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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Most supermarket operators would be exasperated if a planned store expansion and remodel got hung up by road reconstruction and red tape.But for Colin Lamb, owner of Lamb's Garden Home Thriftway here, a three-year slowdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It opened up the opportunity for a major redesign that would bring the independent up to speed with fresh-meal merchandising

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Most supermarket operators would be exasperated if a planned store expansion and remodel got hung up by road reconstruction and red tape.

But for Colin Lamb, owner of Lamb's Garden Home Thriftway here, a three-year slowdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It opened up the opportunity for a major redesign that would bring the independent up to speed with fresh-meal merchandising trends.

"We had a pretty conventional store planned," said Lamb. "Because of the wait, we started doing research and the plan changed radically from when we started.

"We realized that the store we started with would have been not nearly as successful as we wanted. So we started incorporating leading-edge things throughout the store," he explained in an interview with SN.

The store had undergone only minor updates since 1981, and the supermarket competition in the area had since become much more intense. "At 27,000 square feet, it really was no longer competitive with the 40,000-square-foot stores built around here," Lamb explained.

As more independent stores joined the Portland-area fray, Lamb's fresh departments, deli especially, had started to seem outdated.

Lamb had heard from customers about the state of the deli. "I knew we had to update the deli. I don't know that we had enough comment to justify doing it, but we saw what the successful stores were doing, and that home-meal replacement was big, so we went ahead."

So Lamb, working with Lake Oswego, Ore.-based grocery and equipment design firm Commercial Design System, used the additional time to envision a theme for the facility that would also highlight its greater reliance on deli, fresh meals and home-meal replacement options.

With the redesign giving greater importance to meals, the Lamb's Garden Home now touts an in-store chef in charge of creating more store-made products and initiating a catering program, a signature scratch pizza operation, an expanded deli, more refrigeration for the meal program, service hot food and other improvements.

Not only was the space improved, but the details of store design were aimed at enhancing the profile of the fresh-food departments within the store.

"Our deli was pretty dated; we didn't have adequately serviced fish or meat departments, and our produce department wasn't adequate, either," said Lamb.

He visited supermarkets in Seattle and San Francisco to look for innovations, picking up tips here and there that helped form the design decisions for his store. From those visits, Lamb's grocery family history and his own interest in railroads came the Lamb's Garden Home new format.

The store has almost doubled in size, from 28,000 to 50,000 square feet, but the deli is now about 2,000 square feet -- about twice the size of the previously combined deli/bakery.

The design highlights the fresh departments by not only placing them along the store's periphery, but also by further distinguishing them with a dual-ceiling design. While Center Store departments sit under a white-tiled drop-ceiling, the perimeter is organized under a recessed black ceiling above it, opening the space considerably.

The section is also set off with a black racetrack-like tile treatment, which further divides the store's periphery and center. The effect creates a town-square atmosphere topped off by a motif that connects the Garden Home neighborhood with its railroading past.

Carved models of historic locomotive engines set off the deli area from the remainder of the store. The store-made pizza department, Oregon Electric Pizza, is named for the train line, long defunct, that once thundered through the neighborhood. In the deli's modest sit-down area, black-and-white photos -- taken circa 1932 at the original Lamb Bros. family store in downtown Portland and of antique railroads -- deck the walls.

Devising a method of setting of the fresh areas also hearkened back to old Portland. A chain-hung glass awning topping over the deli, bakery and other fresh areas mimics the awnings of Portland's old hotels and downtown Union Station.

Antique-style goose-necked street lamps, which line the periphery, also evoke a time when railroads were more common than roadways.

Other touches connect this store with Oregon's past. An art deco-style black-and-white line drawing of the original Lamb's Brothers store is reproduced on each aisle marker, which are also tagged with the name of a different Oregon city in each aisle.

Working on the project was fun, said Bud R. Perry, designer for Commercial Design System. CDS works on numerous stores owned by members of the Associated Grocers of Oregon, United Grocers, and for some large chains, but Perry said these smaller, signature stores provide the firm with a greater challenge.

"Businesswise, once we've designed for a chain, they can just send us an order and we produce the equipment. That's very easy, with very low overhead. When we're doing an independent, each and every design element has to be done from scratch, and we'll probably never use it again. So in one way it's more work and we get less of a profit margin on this kind of work, but it is a lot more fun, I think.

"Independent store owners can also react pretty quickly on their feet to a trend, so we get a chance when working with them to do some new things."

While Lamb drew the concept in broad strokes, CDS took care of the details. "[Lamb] was a really great customer who left a lot of decisions up to us," Perry said. "He gave us the theme, which was the train depot, and then said, 'It's supposed to look nice. Here's the area you've got. Go to work.' "

The result, said Perry, is not overbearingly railroad related. "It doesn't necessarily say, 'This is a train station' when you walk in, but you get some hints of it throughout. It has much of an old Portland, nostalgic feel about it.

The design also attempts to unify the fresh departments while giving each a special identity, like the Oregon Electric Pizza Co., where a 16-foot sign announces the department. But to avoid clutter, CDS limited the section to the one sign, lighting it with pink neon that washes over the white wall behind.

Before installation, Perry thought another neon sign for the deli was way too big at 24 feet long. "It looked huge in the shop. I thought perhaps we'd designed it just a little bit too big. But in the store, it looks great." The sign hangs above the glass awnings.

The majority of the kitchen is hidden, recessed behind the curtain wall. The new pizza operation, where dough and sauce are made from scratch, features a flash-bake quartz oven. "We can bake the pizza in about a minute and a half," said Lamb. Energy efficient, the ovens are down in price to about $3,000, he said.

New bow front glass cases give the deli a more lively appearance, said Lamb. As the department is increasing the amount of in-store prepared items, the new cases show off the food well.

"We were outsourcing a lot of the product, and now we're making more and more ourselves, like potato salad and lasagna." Lamb said the deli is now responsible for about 60% of the prepared food sold there, and the new format has allowed a 50% increase in HMR products as well.

"We didn't have very good area to market these products before. Now we have a 24-foot, five-deck case with all prepared meals." Called "Dinner at your house," the prepared-meal program is self-service.

New steam convection ovens are being used for roast beef. The prepared-food mix is about evenly divided between hot steam table service and chilled meals in the five-deck case. The store also now carries "hundreds of cheeses," Lamb said.

Lamb also took a chance on his refrigeration selection. "We've used a lot of doored cases here. They're very efficient, and I think they are excellent merchandisers, but most of the grocers in this area think they are a mistake. We decided to put them in for energy savings, which is amazing, and the customer response is just excellent."

Some grocers think the doored cases create a barrier between the customer and the product, but Lamb said the newer cases are better lit with easier access than older versions, which helped decide the issue.

Perry said that although the Lamb's Garden Home Thriftway concept -- with a heavy emphasis on perishables -- has in the past been on the dividing line between marketplace stores and the price-oriented operators, more and more low-price operators are crossing over.

"A lot of the stores we are doing now have perimeters that are huge, but the grocery is cut down to 75% to 50% of what they originally had. That's a pretty dramatic step."

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