TOPS SIGNS IN-STORE DEAL WITH CHINESE RESTAURATEUR

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Tops Markets has contracted with a West Coast restaurant operator to run a Chinese restaurant in its international format store here.The new in-store Chinese operation has posted good sales results, according to sources involved in the project.The 69-unit supermarket chain had been operating its own Chinese food programs as an element of its food court, featured in three Tops International

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Tops Markets has contracted with a West Coast restaurant operator to run a Chinese restaurant in its international format store here.

The new in-store Chinese operation has posted good sales results, according to sources involved in the project.

The 69-unit supermarket chain had been operating its own Chinese food programs as an element of its food court, featured in three Tops International format stores unveiled over the last three years. Two of those stores -- in Fairport and Niagara Falls, N.Y. -- have retained their Tops-run Chinese programs, said a source familiar with Tops.

At the third store, located here, the chain turned the reins of the Chinese operation over to restaurateur Bing Yang in the first week in December. Yang is the owner of Rice Garden, Alhambra, Calif.

Officials at Tops Markets in Williamsville, N.Y., did not return SN's phone calls seeking comment on the switch.

Yang told SN that sales are up 25% to 30% over the volume that had been posted by the previous in-house Chinese food operation in the store.

This is the first Rice Garden restaurant inside a supermarket on the East Coast. Yang said he has nine restaurants inside Lucky Stores units in California. In total, Rice Garden operates 21 restaurants; the others are in shopping malls and on college campuses.

Yang said Rice Garden has a lease arrangement with Tops, but he declined to discuss the terms of the agreement.

On the day the Rice Garden operation opened in Tops here, a "Grand Opening" menu listed four chicken dishes, one beef, one pork and two all-vegetable entrees. Three combo dinners were spotlighted and a coupon at the bottom of the handout menu offered a free regular soda with the purchase of any combo dinner.

Rice Garden's best-sellers here are the same as at its other locations. No. 1 is orange sesame chicken, and broccoli beef and teriyaki chicken.

Asked if he expects sales to rise higher than the present level, Yang said it's difficult to determine.

"I'm finding out that the demand for takeout food is not as big here as it is on the West Coast. People on the West Coast spend a lot of time commuting and they're doing more things after work. People in Buffalo and in the middle of the United States, too, consider cooking still part of their daily routine," he said.

Yang said Tops approached Rice Garden to take over the Chinese operation here. "I think it's because we're restaurant operators and we're specialized, too.

"I feel bad for supermarket food-service managers that have to manage four or five specialty-food operations," he added. "How can one guy do it? I wouldn't venture to cook Italian."

He said that as a restaurant operator, Rice Garden knows it has to maintain a high level of service as well as product quality, and thus must put emphasis on labor. In that regard, he sees labor as the stumbling block for most supermarket retailers.

"Chinese food doesn't hold well for very long, so we keep quality up by making just small batches. But supermarkets are apt to make a big batch, and then it dries out. They do that because they're lacking labor, but then they won't get any sales," Yang explained.

"We have a longer-term perspective. We know it takes three months just to build business; that you have to keep the level of service and labor up to keep people coming back," he said. His company, like many other food-service operators, has adopted the philosophy that profit comes later.