Supermarket food service is emerging from its infancy, but it still hasn't gotten over its growing pains.Retailers large and small are continuing to evaluate whether they should roll out fast-food brands in food court settings or lease out space to local restaurants. Others are working to perfect in-house food-service programs and trying to figureout how to make them turn a profit. There is one regional

Supermarket food service is emerging from its infancy, but it still hasn't gotten over its growing pains.

Retailers large and small are continuing to evaluate whether they should roll out fast-food brands in food court settings or lease out space to local restaurants. Others are working to perfect in-house food-service programs and trying to figure

out how to make them turn a profit. There is one regional chain, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., that is keeping a particularly steady course in food service as it nurtures and nudges its own food-service concepts along toward maturity, industry watchers say.

"They understand what supermarket food service is. They've approached it by chasing sales, not by concentrating first on controlling costs," said food consultant Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, Dayton, Ohio.

"Most grocers think first about cost control, even in food-service departments, but they control themselves right out of business. Wegmans has not been afraid to invest to get people into their Market Cafes," he said.

That investment and commitment shows at the retailer's newest store, which opened Aug. 21 in the Scranton, Pa., suburb of Dickson City, Wegmans' second unit in Pennsylvania.

The 123,000-square-foot store features the retailer's sixth Market Cafe, a food-service program with several food stations offering store-made foods cooked on site by chefs, and cafe seating.

This newest Market Cafe is located on the right side of the store past the retailer's much-imitated wide aisle of perishables. The cafe has an even greater sense of excitement and interaction between customers and staffers than at Wegmans' other in-store eateries. Preparation and service areas are bunched closer together, and counters separating customers from the preparation areas have been lowered. It is almost as if shoppers are standing in the kitchen. Indeed, at one point during a recent visit by SN, one shopper walked into the preparation area behind the Chinese food station to help herself from the bowls of precut produce staged for the wok. She thought it was a self-service salad bar until one of the staffers gently guided her back to the other side.

At about 12,000 square feet, the Market Cafe is nearly 3,000 square feet smaller than the retailer's other cafes, but the amount of seating, for up to 250, has remained the same.

As a step in the evolution of the concept, the preparation areas for the deli department and the Market Cafe programs have been combined into one large open kitchen along the right side of the store so that the cooking and prep work can be done more efficiently, according to a store source.

In what appears to be a move to take some of the confusion out of the operation for customers as well as staffers, this store offers a new approach to guiding customers through the cafe and a new approach to paying for their meals.

Unlike the earlier versions of the Market Cafe, where one could enter and exit at several points, customers here are funneled through one entrance from within the produce department. Here staffers greet them and hand out cards called "cafe passports."

As they hand out the cards, employees explain how it works. When customers choose their items, the server puts a bar-coded sticker for the item on the customer's passport. Where bowls are provided for self-service, as they are at a soup bar and a fruit bar, bar-coded stickers are lightly attached to the sides of the bowls. Signs ask customers to attach the stickers to their passports as they serve themselves.

At earlier Market Cafes, customers paid for their food at each food station. Here, patrons pay when they leave the Cafe, at one of four cash registers grouped together. That can be a particular boon to a mother with small children in tow, SN noted. Customers don't have to juggle trays while paying, and dishes can be left on the table. A busy bus crew is constantly cleaning up. Adjusting the traffic pattern for greatest efficiency is a major part of the equation when it comes to putting together a food court or cafe in a supermarket.

Some chains have opted for a separate entrance to their food courts or cafes in order to allow customers to get in and out more quickly for that grab-and-go meal. Not so at Wegmans. At one of the chain's first Market Cafes, a separate entrance was originally installed, but later closed off.

A store source said that at the new unit, the idea is to have shoppers enter the store to get the total fresh picture of the wide, produce-dominated perishables area. The lineup of programs, as in other Market Cafes, includes the Wokery, Pizza Primo gourmet pizza, gourmet sandwiches, submarine sandwiches, Louisana-style sandwiches, the fresh pasta program, Buffalo chicken wings, rotisserie chickens and an espresso bar that offers specialty coffees such as latte and cappuccino, and a variety of desserts. Notable are large iced brownies for $1.99. Perhaps as a way for this New York retailer to reach out to Pennsylvanians, a signature item introduced is a Philadelphia cheese steak sandwich.

The staffers handing out the passports are stationed next to a colorful fruit bar that separates the Market Cafe from the produce department. The fruit bar has three different types of melon chunks, pineapple chunks, strawberries and blueberries, miniature shortcakes and whipped topping. Shoppers can help themselves from either side. The fruit is $3.39 per pound from the outside of the cafe, where customers fill their own containers. From inside the cafe, the fruit is self-served into glass bowls for $2.29 per bowl.

The fruit bar also serves to anchor the beginning of 20 feet of self-service cases that offer dinners from the Wokery packed in microwavable containers, fresh pizzas, salads and containers of pizza sauce. That counter flows into the service deli counter, which stretches back toward the end of the right side of the store.

The programs here have been somewhat juggled and refined compared with other Market Cafes. There has also been some refinement of details. In one Market Cafe in the Rochester, N.Y., area featured last year in SN, a grill as well as the retailer's seafood department were part of the lineup. Both programs do not appear in this one cafe, nor does a self-service salad bar, which apparently was seen as cannibalizing sales from other cafe programs.

If a customer wants a salad now, they can choose from a Caesar salad main course or side dish, which is made to order and comes with a variety of toppings.

Fresh pasta remains a cafe highlight. At an island station, a pasta machine produces freshly made pasta in a variety of shapes as customers watch, and a chef whips up the fresh pasta entree of the day with the noodles cooked for each portion in a special pasta cooker that keeps water at a rolling boil. When SN visited the store, the pasta of the day was elbow-shaped rigatoni with roasted vegetables for $5.99. Meatballs and spaghetti also are offered for $4.99; $2.99 for a child's portion.

At the island, there's an air of a carnival or street fair as a staffer calls out "Caesar salad here. Made fresh for you." With gloved hands, she cuts romaine lettuce and tosses the pieces into a large bowl with dressing, croutons, bacon bits and sliced mushrooms. A small serving is $2.39; a large, $3.49. With sliced chicken, they're $3.49 and $4.99 respectively.

In terms of details, as at Wegmans' other Market Cafes, food is served on china plates or in crockery or glass bowls, and beverages are served in china cups or in glasses, rather than in the typical food-court paper or foam cups. Shoppers place their selections on heavy wood trays.

Here the pasta station closes between 2 and 4 p.m., as does the Caesar salad stations. Since this is when lunch traffic slacks off, labor isn't wasted, and the freshness of the prepared product is maintained, a source noted.

Another detail is the display of the actual dishes available, with identifying signs, at the program called the Wokery. Customers get to see exactly what they're getting. In other Market Cafes, SN has noted that glossy color photos are used to show customers what's what.

Value gets bigger play here, compared with other Market Cafes, perhaps inspired by a blue-collar market base where the unemployment rate is 8% and the senior citizen population high. The store's next door neighbor is a Wal-Mart, and restaurants in the immediate vicinity seem to be largely of the fast-food variety.

Several specials were highlighted, such as certain pizzas with prices brought down at least a dollar. A large cheese pizza was offered for $6.49; its everyday price is $7.99. A large cheese pizza with one topping was $7.99; its everyday price is $8.99.

In a traffic pattern change, soda and other cold drinks are offered at a self-service island at the entrance to the seating area. Here the honor system is invoked. In other Market Cafes, drinks were offered at each food station and paid for there. During two recent visits, one on a weekday and another on a Sunday, SN observed that the Market Cafe was always busy, even in late afternoon.

The high quality of the food has been credited as the draw that keeps customer traffic heavy all day long and for bringing customers back.

"Wegmans is a bona fide food-service operator. They're a real threat to any restaurant in their market area because they offer top-quality, restaurant-type food," said Ira Blumenthal, president of Co-Opportunities, an Atlanta food-service consulting firm.

Officials at Wegmans declined to be interviewed for this article, but others in the industry said they see Wegmans' Market Cafes not only as leading edge, but as constantly evolving entities.

"It's always great fun to visit the next Wegmans to see what they've brought to life," said food-service consultant Brian Salus, president of Salus & Associates, Midlothian, Va. "It's sort of like visiting Disney to see what's new in the Magic Kingdom. You know it will be well planned, well executed and even more progressive than before."