RICHMOND, Va. -- Inner-city supermarket operators may wish they could have a fresh-meals program in their stores, but find a lack of space or customer interest among the biggest stumbling blocks.
At Community Pride Food Stores, based here, such a wish has come true in a big way. When the independent opened its second Plus format unit in this city last month, it wasn't long before fresh hot food and prepared items to-go took center stage, quickly becoming popular with the store's low- to middle-income shoppers.
Hot-food-bar sales at the 39,000-square-foot store jumped from about $3,500 a week last year to nearly $8,000 a week now, according to officials. Adding deli and grab-and-go items, sales are up to about $12,000 weekly, helping to boost overall store sales to a whopping 151% over the same week last year.
The store -- the second under the Plus banner, but the largest of the chain's seven units -- was virtually "gutted" during the $1.5 million renovation, according to Johnny Johnson, president and chief executive officer. Part of the excitement came from more simple upgrades: Walls were painted hunter green, black and gray, and greenery was added to low-hanging lights throughout the store. A bank, food-stamp redemption center and a service seafood department were also added.
In addition, Community Pride's produce department was expanded to include more Hispanic fruits and vegetables, and specials there are advertised in both English and Spanish on hanging chalkboards.
"We noticed we had a pocket that wasn't being properly serviced, so we hired 11 bilingual employees and signs in the fresh departments are all bilingual," Johnson said. The store services about 60% African-American customers, about 30% white and 10% Hispanic.
But the 16-foot hot bar has proven to be the store's "meal ticket" to success, assisted by brisk business at the 12-foot grab-and-go packaged meals case and a gourmet cheese and wine section.
"We're making 50% gross on hot food," said Johnson. Although the store featured hot meals before, it did not have the equipment necessary for large production and the presentation was poor, he said.
Now, contour glass cases have replaced flat deli and hot-food cases, while two fryers were added in the kitchen and the oven was upgraded. Indeed, the surprisingly avid demand for hot meals will require another expansion of the kitchen. According to Johnson, about 144 square feet will be added to the existing 700-square-foot production area. Staff will have more room to prepare meals, about 60% of which are made from scratch. Other items, such as macaroni and cheese and desserts, are sourced directly from vendors.
The hot bar boasts about 35 Southern favorites on any given day, including fried chicken, fried fish, macaroni and cheese, desserts, rolls, corn bread muffins and chitterlings. A center-of-the-plate protein, plus two vegetables and a corn muffin or roll, is $4.99, while a fish-and-bread combination is $3.99.
Buckets of fried chicken are the store's biggest sellers, at $4.99 for eight pieces. At the new store, where the program has higher-profile, dedicated merchandising space, chicken volume is up almost 400 pounds a week, said Johnson.
Rather than selling entrees by the pound, Johnson believes that charging a flat price up-front ensures a "ring-out at the register."
The three daily desserts on the bar include cobblers and cakes. Some are made by an outside manufacturer, while other items are made in-store.
The 12-foot grab-and-go section, featuring meal combinations like salisbury steak and macaroni and cheese, is also popular with customers. The case also holds salads and desserts, all merchandised in black plastic containers with clear plastic lids.
The expansion of the hot-meals program -- and its subsequent success -- has differentiated Community Pride from other stores in the region, Johnson said. Although Hannaford Bros. and Ukrop's Super Markets have stores with fresh-meal programs, most stores are in suburban locations. Community Pride's nearest competitor, Food Lion, offers low prices on grocery items, but nearby stores do not have a hot-food program, Johnson said.
This respect for the less-affluent shoppers that comprise much of Community Pride's customer base is a key reason behind the chain's ability to snare about 77,000 of Richmond's 206,000 citizens a week, according to Johnson.
"Food Lion's [selling point] is price, Ukrop's is service and we compete by what we do with the community," he said. For example, Community Pride stores hired the most employees from the state's welfare rolls last year, as an active participant in welfare-reform legislation. And the stores easily fill positions with people living near the store, even though Richmond currently has a record-low unemployment rate of under 2%.
Through its Community Pride High Achievement program, the chain awards good students -- whether or not they are employees -- with passes to theme parks, as well as in-store and newspaper recognition.
"It has helped build their self-esteem," Johnson said. In addition, Community Pride has sponsored programs that fund computers for schools, foreign exchange trips and school uniforms. Vendors have helped out significantly in the efforts.
"It's their way of linking to the black community [when] they didn't know how to," Johnson said.
And because many of the customers do not have vehicles, store personnel offer rides to local citizens. With a fleet of 16 vans, drivers pick up shoppers from retirement communities and other areas, and also drop off grocery-laden shoppers who need rides back to their residences.