WEST POINT COOKS UP FRESH MEALS PROGRAM AS TIME-SAVER

AKRON, Ohio -- West Point Market here has cooked up a fresh meals program called "Take Me Home" that's specifically designed to save customers time by limiting their choices.The emphasis is on "complete" and "fresh," officials at the single-unit, upscale independent said. The dinner consists of an entree, two side dishes and a signature "cluster bun" packaged together in a shallow, cardboard box that

AKRON, Ohio -- West Point Market here has cooked up a fresh meals program called "Take Me Home" that's specifically designed to save customers time by limiting their choices.

The emphasis is on "complete" and "fresh," officials at the single-unit, upscale independent said. The dinner consists of an entree, two side dishes and a signature "cluster bun" packaged together in a shallow, cardboard box that doubles as a tray. The box/tray is given an upscale look with an overwrap of cellophane and a raffia ribbon tie.

"The fact that the meal is complete is the differentiator. Nobody in this area is doing anything like this. I don't see any complete, fresh meals, other than fried chicken, that are grab-and-go," said Russell Vernon, the store's president.

The company has had success with its own frozen entree program that carries the same "Take Me Home" banner. Maintaining that designation for the fresh program was a matter of debate at West Point, but the name won out "because the message is so clear," Vernon said.

He explained that the new program -- which targets the customer seeking tonight's dinner -- features four varieties of complete, packaged, fresh meals displayed in an upright, self-service case positioned between the service deli and the entrance to West Point's cafe. There, an overhead sign says, "Your Dinner is Ready."

The case neatly displays one row each of the varieties. The idea is to save the customer decision-making time, Vernon said.

"They're not going to have to stand in front of 80 salads and sides and make a decision. They take what's packed with the entree," said Vernon said.

They still have all the choices they've always had at the adjacent service deli counter, Vernon pointed out, "but this is much quicker." The dinners, packed up in the afternoon, are offered only between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

"This is something you'd take home in the evening, not to the office. It's a special concept for the evening meal, but certainly if we see demand building earlier in the day, we'll take care of it," Vernon said.

He pointed out that all the components in the packed-up meals are available all day from the service case.

"All we're doing -- with the new program -- is assembling four combinations for you in advance. The box is important. It prevents spills and everything is right there together. You just rip off the cellophane and there's your dinner on a tray."

The kick-off menu featured these choices: stuffed pork chop, turkey tettrazini, oven-fried chicken and beef brisket. There are eight other complete meals that are rotated into the menu each week, and plans to organize the overall menu around seasonal favorites. In addition to two sides, all the meals come with a "cluster bun," which looks like a cloverleaf dinner roll but is three times bigger. That product was created specifically for the Take Me Home fresh dinners, Vernon said.

A dessert of the day and a wine of the day are suggested, but are not included in the packaged dinner price.

The focus is on comfort foods and familiar items are featured. For example, the sides with stuffed pork chops are homemade apple sauce and "megabeans," a combo of limas, green beans, baked beans and Great Northerns, in barbecue sauce. With hearty chili, the customer gets mashed potatoes and carrot-raisin salad.

The program's launch was purposefully timed to meet the needs of holiday shoppers who may have been so busy all day that they haven't had time to think about what they're going to have for dinner, Vernon said. The timing of the rollout also coincided with a high-traffic period for the store, giving the program maximum exposure.

The entree is packed in a dual-ovenable container; the side dishes are in deli containers, and the cluster bun is baked in a jumbo muffin paper. The retail is the same for all varieties of the dinner: $15.99.

Vernon said that while the traditional supermarket would find a price like that for a meal-for-one to be prohibitive, he knows West Point's customers will pay it because they have confidence in the company's products.

"Our customers know the quality of our food. They know it's made from scratch right here and that it's fresh," he said. And the self-service case is replenished frequently throughout the evening so customers see associates packing up the meals boxes.

"We make everything, even the yeast-raised cluster buns. And the meals are different than you can find elsewhere. Our own stuffing for the pork chops, for example, is made with diced apples and nutmeg in addition to the butter and celery, and even the bread for the stuffing is not just any bread. We use crumbs from our artisan breads, so the texture is good. We've gone top-of-the-line," he said.

The typical West Point customer, too, is a mid- to high-income professional or business person. But providing quality and helping simplify consumers' meals decisions would be a good strategy anywhere, industry experts have told SN.

While he doesn't see the retail price as a deterrent, Vernon did say it's necessary to market the new concept with some fanfare.

"We're putting a lot of marketing behind this. When we launched the program, our job was only half over. The rest is marketing it," Vernon said.

The first weekend after the program's debut, the store's deli/food-service staff, garbed in chef's whites, handed out menus as they stood alongside a table setting in the deli department.

"We took a high table and draped it with a white linen tablecloth and then set it with a full service of silver and china. There was also a long-stemmed rose and a candle. The menu was on the plate," Vernon said.

Hand-out menus for the entire week indicate the days that particular meals are offered. There is a selection of four, for example, on Mondays and Thursdays, another foursome for Tuesdays and Fridays, and another for Wednesdays and Saturdays.

For two weeks prior to the unveiling of the program, a poster-sized, color photo of three of West Point's chefs was displayed on a stand in the deli. The message was: "Coming soon! New, Take Me Home Complete Meals." Then, the day of the launch, "Now Available!" replaced the "Coming Soon!" message.

Associates also wore buttons that said, "New complete meals. Ask me." And the courtesy staff -- West Point's crew that carries customers' groceries to their cars -- were given a pep talk on the program so they could chat it up to customers ahead of time.

"It gives them something to talk about besides the weather and anyway, they're pure marketers. When one of those 18-year-olds says, 'Boy, that meat loaf is just fantastic,' it's hard not to pay attention," Vernon said.

The idea was to create anticipation and an awareness of the program before it even got its debut. The next phase of marketing will include spot messages on public radio. The emphasis in the message will be on "fresh, fast, easy and complete," Vernon said.