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MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- What began more than 20 years ago as a simple, family-owned green grocer in Marlton, N.J., has grown into what is known today as Zagara's Specialty and Natural Foods, an upscale, highly-acclaimed food emporium specializing in gourmet and natural foods. The local popularity of this concept has now led to expansion with a second, larger store opening here, just 10 miles away, and

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- What began more than 20 years ago as a simple, family-owned green grocer in Marlton, N.J., has grown into what is known today as Zagara's Specialty and Natural Foods, an upscale, highly-acclaimed food emporium specializing in gourmet and natural foods. The local popularity of this concept has now led to expansion with a second, larger store opening here, just 10 miles away, and a third due to open early next month in Jenkintown, Pa.

The new 39,000-square-foot store -- the first since Zagara's was acquired by Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa., in 1997 -- includes new features that further fulfill president John Zagara's desire to create a truly unique shopping experience for his customers.

"My vision for this new store was to take the ultimate food shopping experience to the next level," he said. "We designed this store with our customers' needs and lifestyles in mind."

To that end, the new location, which opened its doors in September, includes a full-scale catering operation, state-of-the-art cooking school and lifestyle center, and a cafe.

According to Howard Lebold, a project manager at McGillan Architectural Inc., Bala Cynwyd, Pa., the firm which helped Zagara in developing the project, one of the greatest assets of the new store's design is the distinctly specialized areas which have been arranged to feel like separate little stores.

"The Mount Laurel location is much more spacious and easier to get around," Lebold said. "Some argued that the tightness was part of the appeal of the small market, but [Zagara's] wanted their customers to have a little more space to move around in."

Designed to resemble a real farmer's market, each department has its own individual design. For example, Cafe Z has a fireplace and cozy welcoming feel, versus the produce department which lends a feeling of being outdoors with its high windowed ceilings and concrete floor.

Among these individual departments are several firsts for the retailer, all of which Zagara said have met with approval from the customers.

Under the banner of Chef's Fayre, Zagara's serves up a rotating variety of 65 gourmet prepared items daily. Customers here have a full view of the kitchen and prep area which Zagara feels is a very important component for retailers to consider if they sell fresh foods.

"What we essentially did was bring the kitchen right up front, into the line-up," said Zagara. "Most people will keep that feature in the back, but it's a real draw for customers."

A countertop sign reading "Zagara's prepared cuisine is made from scratch...right before your eyes. Enjoy the Show!" reinforces the fresh message in on-site preparation. Preparing the gourmet cuisine is a staff of five trained chefs, along with 40 cooks and prep cooks, hailing from schools like the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., and the Restaurant School, Philadelphia.

Items in the rotating line-up include a variety of meats, vegetables and starches. Recipes have included beef tenderloin, turkey meatballs, Thai barbecue or apricot-glazed chicken, three varieties of buffalo wings, stuffed portabella mushrooms, summer garden vegetables, and asparagus, along with a variety of potato and rice items.

Zagara's displays its prepared foods in mirror-backed refrigerated cases, on large white platters affixed with small signs describing the dish. Items are priced by either weight or quantity.

For the customer who is pressed for time, Zagara's also features a grab-and-go case in this department which houses prepackaged gourmet cuisine. A mix of the items prepared in bulk that day are available here in prelabeled packages.

"We're dealing with a lot of macrobiotic and natural items here," he said. "We have had a lot of success with them. Many people [are surprised] that something can taste good and actually be good for you as well. People just expect if it's good tasting it's bad for you and [vice versa]."

The rotisserie department is featured here as well, right in the case line-up for added effect. Zagara's menu of rotisserie meats is extensive, including unique variations like cajun prime rib, Merlot-marinated top round, wild herb pesto leg of lamb, and jerk chicken. Zagara said meats are carved at a hot table right in front of the customer.

Zagara's has centralized their catering operation in the new unit here, moving it out of the original Marlton store. According to Zagara, the Mt. Laurel unit will eventually serve between three and five other stores. He referred to the catering as a separate entity within the premises.

"Catering has its own kitchen, its own prep area and its own storage," he said. "The employees who work here are dedicated to this area, as they are throughout the entire operation."

In fact, the new location has a total of three kitchens, each designated to a different area of the store. There is one for catering, one for the gourmet cuisine and one for food service. Zagara said they are separated in part to balance the the aspects of theatre and activity within the store. He said this way no one area is too heavy with one function.

The catering menu promises customers it has been "designed to make your event effortless but spectacular." They request 48 hours advance notice and require a minimum order of $100. The menu touches on every aspect of a complete meal, from appetizers to baked goods and everything in between.

Appetizers include a crudite platter priced from $37.95 to $79.95 and a smoked salmon platter ranging from $49.95 to $109.95.

There are gourmet sandwiches like grilled blackened chicken and focaccia, as well as wrap sandwiches like the turkey club wrap or the Rappini wrap with chicken breast cubes, walnuts, blue cheese and dried cherries. Sandwiches are arranged as platters and accompanied by a pickle, olive and roasted pepper tray. Cost is $6.25 per guest for the gourmet sandwiches and $6.50 per person for the wraps.

Of course, gourmet dinners are part of the mix as well and Zagara's neglects no one with their selection of entrees. There are three kinds of lasagna, pecan-crusted chicken, shrimp scampi, grilled strip steak, and veal piccata to name a few. Add to each accompaniments like roasted potatoes, Caesar salad, glazed mushrooms or rice pilaf among others, and the meal is complete. All entrees and side dishes are provided in oven-safe containers for heating.

Small trays are designed for groups of 10 to 15 guests, medium for 20 to 25 and large for 30 or more. They also offer a variety of boxed lunches and salads.

The Cooking School/Lifestyle Center has really struck a cord with Zagara's customers, offering classes on a variety of topics including nutrition, heath, wellness, food trends and lifestyle topics. It features a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen and hosts celebrity chefs like Christina Pirello, host of the nationally-syndicated television show "Christina Cooks," and Georges Perrier, chef and owner of Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia, as well as chefs from Zagara's own kitchens.

"The cooking classes have been a real success," Zagara said. "It's a very appropriate program for our customers who are primarily executive professionals, yearning for a higher quality of life."

According to Zagara, while the celebrity chefs are certainly a popular draw, it has been the classes taught by their own chefs which have proved the most successful.

"The customers like that. They can ask questions about something they purchased here," he said.

Classes run about $40 and attendance has been almost at capacity without the assistance of any advertising or promotion.

"We teach them how best to pair their foods together," he said. "Many people just don't realize that the proper diet can actually be medicinal."

Classes are conducted in a mezzanine that overlooks the store. To invoke curiosity, classes are broadcast on television monitors throughout the store. Zagara said satellite monitors will most likely be added in the Marlton unit as well, since -- with less than 10 miles between the two locations -- it is perfectly feasible for the customers to make the trip to the Mt. Laurel store after having caught a glimpse of the classes on the monitors.

Another new and successful addition is Cafe Z, Zagara's gourmet cafe featuring a coffee and juice bar, brick oven pizza, hot foods, a salad bar, and custom-made sandwiches.

For added convenience, consumers may enter the Cafe from inside the market or via a separate outside entrance designated for the Cafe. Zagara said this was done to reinforce the idea that Cafe Z is not just a place to stop for a quick bite while shopping, but a restaurant customers will want to come to even if they don't need to do any shopping. He added it has become quite a popular lunch spot for local business people.

The Cafe seats about 200 in total, 100 inside and 100 on an outdoor veranda. There is cooking done right on line with prepackaged meals available as well.

Come springtime, Zagara plans to host entertainment in the cafe and intends to bring in acts which compliment its upscale atmosphere.

"We've been thinking about readings involving food, acoustic guitars, maybe singles mixers," Zagara said. "The atmosphere is very conducive to [such gatherings]."

Though the new unit highlights fresh-prepared foods, Zagara's is a traditional market as well, offering more 300 types of fruits and vegetables, a kosher deli and more than 200 bulk items. The new location also features a large selection of international cheeses, of nearly 350 varieties of imported and domestic cheeses, as well as 25 varieties of pate, a dozen varieties of caviar and 32 varieties of olives. Here, and throughout the store, customers are assisted by staff associates, specially trained for their designated area. "There is a person in our enterprise [exclusively] responsible for training," said Zagara. "We partner with our vendors to get the most complete information and train our employees right from the beginning."

He added that their merchandising managers send newsletters to their staffs about what is new in the department and how to sell it.

Zagara said, with all its success, the Mount Laurel location will serve as a prototype for future sites, beginning with the upcoming Jenkintown location.

McGillan's Lebold agreed that the Jenkintown store, a project McGillan is also involved with, will resemble Mount Laurel to a large degree.

"The space itself is only slightly smaller, by a couple thousand square feet," he said. "But there are slight differences in the structure itself. We are dealing with a renovated building as opposed to a brand new building, causing us to work with what is already there instead of starting from scratch."

He added this has not been a problem and even believes the flow of the Jenkintown location to be a little better due to the shape of building. He also said they are adding man-made light to make up for a lack of natural light, noting Zagara likes his stores to feel airy and spacious.

"The Mount Laurel store has this terrific 30-foot-high clerestory giving it a great open feel," said Lebold. "In Jenkintown the clearance is only 18 to 20 feet. It's a big difference."