a departure from Quincy, where such items are packed under the Stop & Shop label.

"The DeLuca family is known in Connecticut for producing high-quality Italian food. So we thought as a test we would use their name here instead of packaging under our private label," Pauley said. The DeLuca family had restaurants in Connecticut for years, Pauley explained.

The results of using the brand label so far are positive, he said.

The packaged entrees and sides "appear to be selling better here under the DeLuca label than in Massachusetts under our private label," Pauley said.

While he declined to say how much better sales are here, he added that the chain will try merchandising the products under the DeLuca label at additional locations.

Most of the new programs -- notably, the Caesar salad station, the open wok cooking with an Asian chef in residence -- at this location will be introduced at the Quincy store when that store is remodeled at the end of this year, Pauley said. "We know theater is important," he said, and added that both the Caesar and Chinese food production programs are doing well at this location.

Additional seating will be added in Quincy, too. Currently, seating in the Quincy store accommodates only 10 at a counter against the wall. Tables and chairs will be added, probably bringing the total number of seats to 40 or more, Pauley said.

The most mature food-service elements -- those that are in operation at selected stores and those with which the chain is most satisfied -- are the from-scratch pizza program, the sandwich program and, to a slightly lesser degree, the rotisserie program, Pauley said.

"We're continually improving the rotisserie program," he said. The chain began within the last year to expand its rotisserie chicken program to "include more than just broilers." Ribs and turkey breasts have been added to the rotisserie menu at most of the chain's stores.

Not all of Stop & Shop's stores could support a full-blown concept like The Kitchen Table or the self-service Buffet Today, Pauley said. But they'll have some elements of home-meal replacement.

"To some degree all our stores will have prepared food to go. You won't see seating in them all. Pizza in some, but we'll have a rotisserie program and cold items in all of them eventually. The basics need to be in place -- sandwiches, rotisserie and pizza to some degree," Pauley said.