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HOUMA, La. -- In and around New Orleans, food and hospitality are everything. So, it's no surprise that Rouses has put a strong emphasis on fresh, stocking the 12-store independent retailer's departments with local favorites. Jambalaya entrees, okra gumbo sides and tart a la bouillie desserts are hallmark signatures that have helped Rouses retain its distinction in an area increasingly shadowed by

HOUMA, La. -- In and around New Orleans, food and hospitality are everything. So, it's no surprise that Rouses has put a strong emphasis on fresh, stocking the 12-store independent retailer's departments with local favorites. Jambalaya entrees, okra gumbo sides and tart a la bouillie desserts are hallmark signatures that have helped Rouses retain its distinction in an area increasingly shadowed by large national chains.

"We've tried to maintain a unique yet familiar look for our stores," said Donald Rouse, president. "We don't want to look or act like any other store."

During SN's recent visit to a 70,000-square-foot superstore, Rouse noted that the product and service mix is constantly evaluated to serve customers better. One area in particular where the customer-oriented balance is struck is in the fresh-meals department.

Visitors to Tony's Cafe, Rouses' prepared-foods venue, are faced with a myriad of Southern favorites, and standard lunch and dinner items as well.

Along one wall, under the banner "Quick n' Easy From Our Kitchen!," a refrigerated case holds a variety of salads and vegetables, stews and pastas, prepackaged ready-to-heat meals and desserts.

Items packaged and sold by weight include jambalaya, zesty spinach crab dip, whole-wheat macaroni and cheese, shrimp fried rice, and shrimp and okra gumbo.

Ready-to-heat meals, sold under Rouses' Fresh Express label, comprise one area of the case. On the day of SN's visit, the lineup included hamburger steak with green beans for $3.99, while cabbage and ground beef casserole, or turkey and eggplant casserole, were priced at $2.49.

In the center of the department, a multitiered refrigerated island display boasts a variety of components to create a complete meal. Individually sized selections included crawfish pistolettes for $3, a shrimp stew with rice entree for $2.99, a seafood stuffed potato for $3.49, and a large artichoke stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs for $5.99.

Below these choices was a small gourmet olive and salad bar that included hot pepper salad and garden olive salad. Here customers serve themselves by filling prelabeled containers.

On the display's other side, customers can pick up a premade pizza or buy the refrigerated crust plain and select from containers of toppings like sausage, cheese and pepperoni to make their own pies.

The ends of the display were filled with premade salads and fruit cups and assorted desserts such as whole and half pies. Suggested wines and Rouses' own seasoned oils -- in flavors like garlic and roasted garlic with sun-dried tomatoes -- decorated the top of the case.

Nearby, a small reach-in case housed a variety of sandwiches including area favorites like ham or turkey po-boys, which were selling for $2.29 each, and the muffaletta sandwich, priced at $2.99 for a half and $5.98 for a whole. Also available was a lunch box kit consisting of a sandwich, chips and a can of soda packaged together for $2.59.

Hot foods are available at the 12-foot service counter in Tony's Cafe, where a large sign boasts "From Our Kitchen to Yours -- Meals to Go!" The foods in the case are priced by the portion and orders are assembled for dining in or takeout by a store associate behind the counter.

Variety is extensive and encompasses components of a complete meal. The hot and cold cases in the service line featured regular garden variety salads, in addition to rotini and creamy macaroni salads, for $1.09; entrees like fried catfish for $2.19, crawfish etouffe for $3.99, and spaghetti and meatballs for $1.99; sides included rice for 49 cents, black-eyed peas for 99 cents and bread pudding for $1.29; and to finish off the meals there were a plethora of desserts, from chocolate mousse, peach delight or fruit salad for $1.09 to a Boston creme dessert for $1.39.

Also featured here on a regular basis is a daily special meal combination posted on a Plexiglas stand located on the counter. On the day of SN's visit, the special was red beans and rice, smoked sausage and a salad or dessert of choice for $3.99.

Just around the corner, customers find a sunny room with tables, and even high chairs for the little ones, which seats up to 50 diners.

"Our lunch crowd here is outstanding," said Dave Daroca, general manager of the store. "We're constantly changing the menu and the variety keeps customers coming back for more."

While the fresh-meals offerings are extensive, Rouses' other fresh departments offer great variety as well.

In the produce department, manager Joe Watson keeps his department lively with creative displays showcasing a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, the scope of which includes organic products as well as locally grown seasonal items.

"If you leave a display for too long, the customers don't even see it anymore," he said.

In keeping with this idea, Watson created a mini-cabana as a centerpiece to showcase exotic and tropical items such as blood oranges, Cuban potatoes, yucca root and bananas.

A big draw here are the home-grown products brought to the store by local farmers. Watson said customers don't mind the premium prices these items command.

"People have realized cheap doesn't always mean good," he said. "The okra on our home-grown shelves today was picked before 8 this morning. Customers willingly pay more for that kind of quality."

Here, and throughout the store, customer requests are taken very seriously. Rouse said staffers look for customer comments and try to update the store regularly to suit their shoppers' needs.

"We want the customers to think of the store as their own big pantry," added Watson.

Moving deeper into this grand pantry, the bakery department serves bread lovers and sweet tooths of many needs.

Baked on the premises are fresh po-boy buns, croissants, onion and kaiser rolls and pistoulettes. Center kiosks also feature the Sugar Busters! brand line of breads, a diet line Daroca said has gained enormous popularity in the area.

Desserts abound here and include cakes and pies, trifles and shortcakes, tarts and turnovers. Featured are local specialties such as the tart a la bouillie, a pastry filled with custard (also made in a sugar-free version); and doberge cake, a double-iced cake with one layer of standard icing and another layer of poured icing on top.

Wedding-cake sales have enjoyed a boost here since the addition of a large display case boasting two in-store designs.

"We used to sell maybe one or two wedding cakes a month," said Billy Bishop, bakery/deli merchandiser. "Now we're selling about 20 each month and sometimes have three going out on the same day."

In the deli, meat and seafood departments, local favorites like hogshead cheese, boudin, smoked sausages and pork cracklings share space with lean meats, boneless chickens and specialty cheeses.

Meat/seafood director Charles Hamblen said sales of the more upscale items have been picking up.

"We are currently carrying 50 to 60 gourmet cheeses at a time and sales rise every week," he said. "Brie has become a big seller and pate has increased as well."

A large portion of shelf space is occupied by a variety of smoked and Cajun-spiced meats and poultry, all of which are processed in-store following Rouses' own recipes and guidelines.

"These are very popular items with our customers," Hamblen said. "And the fact that we do all the prep work right here is a great selling point."

The seafood department also abounds with local delicacies like crawfish and boiled crabs. Each are brought in live and boiled on-site, in a special Cajun seasoning, following guidelines established by Rouses' award-winning crab boiler, Mike Dupre.

Sampling is a primary strategy that Rouses uses to showcase variety and highlight service. Throughout the store, interactive stations, some manned by Rouses' employees and others by vendors, have consistently built sales.

"Offering our customers samples of our products allows them to try something new without making the commitment of a purchase," said Rouse. "But when they like it, they buy it. It's a great opportunity to build sales."

According to Daroca, it's personal touches like this, and the hand-drawn signs that decorate the store, that go a long way with the customers, as does Rouses' rich history in the area.

The Rouses legacy began in 1960 when Anthony Rouse and his cousin, Ciro DeMarco, opened Ciro's Supermarket here. In 1975, a second store was opened, the first to carry the Rouses' name. In 1976, DeMarco retired, selling his share of the company to Anthony's son Donald, who continues to run the growing chain today.

And Rouses success does not mean it lacks competition. Right down the road from the Houma superstore is a Mobile, Ala.-based Delchamps and less than 10 minutes away is a Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Marketplace. The local retailer believes the competition only makes it stronger.

"Rouses is a local success story," said Daroca. "And the people here really enjoy that aspect of our operation."

Expanding on the family business, Rouses is scheduled to open two Epicurean Markets over the course of the next 12 months. The new markets will house expanded, upscaled versions of all fresh departments, with a few new additions like Quizno's Italian Deli, a franchise featuring specialty sandwiches and other Italian favorites. [See Rouses New Format Focuses on Fresh Items, SN, Dec. 14, 1998].