WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Heinen's here has opened the door on a new food-service strategy with the launching of a full-blown cafe in a new store.
The cafe concept combines grills, stir-fry and panini programs, a cappuccino machine, and seating at tables and chairs, all of which are firsts for the 11-unit chain. The cafe will be incorporated in most new stores and remodels, according to a Heinen's source at the new store.
The 50,000-square-foot store, Heinen's largest yet, opened in Aurora, a suburb a half-hour's drive from downtown Cleveland. A separate entrance and a sign reading "The Cafe" on the exterior of the building distinguishes this food-service venture from other Heinen's efforts.
Another cafe is planned for a remodel set to open early next year. That store, a smaller one on a small site in Rocky River, a Cleveland suburb, will be made into a two-story structure in order to accommodate the cafe on its second level, a source at that store said.
Officials at the independent's corporate offices did not return SN's phone requests for comments on the cafe and the new direction in food service.
Industry observers, however, told SN that Heinen's has been increasing the amount of space devoted to deli-food service as its completes remodels and builds replacement stores.
A local observer said the new cafe "is like a small restaurant." The separate entrance adds to that feeling.
Although there is not a dedicated parking area, the cafe entrance is far enough removed from the store's main entrance that it's easy to find a parking space near the cafe door. That, and a separate cash register, make getting in and out quickly easy, the source told SN.
The seating area is just inside the entrance to the cafe. It accommodates 48 people at two-seat and four-seat tables and at a circular counter built around a tree. (The tree is a decorative element reminiscent of the Market Cafes operated by Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, where artificial trees and park benches are part of the decor.)
Outdoors, the Heinen's unit has three tables with four chairs each set up next to the entrance. A large skylight helps brighten the interior.
The first food station is a made-to-order sandwich bar featuring panini and subs, visible straight ahead through the seating area. It comprises one side of a four-sided walk-around department, with a shared preparation area within the rectangle. As one faces the sandwich bar, the right side of the rectangle is taken up by a wok stir-fry station and a grill.
The left side of the rectangular food station is dedicated to Mediterranean cuisine, merchandised as self-service with an emphasis on packaged pasta specialties. The fourth side, the one facing the interior of the store, holds self-service, chilled pizza and imported cheeses.
Food stations are designated by large, hanging chalkboards.
At each food prep station, menu items are organized under headlined categories such as "From the Grill," "Noodles & Stuff," "Subs & Stuff," "Panini" and "Take-N-Bake Pizza."
Some examples of items and their prices are: Heinen's famous hamburger, $2.99; grilled chicken sandwich, $3.99; large stir-fry, $4.99; small stir-fry, $3.99; shrimp stir-fry, $5.99; veggie stir-fry -- small, $2.99, large, $3.99; pasta with fresh veggies, $3.95; pasta with meat, $4.95, and pasta with shrimp and veggies, $5.29.
At the sandwich station, prewrapped subs are merchandised in front of the made-to-order counter. A whole sub (about a foot long) is $6.49; a half, $3.99. The menu board above the station also lists Heinen's Famous Hoagie, $6.49, among other items such as chicken panini on ciabatta bread, and a club panini, both $3.99. There is no salad bar in the cafe; nor is there a Caesar salad station, a feature that many other supermarket operators have put into their food courts to underscore the perception of "fresh." The Heinen's unit does, however, have a salad bar in the produce department across the store from the cafe, as well as fresh juice machines.
During a recent store visit, the sandwich station was particularly busy. It featured trendy panini items. A Heinen's employee in the store said that on any given weekday, the sandwich station averages 40 customers, while the wok-grill logs about 17 transactions.
The store-level source said the cafe is busiest at lunchtime, and added that construction workers from a nearby shopping center site are regular customers. People on their way to two nearby theme parks often stop at the cafe to pick up lunch to go, the employee said.
A local observer told SN the seating area was about half full at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday when he was there. He also said it appeared that many of the customers came specifically to eat in the cafe, using the separate entrance both to come and go. The grill and wok areas operate on the following schedule: Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The choice of what food-service programs to offer was guided to a great extent by what has been learned over the last two years from consumer advisory panels, said a source familiar with Heinen's strategy. Some individual programs, such as the sandwich station, have been tested in other stores.
"I think they're doing a great job with this," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio, consulting firm that works with supermarkets. "They've brought the best of their food-service concepts together in this store and it looks like it's working. It has the right kinds of food."
Solganik also said he particularly likes the fact that there's a separate entrance and a separate checkout for the cafe.
"It gives the customer that much more convenience," he said.
The service deli, which offers a large variety of salads and chilled entrees priced by the pound, is situated at an angle across from the rectangular food station.