THINK BIG

Look out Wegmans. Watch out Applebee's. Super Foodtown is cooking up something big.Plump, fried chicken breasts nearly the size of whole chickens; hefty squares of lasagna towering six inches in the air; and jumbo, herb-grilled shrimp have starring roles in the case at Super Foodtown's newly remodeled, 70,000-plus-square-foot store in Ocean, N.J.A newly equipped, in-store kitchen is turning out trendy,

Look out Wegmans. Watch out Applebee's. Super Foodtown is cooking up something big.

Plump, fried chicken breasts nearly the size of whole chickens; hefty squares of lasagna towering six inches in the air; and jumbo, herb-grilled shrimp have starring roles in the case at Super Foodtown's newly remodeled, 70,000-plus-square-foot store in Ocean, N.J.

A newly equipped, in-store kitchen is turning out trendy, upscale entrees, as well as old favorites like meatloaf and a large variety of sides, sub sandwiches, soups, pizza and salads with nary an artificial ingredient. Both the fare and the ambiance stand out, and will probably continue to do so even when Whole Foods comes to town this summer. Right now, Foodtown's Circus Kitchen/Cafe is holding its own in the midst of a melange of casual-dining and quick-service restaurants up and down the road, and a new Wegmans that opened four miles away.

"We're doing very well with this, above projections. We're happy with what Elton [Reid] is doing," said Louis Scaduto Jr., vice president of operations and retail sales for the Foodtown group, which is owned by Food Circus, Middletown, N.J.

The upscaled prepared-foods concept, the focal point of the store, is the creation of Elton Reid, the director of fresh foods for the Foodtown group's 10 stores. (The group includes six Super Foodtown stores, which are larger than Foodtown units, and place a bigger focus on fresh foods.)

Here the kitchen/cafe, featuring made-from-scratch fare served up in a comfortable atmosphere, will be the benchmark for future Foodtown remodels, at least at the stores that have kitchens, officials said.

In fact, one such remodel should be under way soon, SN was told on a recent visit to the Ocean store.

"As space and layout permit, we'll make the chef's kitchen and cafe at the next remodel as nearly like this one as possible," Reid said.

Reid, himself a chef who got lots of experience preparing and selling freshly prepared meals at retail when he was at H.E. Butt Grocery, San Antonio, and Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., emphasized that quality is always first in his book. Yet visual presentation and friendly service are important, too, he said. They're all quite evident at this unit.

The store underwent a complete makeover late last year that included the addition of 21,000 square feet of selling space. The kitchen and prepared-foods program displaced the produce department at the right side and right front corner of the store. Produce, in the meantime, was moved out into the middle front of the store, creating a fresh market feel. Reid said the aim was to have customers entering the store see the kitchen and cafe right away.

"We wanted to make them feel comfortable so they would want to stay awhile," he said. "So, in the seating area at the right front of the store, we've put in some stuffed, comfortable chairs, and the lighting is nice and soft."

A coffee bar serving lattes, cappuccinos, and flavored coffee and tea faces into the seating area, which accommodates about 40 people with tables and chairs.

To get the ambiance and displays right, Reid worked hand-in-hand with Rochester, N.Y.-based Making A Statement, a consulting firm that works with supermarkets.

"This whole prepared-foods project at Foodtown was Elton's vision, and it's a great one," said Jim Frackenpohl, Making A Statement's vice president. "We're good partners. We just helped shepherd the project to ensure it would be a money-making reality at the end of the day."

Both Frackenpohl and Meg Brewin, the company's president, had long tenures in the fresh departments at Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., and at other retail chains before launching their own business.

The warm ambiance at the Super Foodtown unit here, featuring an open kitchen with tiled walls in earth tones and a complement of shiny, stainless-steel cooking equipment, plus hanging, incandescent lighting designed to spotlight the food, is a hallmark of Making A Statement.

The deep-set kitchen is fronted by a low-profile, refrigerated chef's showcase that runs 24 feet, and features the likes of herb-crusted beef tenderloin, $19.99 a pound; pepper-crusted, sushi-grade tuna, $13.99 a pound; meatballs, $4.99 a pound; meatloaf, $4.99 a pound; and roasted carrots, $3.99 a pound. In all, SN counted 44 entrees and side dishes in the case on the day of the store visit.

The items were displayed on black, crockery platters and bowls set on black-and-white marble risers at different heights, and positioned at angles in the case. This visually interesting presentation is reminiscent of the chef's case at Harris Teeter's unit in the affluent Buckhead suburb of Atlanta, when Reid was involved in the prepared-foods program there.

All the prepared food here is made in the kitchen in small batches in order to keep everything as fresh as possible, and yet keep the platters piled high at peak traffic times.

Reid called the showcase his virtual 3-D menu, and was quick to point out the relationship of side dishes with entrees in the case. For instance, a platter of pork osso bucco was surrounded by smaller platters of cauliflower au gratin, roasted carrots and sauteed greens. A platter of meatloaf had smaller platters of mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and potato salad alongside it.

"The idea is to have little destinations throughout your merchandising. This gives the customer ideas for what sides he might choose to go with the entree. It makes it easy to see a meal right away," Reid said.

Chef Thomas Petaccia, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and a veteran of Bruno's in Atlanta, daily oversees the preparation here and was quick to point out that his staff of 15, which is dedicated to the kitchen/cafe, is trained to set the case with a bit of artistry.

Both he and Reid talked about the importance of color and texture when setting the case.

"It's just like showing the culinary staff at a restaurant how to plate a meal, only this is on a larger scale," Reid said.

He explained that the cases open from the front as well as the back, and are always set from the front so the associate can just step back and see what the customer will see as he arranges the various offerings.

"It's all about the product. We want people to see it," Reid said.

There's no doubt they do. Indeed, SN saw the length of displayed prepared food as the main attraction upon entering the store.

After the chef's showcase, a hot case, measuring eight feet in length, serves as a platform for jumbo-sized pieces of fried chicken. Reid said he buys fresh -- never frozen -- chicken, and specifies to his supplier that he wants the biggest there is. The size of the chicken is a knockout, but so are the flavor and texture. The pieces are dipped twice and hand-breaded with a breading made for Foodtown according to Reid's specifications.

"I want people to look at that case and not just see chicken, but I want them to say, 'Wow, look at that great big piece of chicken,' and then buy it," Reid said.

And they do. In fact, the signature fried chicken, which occupies half the hot case, has become a destination product. The headliner retail price is eight pieces -- four drums and four thighs -- for $4.99. Another deal offers eight drumsticks and eight thighs for $8.99. The chicken, both white and dark meat pieces, bought a la carte is $4.49 a pound.

A friendly associate could be seen tossing pizza dough overhead at the pizza station, which is next in line after the hot case. The station features slices and whole pies made in a unique rectangular-oval shape with rounded corners. Reid calls it board pizza. Whole pies retail for $9.99, with huge slices selling for $1.99. The retailer buys special-sized boxes to contain the pies.

A sub sandwich station rounds out the service food offerings. Then the coffee bar is next.

Many entrees and sides are sold as chilled, packaged meals from a self-service case across the aisle from the service area. All the chilled dishes are in microwave-safe containers, and prices are set to appeal to shoppers looking for value, Reid said. Most meals, with a large entree and two side dishes, retail for $5.99. A variety of homemade soups, too, in pint and quart containers, occupied a large portion of the case.

During the area's last big snowstorm, the soups flew off the shelves. "They sold like crazy," Reid said. "The staff had a busy time keeping the soup shelf stocked."