U SAVE STORES ARE DISHING UP FRESH @ FIVE HOME COOKIN'

TAMPA, Fla. -- U Save Supermarkets here has put freshness on the menu with a new meals program designed to heat up dinner business.Made-from-scratch entrees served in big portions and packed in new, sectioned plates with dome tops are major ingredients in the chain's new endeavor. So are upgraded side dishes, eye-appealing displays and signs with full-color photographs.But the biggest difference from

TAMPA, Fla. -- U Save Supermarkets here has put freshness on the menu with a new meals program designed to heat up dinner business.

Made-from-scratch entrees served in big portions and packed in new, sectioned plates with dome tops are major ingredients in the chain's new endeavor. So are upgraded side dishes, eye-appealing displays and signs with full-color photographs.

But the biggest difference from the past, and the most important one, according to officials, is that the hot case will be set anew at five o'clock in the evening. To underscore that fact, the new program has been dubbed "fresh @ five."

Deli managers and in-store staff have been instructed that they may not set the case before 4:50 p.m., said Ginger Edwards, director of deli-bakery for the 21-unit chain.

"We're committed to offering the freshest possible 'home-made' food to take home. We're offering what our customers would like to eat at home if they had the time to cook it or if they could afford to hire a live-in cook," said Edwards.

She said the dinners were selling well and she was not surprised because her theory is that lack of freshness is the sales-stopper in most supermarket fresh meals programs.

The entrees are made from scratch, in-store, from a corporate recipe. The side dishes, sourced from outside, have been upgraded from selections previously available, Edwards pointed out.

Three varieties of entrees are offered each day and are served in heaping, 6-ounce portions. Some of the menu items are ribs, meatloaf and Cuban pork. Some of the sides offered are au gratin potatoes, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, white rice, black beans, collard greens, corn in a butter sauce and green beans in an herb sauce. The sides are served in 5-to-6-ounce portions.

"We want people to realize they're getting a good value; that they're getting enough good food to fill them up," Edwards said.

An entree, two sides and a roll or other individual baked item is $4.49; two dinners are $7.99. The old dinners, which were made up of the same fare served at lunchtime, were $3.99.

Prior to the introduction of "fresh @ five," the chain's hot program consisted mainly of fried chicken and such items as lasagna sourced from outside. Entrees and side dishes were served in styrofoam containers. That will still be true for lunch, but dinner is a different story, Edwards said. The hot table will be dismantled after lunchtime. Only snack items such as corn dogs and wings will be kept on the hot table in mid-afternoon; it will be the same after 7:30 in the evening, Edwards said.

She advised deli managers several weeks before the program was launched in February that they would have to make some major shifts in labor-scheduling to accomplish the goals of the program.

"For example, we require that the deli manager be there when the case is set in the evening," Edwards said.

But the biggest shift in manhours ironically involves the bakery, not the deli. That's because customers get to choose a fresh-baked muffin, roll or hunk of Italian bread or cornbread with their dinners and those items are baked just prior to setting up for dinner.

The overwrapped items are displayed in a basket on top of the hot food counter, and customers are invited to choose one.

"We're bringing in our bakers at nine or 10 now, instead of at five o'clock in the morning. And our major bake comes out of the oven at three in the afternoon. But they still bake Italian bread throughout the day," Edwards said. Giving customers the choice of an individual baked item is intended to differentiate the stores' dinner program, Edwards said. The large portions, too, are intended to set the dinner program apart from those of the competition.

"But freshness is the key. That and the eye appeal is what will sell the product. All the entrees will be made in-store from scratch," Edwards said.

A limited number of the dinners is displayed on their sectioned plates, but most items are displayed in wells in a steam table or in pans on a hot tile counter. About half of U Save's stores have steam tables; the others, hot-tile counters.

"The black, sectioned containers are important to the look of the product, too. The plates show off the meals well," Edwards said.

She added that the sectioned plates have sectioned dome-tops, too, which insures the food will still look good when it arrives at its destination.

"The sides don't spill over into each other. It's a great container because it travels well, too."

Most of U Save's units are located in working class neighborhoods where people are looking for no-nonsense good food, Edwards said. And her selection of such items as pork chops, fried cod, pot roast and meatloaf reflects what her customers say they want to eat for dinner, she said.

The program was kicked off with a full-color ad that occupies the top third of the page on the front of the chain's weekly circular. A color photo shows a ham dinner, a fried chicken dinner and a sliced turkey dinner on the sectioned plates. A sample week's menu is also shown. A starburst announces, "Introducing Fresh @ Five."

A colorful bag-stuffer touting the meals shows photos of plates attractively heaped with such items as pot roast with a baked potato and a vegetable medley, and ham with macaroni and cheese and greens. The portions look big.

A starburst on the bag-stuffer says, "Delicious Meals to go!" Under a headline that says, "U Save fresh "Too busy to think about dinner? Too hot to turn on the oven? Take a break from cooking tonight and stop at U Save for a fresh, home-cooked meal. With a wide variety of ready-to-serve favorites, your whole family will love it! After all, 'fast' food doesn't have to be served on a bun! "

U Save has no plans to offer meals or meal components chilled, ready to heat at home, Edwards said. "It's just very difficult to make chilled food look good and I think the look of it is very important," she explained.