Retailers are finding summertime is the right time for enticing heat-weary customers to purchase light and hearty meals from in-store kitchens rather than slaving in their own.
Many store operators have recognized the profit opportunity presented by the vacation season and are responding with premade summer standards, and original items as well, to fill their patrons' picnic baskets. Sometimes, they even provide the basket.
Location alone seems to boost summertime sales for Waldbaum's, Central Islip, N.Y., a division of Montvale, N.J.-based A&P, but the addition of chicken fryers in each store, and an increase in prepared foods, is helping this meals department to grow.
With several sites in Long Island's Hampton beach areas, Waldbaum's always sees an increase in customer traffic when the summer dwellers migrate back in. According to Dan Cabassa, deli/home-meal solutions director for the 87-unit chain, as the island begins to fill, sales start to escalate.
"We are in competition with local fast-food establishments like KFC and Boston Market," said Cabassa. "So we have to be sure we are offering a quality product, at a competitive price point."
The chain offers family-meal packages like an eight-piece chicken meal with choice of two sides and four rolls for $9.99. For larger groups, the meals also come in 12- and 16-piece sizes. A full, cut-up chicken is also available for $6.99 and Cabassa said the price for this item will drop to $5.99 at key times during the year.
Cabassa said the newer stores are featuring expanded self-serve hot-food buffets that include a variety of chicken and side dishes and cut chicken parts. Older units are being remodeled to accommodate the same offerings and all locations will be equipped with new chicken fryers before the summer swarm really picks up.
"Our takeout sales are absolutely bigger during the summertime," Cabassa said. "We are already seeing signs of a good season to come."
In southern California, where warm sunny days are a year-round norm, the idea of an outdoor picnic is encouraged at West Hollywood's Urban Epicuria. Here, takeout customers leave the store carrying their prepared meal in an actual picnic box complete with handles and the Urban Epicuria logo.
"Because we're in L.A., many of our customers spend a great deal of time outside," said Wayne Davis, co-founder of the upscale gourmet venue. "We update our menus each season to suit their changing needs."
Urban Epicuria boasts a "movable feast" menu that Davis said is very popular with its customers. The idea was created with the Hollywood Bowl in mind, where patrons dine, with the great outdoors as their table, while taking in various concerts and shows. Davis said the packed meals are also popular for gatherings of family and friends, country outings, sporting events or a day at the beach.
All movable feasts packed in Urban Epicuria's handled box come complete with ice pack, plates, flatware and napkins. They also include the store's own bottled water. The meals are priced per person with a two-person minimum. Orders can be phoned in ahead of time and require a 50% non-refundable deposit.
"For the summer season, we try to focus on lighter and even healthier foods," Davis said. "People are very conscious of the foods they eat out here and eating outdoors is a way of everyday life. We are fulfilling a basic need and getting a terrific response."
Among the feast selections are the Rite of Spring. For $21 per person, the package includes shitake mushroom and goat cheese canapes, radicchio and endive salad, a five-spice grilled tuna sandwich with Asian slaw and Wasabe mayo on panini and a pecan tart.
There are also three salad quartets to choose from -- The C-Minor, The F-Sharp and The B-Major. All quartets are served with panini and a choice of a brownie, lowfat linzer bar or lemon poppy bundt cake. Davis said The C-Minor is a favorite among his clientele. It includes grilled chicken salad, wild rice salad, grilled vegetables and a mixed field-greens salad. Cost is $9 per person.
To create their own picnic, customers choose from individually priced items ranging from $1.99 for classic hummus to $8.95 for the tuna Nicoise salad. There is a variety of freshly prepared items from starters and chilled soups to salads, sandwiches and sushi.
For the ultimate Urban Epicuria picnic, customers can also request wine, beer, champagne or candles to be included in their picnic box. The in-store concierge service can assist in selecting the proper accompaniment.
Another West Coast retailer who has recognized the benefits of summertime specialties is Palo Alto, Calif.-based Mollie Stone's Market. The Northern Pacific chain is currently developing a program that will focus on the lighter fare that typically graces the tables of summer.
"We have begun discussing special summertime options because we feel it's such a great opportunity," said Scott Beard, director of catering for Mollie Stone's. "There are so many things that you can do, but items that make little mess and don't require much clean-up make the most sense."
While the program is still in the planning stages, Beard said, all the food will be prepared in in-house kitchens. Customers will be given the option of purchasing prepackaged meals or building their own meal solutions.
The upscale chain is considering items such as summer-oriented salads, rolled sandwiches, and a variety of skewers, like grilled chicken satay, which are fully cooked in-store and can be eaten cold, the method of choice for most customers, according to Beard.
"Items which are quick and easy and can go from store shelf to picnic basket and straight to the table, with no additional prepping, are the best bet," said Beard. "The idea is to keep the customer out of the hot kitchen."