VARIETY IS THE SPICE AT NELSON'S

NORTH BRANCH, Minn. -- Nelson's Market here has made variety the hallmark of its food court. When the two-unit independent in this town of less than 5,000 people decided to embark on a food court last year, it did so with fanfare, thanks to the help of Orion Food Systems, Sioux Falls, S.D.dent's owner. "People were waiting anxiously, talking about it weeks ahead of the opening. We didn't even do anything

NORTH BRANCH, Minn. -- Nelson's Market here has made variety the hallmark of its food court. When the two-unit independent in this town of less than 5,000 people decided to embark on a food court last year, it did so with fanfare, thanks to the help of Orion Food Systems, Sioux Falls, S.D.

dent's owner. "People were waiting anxiously, talking about it weeks ahead of the opening. We didn't even do anything in particular to announce it. Word gets around in a town this size."

Nelson said his operation may be the only Orion food court in a supermarket to use five different programs. The lineup includes Moose Bros., Joey Pagoda's Oriental Express, Eddie Pepper's Mexican Food, Chix fried chicken and the MacGregor's Market submarine sandwich program. Seating at Nelson's accommodates 46 people.

"We felt that if we were going to do this, we had to do it right to attract attention, and we're very pleased with the results," Nelson said, adding that the food court is a definite draw at his location here. Total store sales are up a whopping 25% since the food court was unveiled just about a year ago.

"You have to remember though that this is a small town. We're not competing with Burger King or McDonald's down the street. There aren't any. And we have the first Chinese and Mexican food in North Branch," Nelson said.

Even so, Nelson hasn't allowed the lack of competition to breed complacency. Just this summer he launched "Taco Tuesdays," a promotion in which two hard or soft tacos are offered at Eddie Pepper's for a dollar on that day of the week. Their everyday prices are 78 cents and 88 cents respectively.

Nelson also has instituted a "Mom's Day Off" special at the Joey Pagoda's kiosk. This promotion offers a Chinese dinner for four for $9.99. The everyday price would be $13.48. At the Oriental kiosk, the price of any food left over is reduced by 40% and offered in self-serve packages the next day, and "we always sell everything we make," Nelson said.

There is a Subway store in town, but Nelson said he felt so confident that MacGregor's Market makes better quality subs that he wasn't hesitant to go up against the submarine sandwich chain, and hasn't regretted his decision.

Joey Pagoda's does offer chilled, marinated meat and vegetables for stir-frying at home, but those items haven't been a great success, Nelson said. "I guess people want their Chinese food ready for the table."

As in other stores, all the Orion kiosks at Nelson's display chilled, packaged products as well as hot food to take out or eat in. Randy Nelson is a big believer in merchandising hot and chilled foods together. The aroma and the theater of preparing hot foods are keys to success, he said.

His pizza kiosk has the lowest volume, possibly because customers consider it less exotic in the face of Oriental and Mexican cuisine. But Nelson is planning a pizza party to get those sales revved up again. "We'll have it some weekend evening when the movies let out."