STATE OF THE PLATE

Supermarket operators are increasingly using the total store to sell meal solutions, pulling existing products from various departments and presenting them in new ways that grab the attention of busy customers.These retailers are enlisting the help of culinary-trained managers, cooking coaches and even personable associates to staff cooking classes and in-store stations that boost the industry's emerging

Supermarket operators are increasingly using the total store to sell meal solutions, pulling existing products from various departments and presenting them in new ways that grab the attention of busy customers.

These retailers are enlisting the help of culinary-trained managers, cooking coaches and even personable associates to staff cooking classes and in-store stations that boost the industry's emerging profile as educator, rather than food warehouse. In the aisles, they're executing progressive cross-merchandising, cross-marketing and bundling strategies that emphasize the "solutions" aspect of the fresh-meals business, operators told SN.

"A year and a half ago we were talking about selling the whole store, but now we're actually doing it," said one industry source. And it's becoming apparent that giving customers the opportunity to interact with knowledgeable people in the store can be the catalyst.

In many cases, it's just a matter of hand-holding so to speak, or bolstering the customers' confidence in their cooking ability, said a newly appointed supermarket chef. His first day on the floor was a revelation to him, he said.

"I was demoing sauteed salmon the other day and people were coming over to me carrying pork roasts and cuts of beef and asking me how to cook them or what to serve with them. Someone even asked me about baking pie crust. I took her over and introduced her to our pastry chef," said Jim Nadeau, executive chef at Kowalski's Markets, a St. Paul, Minn.-based, family-owned independent.

The five-unit Kowalski's brought Nadeau on board in time to get him ready for the grand opening last month of its newest format store which is specifically designed to nurture interaction between associates and customers.

A permanent demo station, positioned between the meat and seafood departments, is manned at least six hours a day on weekdays and all day on weekends. That, and the hiring of a cheese specialist and a full-time pastry chef, are all firsts at the new Kowalski's.

More and more retailers are serving up ideas and advice on preparing or finishing the preparation of food at home, industry sources said. Staffed "meal idea" centers, where items are cross-merchandised and meal suggestions offered, are taking the spotlight. So are ready-to-cook entrees, with accoutrements in various stages of readiness bundled with them or merchandised nearby.

Nadeau said Kowalski's is cross-merchandising side dishes from the deli and cut fruit from produce right now at its permanent demo station, which it calls "The Chef's Block."

Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., a pioneer in offering various meal solutions, has taken the demo station a step further. The innovative chain is now offering simple on-the-spot cooking lessons at such a station, right in the middle of the fresh power aisle at its flagship store in Pittsford.

It's running small ads in local newspapers that invite consumers to come to the "cooking station" in the fresh foods aisle and learn from the "cooking coach" how to saute, braise, steam and make sauces, among other subjects.

The demo station isn't new, but the emphasis is: almost daily, basic cooking lessons requiring no prior sign-up.

When it's kept to such simple instruction it's not necessary to have a full-fledged chef or culinarian doing the teaching, said Jim Riesenburger, managing partner at Riesenburger, Leenhouts & Associates, LLC, Rochester, N.Y., a consulting firm that works with supermarkets.

"You can have someone with a nice, outgoing personality who loves food. They could be taught the procedure in a relatively short time," Riesenburger said.

Whether or not there's cooking instruction offered, a meals idea center can provide the forum for cross-merchandising, he pointed out.

"It gives you the ability to provide, in one location, a solution for the customer because you're bundling all the products [for a meal]. You can give them a recipe, have a cooking coach in the area, the actual meal plated, and all the ingredients right there. People are doing more cooking. That's in essence why we include demo/cooking stations in our store designs. They're successful."

Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Me., with 142 units in the Northeast, and The Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J., are among the retailers who have added store-level culinarians this year and have charged them with helping customers decide what to buy.

Hannaford Bros., at a new format store in West Falmouth Crossing, Me., has hired a meals specialist who's stationed in the meat department to answer questions about cooking different cuts of meat and what other items go with a particular protein.

Indeed, all the fresh departments at Hannaford's new store communicate on a daily basis about what's to be cross-merchandised or cross-marketed for a meal idea, a source in the bakery department said.

"For example, the bread captain would be aware there's a sale this week on a particular steak. If he's demoing olive bread, for example, he might suggest that it goes well with that steak and direct the customer to the meat department," the source said.

While Kowalski's has built a from-the-ground-up store and designed it to accommodate a logical bunching of fresh departments and bundling of products to make meals-buying convenient, Grand Union introduced a meals-merchandising concept last fall that can be tailored to any size store, officials said. It's built around a resident chef who makes himself readily available to customers and to other associates.

"What we like about having a chef is a chef has a little bit different way of preparing and presenting foods, and Chef John is here also to talk to customers and give them some meal ideas. We figure he can also help make food experts of our other associates," said Gary Philbin, president and chief merchandising officer of the 217-unit chain, at the opening of its first new-format Fresh Market store in Danbury, Conn.

"The concepts you see here are the ones you'll see in all our Fresh Market stores, even the 9,000-square-foot one we'll open next. We'll have other chefs. If a customer has a question, there's an expert in our store that can help him. We want to be known as the food experts," Philbin said.

They're not alone. More and more supermarkets are offering basic cooking instruction and showing customers, for example, how quickly they could saute chicken or fish and then perhaps add a fully cooked side dish from the deli.

"All the major chains are adopting some version of the idea center or meals idea person," said David Casto, president, retail food division, North America, Hobart Corp., Troy, Ohio, a leading equipment manufacturer.

Hobart has sponsored comprehensive research on the supermarket meals consumer, and a report on the study was published this summer by The Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C. [see sidebar on page 47].

Rather than diminishing the role of the chef or culinary-trained person, the new direction that puts more focus on ready-to-cook entrees makes that person's role even more important, Casto believes.

"In the last couple of years, retailers have recognized there's a customer base that's interested in doing some of the preparation but needs assistance or a creative infusion. So those chefs now can show how to take products from Center Store and augment them with freshly prepared and/or ready-to-cook products and end up with a cost-efficient, nutritious, good-tasting meal in very little time," he said.

As a result, it's hoped that consumers will come to think of the whole store as a solution to their meal quandary and as a real alternative to fast food.

Even those retailers who don't have a staffed meals center have taken other measures to give customers help with meals.

While Kowalski's opened up in-store production at its newest store in order to create more dialogue between associates and customers, Dierbergs Markets in St. Louis expects taking production out of the store to stir up more interaction between associates and customers.

"We built a central kitchen last year just for prepared foods primarily for the sake of quality and consistency, but it also frees store-level associates to concentrate on the service counter and the customers," said David Calandro, director, deli and food-service operations, at the 18-unit chain.

"We're training them to sell. For example, they're told to suggest our flame-grilled veggies to go with grilled chicken or our herb-sherry demi-glace to go with roast pork loin. To make it easy, we've taken 10 feet of our service case and made it a meals center by displaying bowls of side dishes right beside platters of entrees."

Right in front of that counter, too, the chain has newly installed cherry-wood racks with baskets of dinner rolls, baguettes and other breads from the in-store bakery.

"We had had tables there with a branded bread, but we thought, 'Why shouldn't we promote our own fresh-baked products?"' he said.

Recipe cards went up on the case last quarter that tell customers how easy it is to make Caesar salad and fajitas with Dierbergs' grilled chicken breasts.

"We found this summer, too, that giving away something free like potato salad or another side dish with our rotisserie and fried chicken was very successful. Customers perceive it as a better value than a reduced price, and it gives them a meal," Calandro said.

In similar bundling efforts, Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., promotes "value meals" in its pizza and sandwich departments with great success, said Scott Ruth, vice president, meat and specialty departments, at the 46-unit chain.

"We're not changing anything because what we've been doing these last couple of years has worked very well. [see "Big Y Credits Simplicity -- and a Commitment to Freshness -- With Making Their International Cafes a Top Fresh Meals Player," SN, July 6, 1998].

"Baguettes and salads are merchandised near a walk-around display of rotisserie chickens, but signs do a lot of the work at Big Y.

For example, a sign above the chickens says, "Don't forget corn bread." At the cash register in the sandwich department, a sign asks, "Dessert?"

"We've kept it simple and we'll continue to do that. It's a comfort food business for us," said Ruth.

Other retailers, too, are going the simple route. Casto at Hobart Corp., who travels extensively for his company, said he's seen immense changes at store level over the last year or so.

"I see target marketing now. It's a change from when retailers were trying to be everything to everybody. You used to see everything from hot dogs to pheasant under glass," Casto said of what changes he's seeing. "Now retailers are focusing on portfolio products that best address their own customers. Like they're making the best meat loaf they can, complemented by signature macaroni and cheese or very good mashed potatoes."