WHOLE FOODS IS BITING INTO NEW IDEA IN FOOD SERVICE

AUSTIN, Texas -- Whole Foods Market Inc. is testing a new food-service concept, put together by a team of Austin restaurateurs, at a store near its corporate headquarters here.The new operation, called Fresh Planet Cafe, is being groomed as a potential chainwide replacement for the company's current food-service operations.The Fresh Planet concept was brought into the Austin store after officials

AUSTIN, Texas -- Whole Foods Market Inc. is testing a new food-service concept, put together by a team of Austin restaurateurs, at a store near its corporate headquarters here.

The new operation, called Fresh Planet Cafe, is being groomed as a potential chainwide replacement for the company's current food-service operations.

The Fresh Planet concept was brought into the Austin store after officials at Whole Foods headquarters were dissatisfied with the performance of their own restaurant concept, Clearwater Cafe, according to local sources.

Whole Foods Market officials did not return calls seeking comment on the changeover. But in an Austin publication, Whole Foods Austin marketing director Lo Whipple said she expected Fresh Planet to draw new customers to the store and increase store revenues.

Fresh Planet, located on the second floor of one of Austin's Whole Foods Markets, is a casual counter operation serving a mix of Asian and Mexican dishes, prepared mostly with organic ingredients, said Neal Francois, operating partner of the cafe.

Customers order their meals at the service counter, and when the food is ready, servers deliver the orders to their table. Beverages are self-service.

Francois said the Fresh Planet partners -- Austin restaurateurs and business people -- approached Whole Foods last year with their idea for Fresh Planet.

"We understood they weren't so happy with what was happening with Clearwater, and we thought we had a great idea for what their market needed, for both the demographic coming in already and the demographic Whole Foods wanted to get coming in here," he said.

From the beginning, Fresh Planet Cafe has been watched for its chainwide potential, Francois said.

"Whole Foods thinks this is a great concept that would work in other stores across the United States," he said. "We're building a business relationship and partnership with Whole Foods. I think it's in all of our best interests to succeed here."

Francois said at the current rate of business, cafe sales would exceed initial company projections.

The Fresh Planet Cafe menu, designed by well-known local chef David Garrido, includes appetizers, soups, salads, wraps, noodle dishes, burgers, sandwiches, sides, desserts, wine, beer and other beverages.

Prices range from $3.25 for a small order of corn potato soup and $3.65 for a small order of duck or vegetable spring rolls, to $7.75 for a crispy fresh tuna wrap and $7.95 for mushroom chilaquiles.