SMALL STORE GETS NEW FOOD COURT BUSINESS

LANCASTER, Pa. -- Driven by a lunch business that just doesn't quit, Darrenkamp's Markets is expanding one of its smaller stores to provide customers with a food court, bigger fresh departments, and more service.The renovation, under way right now, takes the store's total footprint from 34,000 square feet to 47,000 square feet, and will more than triple the size of its self-service hot bar and salad

LANCASTER, Pa. -- Driven by a lunch business that just doesn't quit, Darrenkamp's Markets is expanding one of its smaller stores to provide customers with a food court, bigger fresh departments, and more service.

The renovation, under way right now, takes the store's total footprint from 34,000 square feet to 47,000 square feet, and will more than triple the size of its self-service hot bar and salad bar. The kitchen, too, will be tripled in size and get an equipment upgrade that's expected to improve workflow. What's most important, however, is additional seating for 80 to 85 diners, officials said.

"Our lunch business now is just phenomenal. We have a lot of industry here [around Mount Joy, Pa., the store's location], and offices and, of course, residential. People are coming in, and grabbing and going. There's no place to sit down because there hasn't been enough room for seating. We know if we give them someplace to sit, we'll easily triple our lunch business," said David Darrenkamp, one of three co-owners of the three-unit independent.

A hot bar and salad bar, at six feet long, will each be replaced by a two-sided, 15-foot walk-around, enabling each to offer a 30-foot expanse of fare.

A breakfast buffet and supper menu could be on the horizon, Darrenkamp said.

This isn't just wishful thinking. The three brothers who own Darrenkamp's have watched their prepared-foods business grow steadily over the last five years. There's been no let-up, even as the economy has faltered, Darrenkamp said.

"It's not a big surprise. People don't have any time. They're running from one place to another, dropping the kids at school, [and] going on to work. Here, they can grab something after work or on the way to work, or after grocery shopping. It's good, fresh home-cooking. We have some signature items that are very popular. Our ham balls, ham and green beans, pretzel sandwiches -- things you can't just get anywhere."

Keeping close tabs on what's selling at the smaller store has provided lots of input that backs up the expansion, but that's just part of it. The owners have taken a lesson from Darrenkamp's largest location, its 51,000-square-foot flagship store a few miles away.

That one, which has seating for 97, is packed every day between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and people stand, waiting for a seat to become available, Darrenkamp said.

"It got to a point where we had to ask our help not to eat in the food court because we needed the space for our customers."

Just four months ago, that store added a buffet breakfast on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings, from 7 to 10, and it's going well, Darrenkamp pointed out.

"We have everything on there from scrambled eggs and bacon to sausage, apple crisps, pancakes, muffins [and] biscuits. Our next drive will be to increase supper business there, maybe with special nights like Friday pizza and Thursday chicken pot pie night. Then when everything's settled, we may incorporate those at Mount Joy."

Darrenkamp said he and his brothers have made their sales projections based on watching closely what sells and when it sells at the flagship store, as well as at the Mount Joy store.

"We also found out there that people want variety. Sure you can have good pizza and chicken, but people don't want the 'same old, same old' all the time. We give them variety."

The store undergoing renovation is situated in such a high-growth area that the expansion puts the retailer just ahead of the curve, Darrenkamp said.

"There's a lot of development going on here, new housing. They just built a new library and a new school. It's a small town. And there's just us and a Weis Market in town," he explained.

Clearly, there are plenty of consumers in this area, which was classified as rural not too long ago.

The proportion of fresh foods in the renovated store will be greatly increased, with a third more space devoted to produce, and seafood getting double the space it once had.

"We'll have a dedicated seafood department for the first time in this store. We did have some self-service seafood in conjunction with the meat department, but now it's a separate department. We'll have eight feet of service seafood and 12 feet of self-service," Darrenkamp said.

The much-needed expansion was made possible because a retail store vacated spaced next door, which Darrenkamp's Markets now leases. The store has remained open during all the construction and, while it was sometimes a bit hectic during the holidays, staff and customers alike persevered cheerfully, Darrenkamp said.

"We didn't even see a dip in sales. Everybody and everything has been positive. If things go as well as they have been going, we'll have everything in place by Easter," Darrenkamp said.