Clemens Markets' upscale, fresh-format "foodsource" has made the company proud.Officials said the concept, which took some tweaking, has proven very successful since its debut five years ago in a high-income suburb of Philadelphia ["Clemens Goes Upscale With 'Foodsource' Fresh Format," SN 4/12/99]. So much so that the independent, which also owns and operates 21 mainstream supermarkets, has just opened

Clemens Markets' upscale, fresh-format "foodsource" has made the company proud.

Officials said the concept, which took some tweaking, has proven very successful since its debut five years ago in a high-income suburb of Philadelphia ["Clemens Goes Upscale With 'Foodsource' Fresh Format," SN 4/12/99]. So much so that the independent, which also owns and operates 21 mainstream supermarkets, has just opened its second foodsource at a site twice the size of the first. A third is under construction.

"They're hanging steel for it as we speak," said Steve Heilig, director of operations, foodsource stores. "It'll be right in DuPont land, two miles outside Wilmington [Del.]."

In fact, the company had been looking for some time for the right spots for more foodsource units, Heilig told SN. Location and demographics are major factors, but then the fine-tuning begins - and goes on.

For starters, it became apparent fairly soon that the first store was busiest during the week instead of the weekend, probably because people returning to work on Monday were eager to buy their dinner already prepared.

"We've found that Monday actually is our second busiest day," Heilig said.

Officials also wanted the second store to have more space for in-store dining. A seating area and an open-production area have been expanded. A selection of hot food has been added at the new site, just south of Philadelphia. The 20,000-square-foot store there has seating for about 60 people. There had not been room for much seating at the first, 10,500-square-foot location. Most important, however, is that the concept, shortly after its launch, gained a huge measure of autonomy with a restructuring of its management.

"We started out integrating it with Clemens Markets, but we thought we could improve upon that. It evolved so that now we have our own operations and merchandising teams. Our strategies are considerably different than Clemens' strategies," Heilig stressed.

That could be the key to foodsource's success. Its Chef's Kitchen prepared-foods program, which is the focal point and top sales-generating department of the store, is run more like a restaurant than a supermarket. An executive chef, with his culinary-skilled team, turns out upscale fare all day long right behind a long, low-profile service case that displays the food, chilled, on crockery platters. On any given day, 50 or 60 different items -- appetizers, entrees and side dishes -- are presented there.

The fact that all the food is prepared from scratch on site, in an entirely open prep area that has been increased in size by at least half at the newest location, is important for several reasons.

First of all, production is easier to control. If the Chef's Kitchen starts running short of grilled tenderloin, for instance, there's no time lag in getting more grilled. Even more important is the freshness message that's conveyed. Customers know the food is fresh because they see it being cooked, and they like to watch the cooking team at work, Heilig said.

"We hire professional cooks, as well as professional chefs. The complexities of professional cooking are immense. Anyone who doesn't understand the food-service animal is just not going to like the essential business, and they're not going to be good at it."

The executive chef at each foodsource store does his own buying, recipe development and merchandising. He is responsible for his own labor budget, his gross profit budget and profit-and-loss statement, too. While Heilig may lay down certain purchasing guidelines, the chefs have free rein as to what they buy and when. Creativity is encouraged.

"Our customers come to us looking for something special, something different. We want to be their source, and we do keep on top of food trends, ideally ahead of the customer," Heilig stated.

That can be quite a challenge because an item deemed special today often finds its way into the mainstream quickly, Heilig pointed out.

"We read food magazines, go to the [trade] shows, [and] look at what other people are doing. I have a hotel restaurant background, so I particularly watch what's going on in that area. The food knowledge that consumers have today is so far beyond what anyone 20 years ago could have imagined. It's amazing. But our customers do think of us. I can guarantee you if they see a TV chef talking about a particular product today, they'll think of us as the place to get it -- whether it's mashed Peruvian purple potatoes or ginger-crusted salmon ," Heilig said.

They might come looking for ingredients to make the item themselves, but chances are, they'll be looking for a version that's been prepared by foodsource's culinary team. Indeed, the executive chefs have a repertoire of recipes that tops 300, and they're constantly interacting with customers, getting feedback and suggestions.

Chicken breast stuffed with baby spinach and prosciutto, and grilled tuna steaks with black bean-mango salsa are the types of entrees spotlighted in the chilled case. The new, hot food array is just as upscale.

"This is definitely not the ordinary hot food you'd find in a supermarket," Heilig observed.

"We might have chicken breast stuffed with crab and lobster or Brie and asparagus, or there might be shell pasta with chicken sausage and sun-dried tomatoes. These [the hot items] are sold as meals, with sides, for $7 to $14."

It's no wonder Heilig credited his hand-picked chefs and their especially trained assistants with much of the success.

"Prepared foods is the No. 1 department in the store for volume, accounting for, depending on the week, 30% to 40% of total store sales. And it's growing on an annual basis. It will continue to be the focal point in future stores," Heilig said.

Prepared foods may lead the pack in the intensity of associate-customer interaction, but customer service sits high on the priority list in all foodsource departments.

"We hire people with a passion for food. That's it. We have more than 300 types of specialty cheeses. It's not easy to learn about all of them and be able to talk about them. You have to want to. Whether it's a washed rind cheese or a sheep's milk feta, our people can tell you what makes it different and how to use it."

In the produce department, where not surprisingly there's an emphasis on the unusual, customers may learn why baby artichokes or morrels are special and what's the most impressive way to use them.

Likewise, in the all-service meat departments, associates can be counted on to tell customers what rub to use on a leg of lamb to give it a Southwestern or South American flavor profile.

At the Wilmington store, set to open shortly after the first of the year, service will be pushed to a new level in the prepared-foods arena.

There, for the first time, an a la carte cafe will be featured in addition to the Chef's Kitchen. Customers will be able to place their orders at a counter and watch their orders as they're prepared. Cafe seating will accommodate at least 60 diners.

"We're just taking service up another step. Things have evolved. It's been a living, breathing case study, and we're going along with it," Heilig said.