DAYTON, Ohio -- Dorothy Lane Markets is heating up meat and seafood sales with a grilling program that customers find cool.
Positioned directly between the seafood and meat departments, the cooking station is a magnet especially early in the evening when people are trying to figure out what to have for dinner, officials said. In fact, the concept is so successful at the company's newest store here that the owners of the three-unit, upscale independent are currently trying to determine the best way to fit a similar station into their two other stores.
They deem the physical positioning of this grill station, between seafood and meat, to be crucial. The idea is to be able to cook customers' meat and seafood purchases to order. "We don't cook anything ahead, but we'll actually cook anything you buy. You can pick up salmon for yourself and a rib eye for your husband and get them grilled off. Then, go to our deli for some sides and a salad, get a bottle of wine, and you've got a complete dinner you can take home or eat here on the premises," said Jack Gridley, Dorothy Lane's director of meat/seafood.
The new, 45,000-square-foot store, which opened this spring, has mezzanine seating that accommodates 100 diners. While most customers who get their purchases prepared at the cooking station take them home, many do opt to eat at the store.
"We have some customers who I'm sure haven't cooked at home since we opened this store. There's one retired couple that's here five nights a week, at least," Gridley said.
"People are looking more and more for food they don't have to prepare and this gives them a whole range of new options. It's not just a grill either. There's a conventional oven, flat-top gas burners and a double rotisserie, and a combi oven. We have grilling going on all the time as a sampling program and with the flat-top burners we can show people other cooking techniques, like how to pan saute."
Gridley went on to explain how the cooking station serves as an educational tool.
"We're showing people how they can grill a great steak at home with great ingredients like sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. People have been into marinating things, trying to enhance the flavor of a piece of meat by soaking it in sauces and marinades before it's cooked. We're trying to teach them to start off with a a great piece of meat. They don't need anything else. That way they get the tremendous true flavor of a New York strip steak or rib-eye or whatever it is they're grilling."
Cooking instruction is nothing new at Dorothy Lane Markets. For years, cooking classes have been a popular feature at one of its other stores, but at the new cooking station, customers get on-the-spot tips.
"One night, the chef had 16 different things on the grill that people had ordered. People were watching how he cooked a veal chop and a lamb chop while they were waiting for their steaks. And he talks about what he's doing. He tells them he's brushing [the meat] with a little olive oil, and maybe some Mediterranean seasoning. He's talking one-on-one with people, and he has developed his own little following," Gridley said.
He also said the grill is giving veal and lamb sales a boost.
"Lamb and veal are doing very well, probably because of the grilling there. People are a little insecure about cooking those and seafood because they're not as familiar with them. They're more comfortable having somebody else do the preparing, or at least, show them the correct way to do it."
Not surprisingly, fish is the item most often brought to the cooking station for preparation, Gridley said.
"A lot of fresh tilapia and tuna and salmon. We grilled Alaska Copper River salmon when it was in season and we've had some nice king salmon from Alaska since then."
A surprising number of thick loin lamb chops and veal chops, as well as steaks, are brought every day to the grill for cooking, too, Gridley said. But it's not all grilling, he pointed out.
"We've been asked to cook some things like pinwheel steak. That goes in the oven. We'll cook anything anyone asks us to."
From the very beginning of the planning for the new store, the retailer's largest, a cooking station was an important consideration.
"It was in and out of the drawings so many times. I fought hard to keep it in the final cut, but I didn't know until three months before the store opened that it was staying in," Gridley said. Dorothy Lane's owners named the grill/cook station "Jack's Grill," in honor of Gridley, who has been with the company for 25 years. The name, in red neon, is an eye-catcher. And now, the company is merchandising a new line of private-label "Jack's Grill" meat sauces at the station.
Although the station is designed for cooking to order and for doing demos, there are two cooked-ahead items available there -- rotisserie chickens and seafood-based chowders and soups. Two varieties of the latter are offered each day, self-service, from crocks in front of the grill.
Dorothy Lane found, through trial and error, that rotisserie chicken sells better from their meat departments than from their delis. Originally, at its other stores, rotisserie chicken was offered in the meat department, then they moved them to deli, where sales fell. So the retailer moved them back to the meat department, reversing the route most retailers have taken with cooked chickens.
One consultant, who's long been an advocate of merchandising rotisserie chicken in the meat department, said he's not surprised.
"People still go to the meat department to see what their center-of-the-plate is going to be," said Howard Solganik, president, Solganik & Associates, a consulting firm here.
He added that even though the deli at Dorothy Lane -- like many others -- offers entrees on its roster of chilled, prepared foods, consumers don't automatically think of deli when it comes to center-of-the-plate. Solganik also said he's impressed that Dorothy Lane put a grill/cooking station in the new store and placed it between meat and seafood.
"I love their new store. It continues their position as thought leaders in the industry. There are other retailers who have grills, but not just like this. The people at Dorothy Lane are not just copiers. They care about the product and taking care of their customers."