SHOPRITE UNIT OPENS NEW DOOR TO MEAL OPTIONS

BLOOMFIELD, N.J. -- ShopRite is serving up convenience as well as variety at a new unit here that features a separate entrance into its prepared-foods department.A canopied food station bearing a "Chef's Express" logo, a proprietary brand that designates many of the chain's ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat items, is the first element seen straight ahead. An overhead menu, a hot buffet, open production

BLOOMFIELD, N.J. -- ShopRite is serving up convenience as well as variety at a new unit here that features a separate entrance into its prepared-foods department.

A canopied food station bearing a "Chef's Express" logo, a proprietary brand that designates many of the chain's ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat items, is the first element seen straight ahead. An overhead menu, a hot buffet, open production and a separate cash register give the station a food-service ambiance.

The replacement store here, like other ShopRite units, is supplied by Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., a retailer-owned cooperative that's the wholesale/merchandising/distribution arm for 190 stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Delaware.

What's particularly significant here is that the first third of the store, jam-packed with meal options, is completely separated visually from the rest of the store. Customers don't see center store until they have walked the length of the fresh-foods aisle and turned right. The wide, fresh-foods aisle, capped by an open-production bakery against the back wall, has the feel of a stand-alone, neighborhood market.

At the canopied food station, a hot buffet, at $3.49 a pound, gets top billing. It features familiar foods such as chili, salisbury steak and stuffed peppers along with a limited selection of sides.

Other items such as fried chicken and rotisserie chicken dinners can be ordered there, too. During SN's visit, hot dinner featuring a half chicken, two sides and a biscuit was $4.99. Made-to-order hero sandwiches were $5.99 for all varieties and $3.49 for a half hero. Stuffed, baked potatoes were $1.59 each.

Just across the aisle from the station, a salad bar offered some trendy items like sauteed tofu and fresh mozzarella salad in addition to standard fare. The retail: $2.99 a pound.

To the left of the hot buffet, a 12-foot, European-style case, set at an angle, showed off prepared foods and led the way to the traditional meat-and-cheese deli department. The prepared-foods case was attractively merchandised with items in crockery bowls set on wooden risers.

There, grilled chicken cut into pieces looked more appealing than grill-marked whole cutlets, at $6.99 a pound. Bruschetta was $4.99 a pound; red skin potato salad, $2.49 a pound.

Following the traditional deli counter, which touts the chain's proprietary brand Black Bear cold cuts, a service-seafood department offers a large variety of value-added items and some precooked, ready-to-heat products. Among them are precooked crab cakes and lobster cakes sourced from outside. The day SN visited the store, customers were being offered tastes of the crab cakes. They were $4.98 for two.

Island, self-service cases in the middle of the aisle display a large variety of chilled entrees, sides and desserts that are designated with a Chef's Express logo. Some examples are whole, rotisserie turkey breast, $4.99 a pound; macaroni and cheese, $2.69 a pound; glazed carrots, $2.49 a pound; and sausage and peppers, $4.99 a pound. All selections were packed in dome containers. Some, in addition to bearing the Chef's Express sticker, also bore a sticker that said, "Previously frozen."

Interspersed throughout the aisle are tiered, island displays of high-end specialty and ethnic products.

The bakery, positioned against the back wall, runs the width of the fresh-foods aisle. On the day SN visited the store, one whole section of service case was devoted to decorated quarter-sheet cakes. They were $15.99. A baby cannoli cake was $3.99.

The in-store bakery has recently been made a focal point in other ShopRite stores. Here, the level of service was extremely high. Smiling associates in the bakery helped customers choose pastries from the service case and one enthusiastically explained to a customer how photo cakes are made.

Customers appeared to be responding positively to the store, which replaces a smaller one that had stood on the same site. While the former unit had a traditional supermarket layout, this one -- opened late last year -- was designed to put more emphasis on fresh foods and on service, a source close to the chain said.

One customer told SN she was amazed at the service level in the bakery, noting that a department associate even offered to carry a sheet cake she had ordered out to her car.

"As we began to wend our way to the front of the store with the cake and other packages from the bakery, a manager stopped to offer us help. He directed us to a special counter to pay so we didn't have to stand in the checkout line and he carried the cake out to our car. It was particularly nice of him since the store was jam-packed with people that day," said Rena Klepacki, who was visiting relatives in nearby Clifton.

As for the product itself, she said, she couldn't have been more pleased with a half-sheet cake she bought from this store's bakery for her son's birthday.

"I was surprised we could get such a good cake from a supermarket. I wouldn't have gone there if I hadn't recently been served delicious cake at a party and was told it came from another ShopRite store. That's why we decided to try this one in my daughter's neighborhood," Klepacki said.

While it's apparent that the consumer is getting special attention at this store, some efforts to "send the fresh message" are not hitting the mark. For example, Chef's Express-branded salads in a self-service case bear stickers that indicate a time that presumably is the hour and minute the salad was made, but no date. The only date on the sticker is a sell-by date, which is not necessarily the same as the date of preparation. Example: On a Dec. 29 visit to the store, SN noted this on a garden salad: "Chef's Express Garden Salad, 11:23 AM, Sell by December 31, '99."

But the new layout, which features open production in all the fresh departments, also puts the floral department right inside the entrance and provides a quick view of produce in the middle of the fresh aisle,giving the store a fresher look, a local resident said.