SWEET SUPPORT

APOPKA, Fla. -- What does it take to get a successful supermarket fresh-meals program off the ground? Some innovative operators are finding that they can leverage their meals opportunities by maximizing their existing investments in departments such as in-store bakeries.At Gooding's Supermarkets, headquartered here, both a central bakery and a central kitchen service the company's 13 supermarkets

APOPKA, Fla. -- What does it take to get a successful supermarket fresh-meals program off the ground? Some innovative operators are finding that they can leverage their meals opportunities by maximizing their existing investments in departments such as in-store bakeries.

At Gooding's Supermarkets, headquartered here, both a central bakery and a central kitchen service the company's 13 supermarkets in the Orlando area. The Gooding's bakery program combines the efficiencies and consistency of the central plant with the aroma and theater of on-premise baking in the in-store bakeries.

Currently, the in-store bakeries' production format relies fairly heavily on frozen dough. Many of the doughs for the departments' breads and rolls are mixed from scratch, formed and frozen at the central plant, then shipped to the individual stores for further processing by the store-level bakers.

Other products are baked fresh at the plant, then shipped already packaged and labeled for display at the in-store bakery. These plant-prepared items include muffins, dessert cakes and decorated cakes. In addition, all the special-order cakes are prepared at the central plant.

"If a customer orders a custom cake at any of our stores by 6 p.m., it will be ready by the next morning," said Robert Altomari, director of bakery operations. "As a result, every cake we deliver has been freshly made just before it leaves the bakery."

Altomari pointed out that the entire bakery program is centered on preparing fresh products daily. "We're doing something that, as far as I know, no one else is doing," he said. "With the exception of the doughs we ship to the store to be baked off, all the rest of the products are produced and baked fresh each day. We never freeze anything except the doughs."

About two-thirds of the program's bakery items are prepared at the central plant. The in-store bakers make or bake the rest in the individual supermarkets, such as doughnut batters for freshly fried doughnuts.

The system also allows in-store associates to customize product lines for their markets by purchasing additional bake-off products that might not be available from the central bakery, such as individual Danish varieties. "By doing all the time-consuming items, [the central bakery] leaves time for the in-store bakers to help customers and to merchandise the bakery properly," said Altomari.

This approach is well-accepted by Gooding's customers, according to officials. While each in-store bakery boasts a full staff, the departments themselves are set up for self-service. Only two stores have bakeries that are not fully self-serve. The primary tasks of the bakery staff are to answer consumers' questions, reportion packages and provide personalized messages on stock cakes.

The activity in the bakery category is mirrored on the fresh-meals side. Gooding's operates a central kitchen, which prepares all the meals for the company's deli departments. Promoted under the "Gooding's to Go" banner, the central kitchen's meals menu ranges from 35 to 40 items, and includes dishes as down-home as barbecued chicken with cornbread and baked beans, or more upscale dinners like beef Stroganoff and poached salmon.

At Gooding's, the bakery and the deli's fresh meals areas are natural partners, both from a central-preparation stance and from an in-store merchandising approach. Because both departments must deliver to the individual stores, the company recently has developed a kind of in-house direct-store-delivery system. Both the central bakery and the central kitchen deliver frozen doughs, freshly prepared bakery products and finished-meal components in the early-morning hours. As a result, the respective in-store departments can have the showcases and self-service displays stocked and ready for customers by 6 or 7 a.m.

"We're still in the experimental stage with this delivery system, but so far, it seems to be working out well," said Altomari.

Most of the Gooding's deli and bakery managers work together to cross merchandise baked foods with the meals program. Indeed, the central kitchen uses some bakery products produced by the bakery plant and baked on the store premises, such as corn muffins that accompany Southwestern-type dinner combos.

"I'm proud of how all our departments work together to cross merchandise," said Tim Hale, store director of the Gooding's unit here. "Gooding's is one of the best in the business in the area of cross merchandising."

It's not that hard to do, considering the in-store departments are close to each other. A customer who pops in to pick up a selection of quick meals for the family at the deli's "Gooding's to Go" fresh-meals center can easily select breads or rolls from the adjacent bakery's self-service cases, and can top off the meal with one of the bakery's pudding cakes, cheesecakes or fresh-fruit delicacies.

For customers who prefer smaller portions, or who want to satisfy the varied tastes of different members of the family, the central bakery also prepares individually packaged dessert items. These are stocked in a section of the fresh-meals display, next to the prepacked prepared meals. Such desserts include individual serving sizes of flan, creme brulee, fruit cobbler, tiramisu, strawberry shortcake and a variety of cheesecake slices.

Hale noted that within the last six months, the fresh-meals program "has taken off like a rocket." He attributed the program's success to an emphasis on quality. "We prepare all the meals fresh each day, never frozen," he said. "Our customers have noticed and compliment us on it."

A change in packaging also may have contributed to the increase in sales, he said. "To begin with, we used oven-safe packaging. Then, we realized that no one uses ovens any more. So we've switched to microwave-safe plastic packaging for the [home-meal replacement] meals and side dishes. That packaging is more convenient for the customer. Besides, people buy with their eyes, and the clear packaging shows off the product better," he said.

The fresh-meals program is designed so that it doesn't depend on custom-designed bakery products. The bakeries offer a fairly extensive selection of breads, desserts, snack items, such as cookies and brownies, and breakfast products, including muffins and bagels. So, fresh-meals customers can mix and match bakery goods to complement their Gooding's to Go meals, and also can pick up additional products for the next day's breakfast and lunch.

"The trends in today's market are toward HMR, so we want to make it as convenient as possible for customers to put together a satisfying meal without limiting their choices," Hale added.