STOP & SHOP INTRODUCES TOP SHELF DESSERTS

QUINCY, Mass. -- Stop & Shop has launched a line of premium desserts made to its specifications by some of the country's best-known manufacturers of upscale baked goods.Dubbed "Top Shelf," the proprietary label was rolled out simultaneously to all the chain's stores that have in-store bakeries.Stop & Shop has spent the last few months working with its chosen manufacturers, some of which had previously

QUINCY, Mass. -- Stop & Shop has launched a line of premium desserts made to its specifications by some of the country's best-known manufacturers of upscale baked goods.

Dubbed "Top Shelf," the proprietary label was rolled out simultaneously to all the chain's stores that have in-store bakeries.

Stop & Shop has spent the last few months working with its chosen manufacturers, some of which had previously served just the food-service industry, to develop new formulations or new twists on existing formulations to come up with products unique to Stop & Shop, officials said.

The idea was to give customers what they have said they want -- high quality and big variety, officials said.

"The dessert line is doing even better than we had expected at this point in time. We've had out-of-stocks because production just couldn't keep up with demand in the beginning," said Joele Spada, director of the 340-unit chain's in-store and commercial bakeries.

Spada added that Stop & Shop's handful of manufacturer-partners, which include Camelot, Houston, and Love & Quiches, Freeport, N.Y., are adding man-hours and, in some cases, extra shifts, to keep up with Stop & Shop's orders.

All 330 of Stop & Shop's in-store bakeries are devoting 18 to 24 feet to Top Shelf cakes and an average of eight feet of space to Top Shelf pies. Even some of the 10 stores that don't have an ISB are offering selected Top Shelf pies and cakes in their delis.

The line includes 42 items, from Margharita cheesecake to a three-layer, chocolate/creme de menthe torte and several single-serve tartlets in flavors like lemon crumb, chocolate treasure or cream caramel. Retail prices range from $2.99 for individual tartlets to $16.99 for a carousel sampler. The latter, which Spada expects to top the best-seller list once Christmas season gets under way, is a 10-incher with four different flavors of cake: carrot cake, tiramisu, mocha and apple caramel.

"If you're taking a cake to someone's house, you don't have to decide on just one kind. It looks great, too. The carrot cake has a frosting carrot on it, and each quarter of the cake has a different color frosting. It appeals to all tastes, and it could be a centerpiece," Spada said.

She went on to explain that the Top Shelf line has been developed for the customer who is clearly looking for high-end quality and is not overly concerned with price. Rick Stockwood, spokesman for the chain, told SN how the new, premium line dovetails with the chain's one-stop-shopping philosophy.

"We didn't have a premium baked goods line before. This is one that our customer feedback dictated -- just as [it dictated] the addition of Dunkin' Donuts. Our customers are continually looking for top-quality products under the same roof. By providing this, we're able to offer them something they previously would have had to make an extra trip to a bakery for," Stockwood said.

While the chain, which has stores in New England, New York and New Jersey, already offered baked goods it was proud of, it decided to add a "top shelf" to give customers the option of treating themselves to something really special and to provide them with high-end products for entertaining guests.

Indeed, Spada pointed out that the chain and its manufacturers did some scurrying to get the line ready for takeoff at the beginning of October. The timing was purposeful so customers could get acquainted with the products before the holiday entertaining season begins, she said.

"The best seller so far, probably due to the season, is the 10-inch apple pie. The pies are a runaway hit right now. It's the perfect time," Spada said.

There are five flavors -- harvest apple, apple walnut, peach praline, pineapple upside-down and berry burst. All have a retail price of $9.99.

Spada said she and her team scoured the country for the best products they could find, and then spent months visiting production sites, talking to manufacturers, and getting deeply involved in product development.

"Some are the original formulation with some sort of twist, maybe just in size, or a different frosting. Others were developed for us. We wanted them to be fresh and different, only for us."

Spada said that all items are made from scratch, from top-grade ingredients. For instance, real dairy whipped cream is used. The cakes are completed by the manufacturer and shipped frozen. Pies, too, are shipped frozen, but are baked off in-store as needed.

At this point, Top Shelf's seven-inch cheesecakes are rival to the line's pie. But the big surprise has been the volume of singe-serving and servings-for-two items moved every day, Spada said.

"There's one that's my personal favorite. It's called Chocolate Treasure. You heat it up for a couple of seconds in the microwave and it makes the center soft. That's very popular," she said.

In a visit to a Stop & Shop unit in Nanuet, N.Y., SN noted that the upper shelf in the Top Shelf display case and half of the next shelf down exclusively showed off single-serve tartlets and domed packages of two squares of such items as carrot cake and marble cheesecake.

There, in the bake shop, bakery manager Paul Villara offered tastes of Chocolate Treasure -- which lived up to its reputation -- to SN and to customers as they walked by. Later, SN noted a bakery associate walking around the deli department on the opposite side of the store, offering samples of chocolate cake from a big tray. Customers, waiting for their sliced meat and cheese orders, readily took him up on his offer and at least one asked where the cakes were displayed.

"Our objective is to appeal to customers already in the store, so we have signs at the bake shop itself and we'll get some up in the front of the store. And maybe some on the ice cream doors," Spada said.

All items are self-service, offered in clear-dome packs with distinctive gold-on-black labels. At the Nanuet store, a large, handwritten, easel sign proclaimed, "Try our new top-quality desserts for discerning dessert lovers," and gold-on-black shelf-strips described the items.

Villara said it is truly difficult to pinpoint a No. 1 seller yet at Nanuet because all the items are doing very well. That's right in line with the company's objectives.

"We timed it this way. The price points are right, and we were looking to get as many hits right out of the starting gate as possible," Spada said.