STORES EXPLORE FALL FOOD PROGRAMS

As the dog days of summer wind down, supermarket food service executives are making plans for their fall line-ups.Retailers contacted by SN said that, since summer is usually a slow period for supermarket food service, they've used the time to experiment with ways to capture more sales in the coming months.Seaway Food Town in Maumee, Ohio, is making a major commitment to Chinese food."We just introduced

As the dog days of summer wind down, supermarket food service executives are making plans for their fall line-ups.

Retailers contacted by SN said that, since summer is usually a slow period for supermarket food service, they've used the time to experiment with ways to capture more sales in the coming months.

Seaway Food Town in Maumee, Ohio, is making a major commitment to Chinese food.

"We just introduced Chinese food in all of our delis," said Pat Nowak, director of public relations and consumer affairs. "People equate eating Chinese with eating healthy."

She said that the company has operated Chinese restaurants in two of its 45 stores, and they "had proven so successful that we decided to expand the offerings to all of our stores. Growth had been phenomenal. Volume had been increasing by about 20% per year."

Instead of operating Chinese kitchens in each store, she said, the company opted to go with a prepared, heat-and-eat program provided by a supplier.

She said each store sells about eight to 10 packaged items out of the deli. "We think it's going to be very popular," she said.

The deli department is also gearing up to introduce a line of small-portion, ready-to-heat entrees called "Take Out for Two."

Changing demographics in the company's marketing area is driving the introduction of this new line. "As the population gets older and kids go off to school, there are a lot of households with just two people, as well as a lot of young couples without kids," said Nowak.

While the company isn't sure how many items it will include in the line, Nowak said, it is currently testing different recipes. She said she expects the program should be up and running in the next three months.

A major Midwest retail chain is focusing on expanding hot foods cooked to order this fall.

"We're taking prepared foods to different stages and providing a level of quality that consumers are used to getting at home," said the company's food service director.

While chicken and pizza will "remain the backbone" of the retailer's hot foods program, he said, the company is experimenting with other items that can be prepared on a grill or wok within eight to 11 minutes and served in in-store cafes.

He said stir fry is very popular. "In our marketing area people don't necessarily like Chinese food," he said. "But they like stir fry. It seems to have a healthier connotation."

Other popular items, he said, are a lean ground chuck burger and a boneless, skinless chicken breast lightly seasoned and served on a sandwich or on top of a tossed salad.

He is also experimenting with rotisserie ribs and plans to try more ethnic foods, such as Mexican.

"Ethnic foods have lots of potential," he said. "They are very important to our customers. We're trying to carve out a niche for ourselves and see how many different types of food we can bring to consumers."

He said the company is focusing on center of plate items that can be sold from the cafe and also sold ready-to-heat from the deli.

"These items are perfect for people who don't want to wait in line or wait for the food to be prepared," he said.

He said he recently sold, in one week, $1,000 worth of a new prepared meat loaf that he was testing in a single store.

What's driving the changes in this company? Consumer demand for convenience, the source said. "People have less quality time these days and are working harder," he said. "They want short cuts and convenience and we're going to provide them."

Party platters and upscale, "gourmet" salads and meats will get heavy emphasis this fall at Dillon Stores, Hutchinson, Kan., a 21-store subsidiary of Kroger Co., Cincinnati.

"We won't be adding anything new," said Jodie Greer, deli and bakery director, "but we plan to expand tonnage over a very successful year last year."

While he declined to give specific volume figures for the categories, he said that party platters, salads and meats grew "tremendously" last fall. He plans to "market them even more aggressively this year."

He said he plans to run weekly price ads for the different items, which will include sliced Cajun-style meats and holiday-related salads such as cranberry salad, mousses, ambrosia and Jell-O rings.

At West Linn Thriftway in West Linn, Ore., the catering menu is under review.

"We made some changes to our catering menu in the spring that we need to refine now," said Shannon Edgel, food and catering director for the two-unit retailer in the Portland suburbs.

She said the company's growing catering business was bolstered even more last spring when it introduced its new menu featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was printed on a flier which doubles as an order form.

"We're up about 20% in catering sales," said Edgel. "We're booming this summer, but there are some items that aren't doing so well, so we need to tweak them a little."

Catering falls under Thriftway's deli and bakery departments which generate more than 12% of store sales, she said.

The new catering menu features complete breakfasts priced from $2.80-$5.35 per person; lunch for $4.99-$8.35 per person and dinner for $7.50-$13.25 per person.

Dick's Supermarkets in Platteville, Wis., is adding 7,000 square feet of space to its 23,000-square-foot central kitchen and bakery this fall to accommodate growing demand, said Tim Fink, food service director for the eight-store company.

In addition to the expansion at the central facility, he said, two stores are currently being remodeled. Two more remodels are scheduled to begin in 1995. They will include expanded food service areas with the addition of hot service cases.

"The growth that we've experienced has been incredible," he said. "We're just really trying to catch up to demand."