Skip navigation


CHICAGO -- This town is peppered with concept restaurants developed by Richard Melman, the moving force behind Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the food-service company that stands astride the city with such popular establishments as Shaw's Crab House, Ambria, and Corner Bakery.But for supermarket retailers who are struggling with food courts, cafeteria-style scatter formats and other meal marketing

CHICAGO -- This town is peppered with concept restaurants developed by Richard Melman, the moving force behind Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the food-service company that stands astride the city with such popular establishments as Shaw's Crab House, Ambria, and Corner Bakery.

But for supermarket retailers who are struggling with food courts, cafeteria-style scatter formats and other meal marketing experiments, an hour or so spent in LEYE's Foodlife facility may reveal the most interesting lessons about prepared-food merchandising.

Because at Foodlife, a multiple kiosk cafeteria-style operation set on the mezzanine floor inside the Water Tower Place mall on Michigan Avenue, there's not only something to eat for everyone, but there are also plenty of options for how to select and buy that something.

For convenience's sake, for instance, hot food is delivered via a service format and payment system that speeds customers through with their meals.

Then there's also a tiny prepared meals section called Foodlife Market, with prepackaged ready-to-eat meals, self-service hot and cold lines and a service station crammed into a corner -- all with midday traffic that would be the envy of many supermarket meals operators.

The Foodlife restaurant system is simple, a contemporary version of cafeteria-style restaurants that once could be found in the business districts of most American cities. Instead of a long line of steam tables, there are individual stations where fresh pasta dishes, Asian stir-fry and fresh juices are whipped up to order.

And instead of cashiers ringing up each meal portion by portion, at Foodlife the entire transaction is handled by a "credit card" that each diner receives on entering the food court.

Customers wander from station to station, selecting vegetables for their made-to-order stir-fry, toppings for their pizza or side dishes to go with their rotisserie chicken. Servers at each distinctively designed station prepare the order, take the plastic credit card and ring the charge on it, announcing the total price due each time a new item is added.

Foodlife's menu choices lean heavily toward quick, ethnic and healthy, although there's plenty of popular choices like barbecued ribs, burritos, meat loaf and pizza.

Indeed, for all the attention Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises gives to contemporary food trends, customers here are as likely to be munching on french fries and burgers as brown rice and vegetables.

What's more, the most popular station is packed with ribs, rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes, and the day SN visited, the line there seemed the longest.

Yet its operators are not resting on their laurels, and keep fine-tuning the concept, introducing new items and junking underperforming concepts.

"We're always changing things, Foodlife is about change," said general manager Chris Favero. "The biggest challenge is constantly keeping it fresh and exciting, while keeping things up to our level of service and standards. We change things often and offer new options."

Constantly reinventing each serving station is so important, said Favero, that a new kiosk is introduced or reformatted every few months. In mid-April, contractors were busy installing cooktops and pasta machines for the kiosk that would house a new fresh pasta format. And set to be added to the mix in mid-May is laser noodle, a pan-Asian noodle station developed in conjunction with another Lettuce Entertain You operation, Big Bowl.

The idea is to continually re-create each concept so they become destinations themselves, within the restaurant.

Like most Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, food is not the only hook here at Foodlife. The seatings areas are dotted with imitation trees whose fabric leaves are hung with twinkling lights. Party lights resembling grape clusters dangle from fencing hung from the ceiling.

Stations are designed to resemble old-fashioned farmhouse kitchens with faded green cabinets fronting the service area. The Mexican station, for instance, is decorated like a roadside hacienda, bedecked with garlands of red chiles and traditional pottery.

Numerous wall racks offer tips on healthy eating, beneficial juices and low-fat options. And to help resolve gridlock when the place is crowded and customers are seeking a place to sit, each table bears a dangling sign that allows them to reserve it while wandering from station to station.

All of these touches combine to create a pleasant and not inexpensive quick-serve oasis, softening and making cozy what is essentially a sterile mall setting.

Inside Water Tower Place, which is anchored by a Lord & Taylor and Marshall Field & Co., escalator-riding shoppers are emptied into Foodlife seemingly by accident.

Stand-alone coffee and pizzeria/bakery stations, each with their own traditional cash register, are located right next to the escalator outside the credit-card food court, and serve rolls, cappuccino and Thai iced coffee. Cafe tables are scattered around the mezzanine for the coffee and sweets eaters.

Off to the side, the Foodlife Market is a tiny station carved out of the mezzanine. Smaller than the average gas station quick mart, the Market resembles in layout a mini-deli area in urban supermarkets -- that is, except for the volume of business being done at 2 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, when consumers are still lining up at the salad bar, service station and cash register.

A one-price-fits-all system here -- $4.75 per pound for all self-serve salads, antipasto and hot entrees -- makes it easy to overfill the clam-shell self-serve containers, which are strong and hold plenty of food.

The self-serve sections are located on a three-sided island, neatly piled into long, narrow black-bottomed insert trays that are frequently cleaned and restocked with lentil salads and carrots. Staffers have laid out fresh vegetable arrangements surrounding the trays, and all are highlighted with subtle spot lamps.

But there's more. Fresh vegetables and fruits are piled high, merchandised in baskets set in the doorway, with informational signs all around.

A wall of refrigerated cases contain prewrapped sandwiches, green salads and heat-and-serve entrees, as well as self-serve Sicilian green olive salad and other antipasto. Next to that is a service deli area, where the more expensive entrees, like turkey roulade, twice-baked stuffed potatoes, meatballs and green beans with sun-dried tomatoes are to be found.

The Foodlife Market does two types of business, Favero said. Lunchtime patrons are after only the necessities, juice and salad with maybe a roll or two. But after work, customer attention turns to the prepared meals.

"We're really focused on people coming in for single meals in the Market," said Favero. "Everything there is focused on single meals, down to the breads sold there, which never weigh more than a pound."

In the Market, operators introduce about 10 to 20 new items each week, removing slow sellers and trying out new product mixes and recipes.

About 60% of business occurs before 4:30 p.m., and in the Market things are busiest from just before noon until about 3:30 p.m. It picks up again after 5 p.m.

It's in the afternoon and evening that customers are willing to spend a little more at the Market, Favero said, ordering more entrees from the deli case and willing to be "a little more extravagant."

From the Market, the hubbub inside Foodlife is visible, its 400 seats turning over steadily at lunch. Sometimes, the crush of customers wending their way from pizza station to juice bar to wrap station and grill create a Dan Ryan Expressway-style traffic jam.

Favero wouldn't reveal specifics about volume of business, but would say Foodlife serves "thousands' each week, and operators say lunch or dinner for two averages about $20. Rotisserie chicken with two sides and a small piece of spicy cornbread goes for about $6, for instance.

Besides frequent menu tinkering and new kiosk introductions, the credit-card payment strategy is a key to making the scatter-system to work. Before entering the court, customers must stop at one of two front desks; if it's their first time shopping at the facility, they are briefed there about the place by one of the greeters.

They're then directed to their table, placed either on the cobblestone floor or by windows overlooking the surrounding streets. Then it's off on a kiosk search, that emphasizes variety and choice, without more than a few options at each kiosk.

For the just-opened fresh pasta kiosk, for instance, eight dishes a day will be sold along with fresh bread.

Staffing the labor-intensive multiformat operation was difficult when Foodlife opened in 1994, said Favero, but turnover continually decreased as the menu and operation were refined.

While the operation is heavily dependent on the high daytime traffic of the Michigan Ave. area mall -- 75% of Foodlife's customers are estimated to be repeat business, with the remainder tourists and other transients -- some of the individual kiosks are suitable for breaking out into stand-alone concepts, Favero said.

Besides the Market and exterior coffee and baked-good kiosks, the stations in Foodlife include:

The Miracle Juice Bar, serving fresh, sometimes organic vegetable and fruit juices, wheat grass juice, iced smoothies, and nonfat frozen yogurt shakes;

The Foodlife Bakery;

Mother Earth Grains/Life Jackets, a three-paella pan cook station where shepherd's pie and vegetable paella and other vegetarian entrees share space with a Foodlife favorite, jumbo stuffed baked potatoes with various toppings;

The Roadside Grill, with beef burgers as well as portabella mushroom burgers with fat-free soy bacon cheddar and oven-roasted fries.

Eat Green, the hand-tossed salad station with a low-fat "enlightened Caesar salad";

The Mexican Kitchen and Salsa Bar, Plus Pizzeria, Pastaria, Stir-Fry Heaven, Rotisseries and Barbecue, Foodlife Wraps, The Bar; and Sweet Life.

TAGS: Center Store