WILD OATS TESTS MEXICAN, COFFEE BAR CONCEPTS IN NEW UNIT

HINSDALE, Ill. (FNS) -- A fresh Mexican concept and an organic coffee and juice bar are two new components of Boulder, Colo. -based Wild Oats Markets' newly opened unit here. According to chain officials, should these concepts prove themselves they will be included in units slated for opening within the year.The new concepts complement the established food-court stations customarily situated within

HINSDALE, Ill. (FNS) -- A fresh Mexican concept and an organic coffee and juice bar are two new components of Boulder, Colo. -based Wild Oats Markets' newly opened unit here. According to chain officials, should these concepts prove themselves they will be included in units slated for opening within the year.

The new concepts complement the established food-court stations customarily situated within a Wild Oats unit, which include pizza, panini, deli and rotisserie situated around a seating area.

The fresh Mexican concept features items found in an authentic Mexican taqueria. Freshly assembled in-store, the chicken, bean and vegetarian choices are among the highlights of the menu, which also includes burritos, soft tacos, quesadillas and tamales. Prices range from $4.99 to $5.99 for the meals, which include sides of rice and beans, chips and salsa.

A combination plate, priced at $5.99, gives customers a choice of two entree dishes. Surprise additions to the menu include Chilaquiles, a classic Mexican casserole, priced at $5.99. It's a vegetarian option. A taco salad served on a plate rather than in a fried shell sells for $5.49. Tortillas are served on the side of the salad.

"We are very happy with the initial results," said Darrell Vannoy, director of food service for the chain.

Ingredients are all prepared by outside vendors to maintain consistent flavor. The components are reheated and the dishes are assembled in-store.

Spoodles -- large slotted spoons edged with tines, commonly used to remove pasta from water -- are put to work not only as a convenient scoop for ingredients but as a means of portion control. According to Vannoy, the utensil eliminates the need to weigh the various component ingredients for the dishes in the fresh Mexican area.

The vendor arrangement has also allowed Wild Oats to reduce the need for substantial capital outlay for equipment. Here, two hot wells, a warming grill and a 4-foot sandwich prep station are sufficient for the operation, which takes up a total of 8 feet.

"We have focused on partnerships with manufacturers on our proprietary recipes," said Vannoy. "The goal at store level is service."

All meats used in the dishes are hormone- and antibiotic-free. Beans are prepared without animal products. The cheese blend used includes four Mexican-style cheeses and traditional Crema Mexicana is used instead of sour cream. The cheeses are cross merchandised in the cheese section of the store so customers can take the flavors they experienced at the fresh Mexican station home to enjoy.

Fresh guacamole and salsas are provided by an outside source and delivered directly to the store two to three times per week. The chips used are Wild Oats' own preservative-free brand, which uses no hydrogenated oils.

When staffing the food-court stations, Wild Oats selected restaurant-experienced people. Specifications for each dish and meal are posted within the food-service department.

If the fresh Mexican concept is successful in the new Illinois unit, the concept will be included in the Westport, Conn., unit, scheduled to open later this year, said officials.

The new Hinsdale location also includes a full-service organic coffee and juice bar. While other Wild Oats units include the format, this is the first one dedicated exclusively to using organic ingredients. Officials said the element was added to boost its profile in-store, which already includes a Starbucks coffee unit.

"It is a real point of differentiation," an official said. "Our customers look for organics and now we offer them that selection [in coffee]. Plus, they are priced slightly lower than chain coffee stores."

The coffee bar menu includes juices, smoothies and pastries, in addition to all the traditional coffee drinks. The non-coffee beverages use frozen organic fruits, and pasteurized apple- and orange-juice concentrates. The bar staff can also squeeze fresh juice oranges upon request for inclusion into smoothies. A full range of supplements complements the smoothie menu.

The organic coffee beans used at the bar are also merchandised in the unit's bulk section. First Colony is the chain's primary roaster, augmented by a private-label line and a locally based secondary roaster, said Vannoy.