VIGORUS VEGAN

SAN FRANCISCO -- The newest Real Food Co. unit here is making a name for itself as a fresh-meals destination, in a city where the words "health" and "food" are synonymous.The small, five-unit independent launched its meals program when it opened its Fillmore Street unit last September. The meals program had enjoyed a successful trial at the retailer's Polk Street location, where the food items were

SAN FRANCISCO -- The newest Real Food Co. unit here is making a name for itself as a fresh-meals destination, in a city where the words "health" and "food" are synonymous.

The small, five-unit independent launched its meals program when it opened its Fillmore Street unit last September. The meals program had enjoyed a successful trial at the retailer's Polk Street location, where the food items were made in a small test kitchen that has since been closed. According to Jane Allen, co-owner with her husband, Kimball, the ability to prepare fresh meals on-site was a key factor in their decision to open the Fillmore Street unit where they did. The couple determined there was enough room to accommodate a fully functional preparation kitchen.

"When we opened the Fillmore Street location, we were able to [meet] the exact kitchen specifications we needed, based on our Polk Street experience," she recalled. "A lot of planning work was put into this place to make it just right."

The owners had their eye on the location for a long time, watching other businesses come and go, before they finally took over and created the store, which is a 5,000-square-foot location with 20-foot ceilings. Recognizing the clientele of the neighborhood were keen on healthy foods, the Allens launched their meals menu by concentrating on meat-free items. Since the program was implemented, the most popular items seem to be the vegan foods, particularly lighter fare.

"Although we do offer soups with turkey or chicken, the most popular ones are our vegan soups," said Allen.

Working with prepared foods in a chain known more for its whole and organic bulk goods and groceries has not been trouble-free, however. Allen noted that the meals operation is all geared toward maximizing efficient use of space and labor.

"It's hard to work with prepared foods, financially," she said. "There's a lot of trial and error to see what works at a particular location."

A culinary professional was hired to develop and execute the menu, which receives the biggest boost during the afternoon dinner-time rush, between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. The meals business has done well enough to justify its expansion to other units, though there is no timetable as of yet.

"We also deliver," Allen added. "And that's a plus, especially when it is raining. Store traffic is very dependent on weather."

Currently, Allen said, the program pulls in a wide variety of customers from the surrounding neighborhood.

"Whether it's a single person, a household where both people work, picking up food to cook or food that's already cooked, whether for themselves or for a whole family, prepared foods seem to be where the supermarket industry is going today," she said.

The addition of meals has helped to update the retailer's image, as well, according to Allen. The stores have historically focused primarily on shelf-stable items, until service meat was added to the Polk Street store several years ago. Now, with meals, it is seen more as a neighborhood market that offers a variety of natural and organic products, something she says customers are very conscious of these days.

"People are looking for organic produce and meats," she said. "They want to know that the food they're eating is clean."

The deli section -- where the meals program is based -- takes up almost 50 feet of space along the far left wall, housing prepared foods such as sandwiches, salads and dinner entrees. The deli section also offers various cooked meats and cheeses, and shares the aisle with bread, cookies and nutrition bars. At the rear of the aisle is the ice cream, filling a five-door freezer section.

When SN visited the store, prepared foods included a Sesame Tuna Salad, $8.99 per pound; Chinese Noodle Salad, $4.99 per pound; French Lentil Salad, $6.99 per pound; Miso Cabbage Lo Mein, $6.99 per pound; and Moroccan Eggplant Salad, $6.99 per pound. Deli items included Prosciutto di Parma, Willy Bird Smoked turkey breast and Tuscano Salami.

Prepared entrees included barbecued ribs, $7.99 per pound; roast organic chicken, $4.99 per pound; and Tortilla Espagnola. At the end of the deli counter was the cheese section, topped with a Carapelli olive oil and vinegar display.

There is a variety of chilled prepared foods available here that need simply to be heated before serving. Real Food Co. carries a line of prepared foods called Tote Cuisine, manufactured by a local company. Entrees include macaroni and cheese, collard greens with tofu and quinoa, roasted vegetable lasagna, capellini pommodoro, winter salad, a weekly vegetarian risotto, and desserts that include apple crisp and tapioca pudding.

Also found here was a line of branded prepared soups including split pea with ham, carrot and ginger, black bean and green chile, and wild mushroom. An assortment of "Peasant Pies," made by another local company of the same name, was also offered, in varieties such as mushroom, zucchini, garlic and jack cheese; roasted eggplant, tomato, garlic and black olive; and curried red and sweet potatoes with ginger and scallion. The deli selection was rounded out with a variety of breakfast burritos and falafel sandwiches.

In the meat and fish department were several options for partially prepared foods. Cold smoked salmon was available for $18.95 per pound, a marinated organic lamb tenderloin at $12.99 per pound, marinated organic boneless pork loin chops at $8.99 per pound, and marinated swordfish and cooked shrimp.

At the front of the store just before the deli section is a display of bottled waters and fresh-baked cookies from local bakeries. At the beginning of the deli section is a coffee setup complete with muffins.

In the back of the store is a smaller room that houses dried, bulk foods for sale, such a beans and grains, bottled waters and beverages, dairy foods, prepared foods, and the meat and fish counter.

Real Foods Co. has four locations in San Francisco, and one in Sausalito, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.