By David Merrefield
It seems readily apparent that meal-assembly centers and supermarkets could be natural partners, and now something is being done about it.
As you'll see in this week's issue of SN, the plan at McCaffrey's Markets, Langhorne, Pa., is to open such an enterprise in one of its four stores: the unit in Yardley, Pa. (Page 21). The news about the meal-assembly center is one element of SN's special annual issue themed around the "strategic-planner" concept. The idea is to present 25 concepts throughout these pages, each of which shows how supermarket retailers can step outside the confines of the ordinary to build their business. (The suite of articles is referenced on the front page.)
Let's take a closer look at the meal-assembly opportunity. As is increasingly well known, meal-assembly centers amount to kitchens that offer lightly prepared meal ingredients. That might include chopped vegetables, cooked center-of-the-plate items, side dishes and more. Generally, consumers prepare numerous meals by selecting from ingredients in various permutations. Prepared meals are usually stored frozen at home, so they can be heated or baked in little time as the need arises.
Typically, meal-assembly centers are freestanding businesses. There are nearly 1,000 such outlets in the nation doing about $300 million in business in all. Some of the larger operators and franchisers are Dream Dinners, Super Suppers, My Girlfriend's Kitchen and others, plus numerous unaffiliated outlets.
Those businesses typically use ingredients pulled from food-service suppliers, but there's no reason meal-assembly centers can't be affiliated with supermarkets and use ingredients acquired there. As was mentioned in this space on June 19, upscale independent supermarkets and meal-assembly centers seem natural allies. That's what's going on at McCaffrey's where a meal-assembly center called Studio Gourmet is to be located in a newly constructed space of about 1,000 square feet at the supermarket. Studio Gourmet is to be operated by a third-party vendor.
"I think the concept will go well with the supermarket," said a McCaffrey's executive. "We think this will be a fun concept for our customers. We are hoping to be on the leading edge — but you [need] a partner."
"We always wondered why the supermarkets weren't doing this," said an operator of Studio Gourmet.
That's true, and now it's happening. It's a concept that deserves to be spread, and there's no reason why experts can't be hired directly by a supermarket so the meal-preparation center can run under a store's own flag.
Now let's take a quick look at several other elements of this week's strategic planner: One chain is rolling out an Online Imaging Center. Customers upload photos, which are printed for store pickup (Nonfood Strategies, Page 26). Another chain has found that offering high-quality food is the key to competing with restaurants for customers' share of wallet (Fresh Market, Page 32). Several supermarket chains are promoting the values of nutritional food with brochures, kiosks and tours (Center Store, Page 42). Reduced Space Symbology bar codes offer the advantage of holding additional data (Technology, Page 23).