WILD OATS CREATES GOURMET WORLD DELI

IRVINE, Calif. -- Wild Oats has unveiled an umbrella concept at a new store here that consolidates existing deli programs and new food-service elements, according to officials with the 105-store, multiple-banner chain.With its emphasis on fresh, made-to-order meals, as well as an expanded produce department, the larger-sized store will serve as a prototype for other units the retailer plans to open

IRVINE, Calif. -- Wild Oats has unveiled an umbrella concept at a new store here that consolidates existing deli programs and new food-service elements, according to officials with the 105-store, multiple-banner chain.

With its emphasis on fresh, made-to-order meals, as well as an expanded produce department, the larger-sized store will serve as a prototype for other units the retailer plans to open in coming months, they said.

The centerpiece of the store is the gourmet world deli, offering traditional deli items, plus a lineup of new service food stations -- a pasta bar, Asian/Mexican fusion cooking at the "World Mix" station and the "Flame Dance Grille" featuring freshly prepared stir fry, flame-broiled meats, poultry and vegetables. Standard fare, such as rotisserie chicken, pizza, calzones and full-service deli sandwiches, is also available.

An open preparation area lets customers watch chefs make the meals behind two-and-a-half-foot-high glass partitions. The kitchen is outfitted with restaurant equipment.

The 26,000-square-foot store in this bustling Orange County community was designed to accommodate the changes. Officials told SN the unit carries the largest selection of fresh meals with a menu that includes 200 to 300 items, according to Donn Peterson, store director. Meals can be taken home, or eaten in the store's 60-seat cafe.

The Boulder, Colo.-based retailer is hoping the new store's expansive food-service department will make the company stand out in the market, which already has a number of competing natural food retailers.

To maintain freshness, food is prepared in small batches, said John Taylor, senior director of food service and the corporate executive chef for Wild Oats.

"Typically, most of our stores have food service in line," Taylor said. "We've taken select components from behind the walls that guests don't see and created an exhibition island. In the true sense of the word it's not a restaurant. It's a cross between a buffet and a restaurant."

However, at the store's opening, Taylor overheard a customer on his cell phone say, "They just opened a new restaurant and it has a grocery store attached to it."

"I thought that was the ultimate compliment," Taylor said.

The garden bar has more than 50 selections. The soup bar carries four homemade varieties daily. A full-service juice and coffee bar is also available.

Staffed with meat cutters, the meat department features free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free products, Peterson said. The seafood department consists of products delivered daily by local suppliers. The store carries about 12 varieties of sushi.

Eight full- and part-time chefs prepare the dishes at the store, Peterson said, though not all Wild Oats stores have chefs working on-site.

Pizza sells for $2.49 a slice, and customers can buy a complete "Wild Meal Deal" for $3.99 to $6.99, Peterson said.

"We're trying to create an atmosphere that's one-stop shopping for our guests," Peterson said. "They can come in and do their weekly grocery shopping and at the same time have a nice quiet dinner while they're here.

"We're giving guests an alternative to fast food in the area," he said.

About 90% of the merchandise in the produce department is organic, typical for Wild Oats, Peterson said. The department, which is 30% larger than a standard Wild Oats produce section, includes 35 exotic fruits and vegetables -- standard for the chain.

Early indications suggest the store is going over well in this professional community, home to the University of California-Irvine. In its first two weeks, the store's cash register receipts exceeded sales expectations, said Peterson, adding he has received several positive comments from customers.

The unit will serve as a model for other stores the retailer plans to open in Westport, Conn., Omaha, Neb., Portland, Maine, and Long Beach, Calif., said Jim Lee, president and chief operating officer of Wild Oats.

"Food service is the signature item," he said, commenting on the new store. "People are looking for great taste and quality. That's what we're striving to deliver."

The stores in Westport and Omaha are scheduled to open this month, while Long Beach is slated to open in the fourth quarter of this year. The Portland store will mark Wild Oats' entry into Maine and should open late this year or in the first quarter of 2002, Lee said.

The average Wild Oats store is about 20,000 square feet, and the new store's size is fairly typical of the stores the retailer has opened in recent years. They feature bigger fresh-foods departments, Lee said, and that has meant cutting down on back-room and center-store space. The Irvine store carries more than 30,000 stockkeeping units -- about 5,000 more than the average Wild Oats store.

In opening the new unit, the company's greatest challenge was staffing it, Lee said.

"Recruiting, training and developing people -- that's our No. 1 objective," he said. "It has been more challenging in the full employment economy."