STEAK OUT

CARMEL, Ind. -- O'Malia Food Markets here has cut into a prime area with a small-format store, basically a meat market, that gives the family-owned company a foothold in an area dominated by big guys.The independent took its flagship, service meat department and embellished it with related items in a store that's a fraction the size of its seven full-line supermarkets, and the results are reportedly

CARMEL, Ind. -- O'Malia Food Markets here has cut into a prime area with a small-format store, basically a meat market, that gives the family-owned company a foothold in an area dominated by big guys.

The independent took its flagship, service meat department and embellished it with related items in a store that's a fraction the size of its seven full-line supermarkets, and the results are reportedly good.

A year after opening the 4,200-square-foot Joe O'Malia Quality Meats in a very well-to-do suburb 30 miles north of downtown Indianapolis, officials said they'd do it again.

"We're doing well with this store, considering it's a new format for us, and it's getting better all the time. This has been a very difficult market to expand in because there are so many big grocery stores in the northern half of Indianapolis. We hadn't opened a new store in 10 years until we opened this old-fashioned meat shop last spring," said Danny O'Malia, president of the company.

"It's an area of town where we'd love to have a traditional O'Malia Food Market. It's a high-end area, but it's also an area where the big brethren have built too many stores," he added, referring to Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., Meijer, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a local chain, Marsh Supermarkets.

"We took what we think is our best-known strength: meat. It's hard to compete with us on that so we made it the focus of the store, along with things that play off it, like a good wine selection."

Indeed, SN noted on a recent visit to the store that customers would immediately see a whole lot of things that would go just great with a steak dinner -- like wine and fresh-baked bread and Brie and blue cheese and bagged salads and baking potatoes. And fruit pies for dessert.

The first element facing the customer is a tiered, island display of gourmet, deli cheeses. To the left is a dairy case running along the wall until it hits produce, where bagged salads, iceberg and romaine lettuce and fresh fruit stand out.

To the immediate right of the cheese display is a 4-foot section of case in-line that displays a limited selection of fresh seafood. Perpendicular to that section is a huge expanse of meat that runs 63 feet in length. At least a third of the meat case is dedicated to cuts of Black Angus.

"That Angus spread is probably the biggest you'll see in the city," said the store's manager, Robert Walden, a 16-year-veteran of O'Malia, who most recently was head meat cutter at one of the company's traditional stores.

Between beef and other meats in the case, a four-foot section shows off value-added entrees such as marinated London broil and roasts and New York strip steaks stuffed with blue cheese.

"That's one of our big sellers," said Walden, as he pointed to the stuffed steaks. They're $11.99 a pound. Walden stressed that all the meat is cut in-store and the ready-to-cook items are prepared by chef Steve Dillback.

"We have a vacuum tumbler and a commercial smoker in the back. We do a lot with marinated ribs, pork chops and chicken breasts," Walden said. There is virtually no cooking done in-store because there's not enough space, equipment or labor, but Dillback's special-recipe meatballs are an exception.

"They're fully cooked. I make them from ground chuck, pasta sauce and seasonings, and I can cook them quickly in our convection oven. They're very popular. I cooked four dozen for one customer yesterday," Dillback said.

With O'Malia Food Markets for 14 years, Dillback, who also acts as assistant manager, was previously at the company's downtown store where he was seafood manager and taught cooking classes. Walden pointed out that customers at the new-format store are quick to tap into Dillback's cooking knowledge.

"His name is known from when he was teaching the cooking classes downtown."

While limited space at the meat market precludes in-store cooking classes, customers can easily reach Dillback by phone and they do call to ask him cooking questions as well as to place special orders.

"Most of them have our telephone number close by. We've handed out thousands of refrigerator magnets with our name and number. They know they can call Steve with a question and he'll also have their order ready when they come in," Walden said.

Across from the long display of meat is rack upon rack of wine. That display, about six feet high, runs nearly 40 feet. Wine also is cross merchandised inside the meatcase. A half shelf above a tray of beef shanks and round roasts, for example, holds a bottle of California merlot and a wine glass.

Synergies created with the displays in this store are intended to make customers think "meal." Bread is displayed on low wood racks in front of the meat case. The aroma of fresh-baked bread wafts through the store as parbaked loaves are finished off. Bags of baking potatoes and Yukon gold potatoes are stacked near the end of the meat display, at the edge of the cheese island. Right above them is a tall rack with an immense variety of bottled steak sauces, rubs and hot sauces.

As a customer stands looking into the meat case, the wine selection is directly behind him, against the front wall of the store. He could just turn around, after being handed his meat order, and select a wine to go with it. Such positioning of product is employed at some of the other stores, Danny O'Malia pointed out.

"At our Brookshire store, we have a spectacular wine department and it's connected to the meat department. It's the whole idea of making an event out of dinner, and that would include wine. Our meat guys are good, too, at telling customers which wine goes well with chicken or beef [or whatever they're buying]," O'Malia said.

When Joe O'Malia Quality Meats opened last spring, it offered just meat, some seafood, gourmet cheese, wine and imported beer.

"The first thing we added, three or four months after we opened, was Boar's Head brand meats and cheeses," said Walden.

The addition of that brand, known for its top quality and revered in selected parts of the country, was a coup for O'Malia. It provides the meat market's customers a top-quality product for sandwiches and at the same time, heightens the whole company's image in the marketplace, Walden said.

"They're very particular about who sells their products," he said, referring to Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Boar's Head Brand Provisions Co.

Almost all products added at Joe O'Malia Quality Meats have been brought in at the request of the customer. The most recent addition was domestic beer. And things like Texas toast and particular vegetables have been added in frozen food. So have some pre-packed entrees, both frozen and chilled.

"We don't have a huge spread but this isn't the kind of store where you do a week's shopping."

Ironically, the meat market by now looks a little like a mini supermarket because it offers a surprisingly large variety of items even though the SKUs within a category are limited. "We pull [the entire storeful of merchandise] from our 126th Street store. We don't have a back room here. When something's gone, it's gone. But our [O'Malia Food Markets'] home delivery van will drop things off as we need them from our 126th Street store [a recently remodeled, 35,000-square-foot, traditional O'Malia Food Market located about 30 minutes away]," Walden said.

He said he rotates some products in and out just to keep interest up. "I like to surprise people. They come in sometimes just to see what we've got that's new."

The gourmet cheese case is a good candidate for the addition of something different from time to time -- like a new, crocked cheese spread or a baked Brie, he said.

But often, a customer will just ask for something and Walden will bring it in to see if it catches on. Two recent success stories -- whole pineapples and Yankee Candles -- surprised him.

"A couple of customers asked for whole pineapples but I never thought they'd go. I brought in a few and we sold them out in two days."

And after being urged by O'Malia corporate office to add Yankee Candles because they're such good sellers in O'Malia traditional stores, Walden said he was skeptical -- and then, amazed.

"Those things sell like crazy. People are walking out of here with them all the time," he said, as he gestured toward a 6-foot by 8-foot display of Yankee brand aromatic candles in a myriad of colors. The display is backed up against the gourmet cheese island.

"And these. We sell so many of these. They're really home-made, made by hand, and they're not cheap," he said, as he pointed to a table display of stacked, boxed pies sourced from outside. The 10-inch pies are $7.99.

Retail prices at Joe O'Malia Quality Meats are the same as those at O'Malia tradtitional stores and the meat market ties into the company's ad circular specials. But it's word-of-mouth advertising that keeps the meat market's sales climbing, Walden explained.

Hand-outs, direct mail pieces and bag stuffers supplement all the good things customers tell their friends, but one of the best ads there could be is chef Steve's famous antipasto tray, he said.

"It's a tray you just wouldn't believe. It has all Boar's Head meats and cheeses and Steve does some nice things with it that make it a beautiful tray. When one of those goes over to the yacht club here, there will pretty soon be 20 people in here who want one for their party. People up here do a lot of entertaining."

Business keeps increasing and is heating up more now that warm weather is just around the corner, Walden said. While customers in the wealthy, lakeside community that surrounds the market may not stock up for the week, many of them come into the store every day, sometimes twice a day.

The dairy and produce departments, the selected fresh seafood assortment, condiments, and a selection of frozen and chilled entrees and appetizer-type items - in addition to the store's signature meat selection here - can make this O'Malia store a one-stop shop for customers getting ready for dinner, and tomorrow's breakfast and lunch.

" A lot of people stop on their way one from work. During the day we have a steady stream of customers, and a lunch rush, but in the evening, the store really fills up," Walden said.

"I'm not content with the space. I'd like to have more room so I could carry a little more, but I do like the [scaled down] concept very much. It works for us," Walden said.

Located in a brand new strip mall that's not fully occupied yet, the meat market could be expanded by at least a third and still be small enough to be convenient, Walden said.

"A lot of people stop on their way one from work. During the day we have a steady stream of customers, and a lunch rush, but in the evening, the store really fills up," Walden said.

"I'm not content with the space. I'd like to have more room so I could carry a little more, but I do like the [scaled down] concept very much. It works for us," Walden said.

Will O'Malia Food Markets open more formats of this type? Danny O'Malia answered that with a qualified "yes."

"Yes, we'd open more. This could be a good way to get into some neighborhoods where we've been shut out by big competitors, but we need to find more meat cutters or train some ourselves. For this store, we had to take butchers out of three of our other stores," O'Malia said.