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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Wegmans Food Markets, long a trendsetter when it comes to fresh food, is charting a new course for its prepared-food merchandising strategy.The aim -- demonstrated at a replacement unit here that Wegmans is calling its new prototype -- is to put the emphasis on ready-to-heat and ready-to-cook food to take home, store-level sources told SN. The new tack is obvious right away in design

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Wegmans Food Markets, long a trendsetter when it comes to fresh food, is charting a new course for its prepared-food merchandising strategy.

The aim -- demonstrated at a replacement unit here that Wegmans is calling its new prototype -- is to put the emphasis on ready-to-heat and ready-to-cook food to take home, store-level sources told SN. The new tack is obvious right away in design and food offerings of the prepared-food aisle inside the 130,000-square-foot store.

Officials at the 56-unit, family-owned chain's corporate

headquarters on the outskirts of Rochester, N.Y., declined to be interviewed. SN, however, visited the store in this affluent suburb of Rochester earlier this month and saw sharp departures from the chain's former Market Cafe mode.

The look is new. Indeed, with three separate entrances -- one for The Market Cafe, one a main entrance opening into a huge produce department, and one an entry into a pet supply department -- this whole store is configured differently than other Wegmans units. (For a look at the new produce department, see story on Page 21.)

Walking through the store's separate Market Cafe entrance, customers look down a wide prepared-food aisle that brings to mind an open air, European marketplace.

At about 23,700 square feet, the brightly lit Market Cafe does have an airy feel about it. That marketplace ambiance is in direct contrast to the more intimate, closer feel of Market Cafes at other Wegmans units, where individual hot-food stations and a huge seating area -- a focal point -- beckon customers to choose their food and sit down and eat.

Here, the chain has dramatically trimmed the number of hot selections it offers. Just one entree and one sauteed meat with pasta, plus rotisserie chicken meals and focaccia are offered daily at the hot station -- and that is only during lunch and dinner hours.

Most notably, there is no hot pizza or hot Chinese food on the menu; and sit-down dining has been de-emphasized by tucking seating away to the point where it could be missed entirely.

One industry source, familiar with the chain and its success with its extensive Pizza Primo program, said he thought it was "a shocker" that hot pizza was not on the menu here. Others also commented on the new thrust in the prepared-food area.

"There's very little comparison to its other Market Cafes. They've really scaled back the restaurant," said Neil Stern, partner, in McMillan/Doolittle, a Chicago-based retail consulting firm.

"They've lost a lot of the look they had before," said another source.

The look and feel of this store will be basically replicated at a new Wegmans set to open in Princeton, N.J., in late 1998, which will represent the chain's first foray into New Jersey and its southernmost unit, industry sources told SN.

Most of the Wegmans watchers who talked to SN said they considered the changes in Pittsford as positive ones.

"I like the open feeling. The whole thing is absolutely first class. It's an example of going from excellent to great. Of course, it's easier to go up that next step when you're already doing things right," said Ed Weller, president of The Weller Co., a North Hollywood, Calif., marketing and consulting firm that works with retailers and manufacturers.

Stephan Kouzomis, president of Entrepreneurial Consulting, Louisville, Ky., a consultant who works with supermarket chains as well as manufacturers, said he likes the marketplace ambiance. And he said the variety seemed to him to be sufficient without hot pizza and hot Chinese entrees.

"I think the center-of-the-plate items are blended together very nicely [instead of being offered at separate ethnic-food stations]. You can get the entree of the day or a chicken dinner or focaccia," he said.

Of the overall effect, Kouzomis said, "You get a different feeling here. Take all the upscale stores you've seen and put them all together, and this is it."

While the industry is still abuzz about Eatzi's -- the now two-unit hybrid grocery store/restaurant operation of Brinker International, Dallas -- Kouzomis, for one, said he thinks this Wegmans prototype beats Eatzi's in meal-solutions appeal.

Jim Riesenburger, formerly Wegmans' director of deli operations, called this Wegmans store "extremely dynamic."

Riesenburger, who is a managing partner of The Design Associates -- Riesenburger, Roberts & Leenhouts, based in Rochester, added that there's "evidence of a strong commitment at this store to excel in those perishables areas that will sustain a competitive advantage for Wegmans."

The dynamics do ebb and flow. While the service level here is high at lunch and dinner, and demo stations provide theater during busy periods of the day, the hot-food station also shuts down between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. In earlier Market Cafes, the hot-food stations were manned all day.

The bakery has been brought into a more prominent spot, adding to the European marketplace ambiance. In most other Wegmans units, the bakery is separated from prepared food by a wide produce department.

Now, the open-production bakery here is anchored by a permanent demo station that's actually the first element encountered on the right side of the massive fresh-food aisle. Whole pans of colorful focaccias are displayed there, tilted on an above-eye-level shelf at a steep angle that gives them maximum visual exposure. Further down the aisle is a service case that shows off fancy pastries, and beyond that are bagels and breads at a service counter. A wood-fired brick oven and work tables are in full view behind low-profile merchandising cases.

Upscale touches -- such as a sushi bar, a service cheese counter and a service Godiva chocolate counter -- are new features at this store. Entrees have been pushed into the "gourmet" range, too, with preparation overseen by Chef Jay Cohen, formerly of New York's top-rated Bouley Restaurant.

Roasted beef tenderloin, rotisserie duck and rotisserie fish are regulars on a rotating hot menu here. With two freshly prepared side dishes and a roll, most are $9.99.

The hot station, manned by servers in chef hats, is seen straight ahead as one enters the Market Cafe's separate entrance, on the store's left. To the immediate left of the hot station is a service salad station featuring Caesar salads. Further to the left is a 6-foot sushi bar with tiers of prepacked sushi in a refrigerated self-service case. A sushi chef prepares sushi at a work station just behind the self-service case.

Seating for about 100 is situated to the extreme left, against the front window of the store and on two levels. A staircase and an elevator take customers to the second level, where there is also a microwave oven for their use.

Four express checkout counters are located on the ground floor next to the seating area. Situated directly to the right of the checkouts is a cappuccino bar. It has no seating directly at the bar, but five or six high tables are provided nearby, adjacent also to the "Old-Fashioned Sub Shop," which is against the front wall of the store. There, sub rolls are baked in an oven, and servers assemble a large variety of subs to order.

It was at that station, consultant Ed Weller said, that he had the best sub sandwich he has ever eaten. "The quality was great and at a reasonable price, $3.99. It gave me a very good first impression of the place."

As one heads deeper into the prepared-food aisle beyond the coffee bar, there stands a 12-foot self-service fruit and grain bar that features four grain salads, two bean salads and four fresh-cut fruit selections.

Meanwhile, beyond the hot station on the left side of the prepared-food aisle is a 6-foot tiered refrigerated case that displays a variety of cellophane-wrapped sandwiches. Choices range from varieties of panini to ham and turkey on ciabatta to an all-vegetarian sandwich on whole-grain bread.

Next in line is a 20-foot service case, dubbed "A La Carte" on an overhead sign. It displays large platters of chilled, fully-cooked entrees sold by the pound. Asked if the items could be purchased hot, an associate replied that the microwave oven in the seating area could be used.

SN saw no evidence that the fare in the service case, which included Chinese entrees, was being prepared on-site. Industry sources suggested that most of those items are produced at the company's newly expanded commissary, located nearby.

In the middle of the wide aisle, across from the A La Carte counter is a 15-foot walk-around refrigerated case that holds single-serving prepacked side dishes with an upscale flair. They include such items as roasted garlic mashed potatoes and braised spinach with hazelnuts. While there is no sign identifying them as Bouley vegetables, SN was told by in-store sources that the vegetables are prepared in Wegmans' commissary from recipes developed by New York Chef David Bouley.

Next against the left wall is the service seafood counter and then the service meat counter. In the middle of the aisle, opposite the service seafood, an island case displays shellfish -- including giant shrimp -- on beds of ice.

Value-added items, such as raw stuffed fish and crab cakes ready for cooking, are also displayed in that island case. At least 15 feet is devoted to value-added seafood and meats that are touted as oven- or grill-ready.

The space devoted to ready-to-cook items is apparently a sign of the chain's new direction because there was a conspicuous absence of precooked entrees packed for self-service. There were only starches, vegetables and sauces prepacked.

At an island station just beyond the ready-to-cook items, a chef prepared salmon with carrot-fennel salad and handed out recipes.

A kosher deli follows the bakery on the right side of the wide "marketplace aisle." Next to that is the traditional deli, where associates were carving from a brown-sugar cured ham and a lemon-pepper turkey breast. Those items were the "carved specials of the day, $4.99 a half pound." The roasts were not cooked in-store, an associate told SN.

Across from the deli, an island case displays prepacked pasta and sauce and chilled whole Wegmans pizzas for $7.99. The varieties of pizza were traditional: cheese, and pepperoni and sausage. There were none of the Pizza Primo gourmet varieties, such as barbecued chicken and pepper and artichoke, that are offered both chilled and hot at other Wegmans units.

When asked about the absence of hot pizza at this store, a deli associate said Danny Wegman, president and chief executive officer, has been adamant about not selling hot pizza at Pittsford. The clerk added, however, that he has had "lots and lots of inquiries from customers about hot pizza by the slice."

One local source said that a slice of $1.99 pizza might be thought to contrast negatively with the more upscale offerings here. But if there are enough requests for hot pizza here, Wegman might be likely to give in, since the chain prides itself on listening to its customers.