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The Distinction of Hybrid isn't just for cars anymore. Take Marvelous Market, for example. This specialty grocer in the Washington, D.C., metro area is successfully blending better, healthier and faster food, and packaging it all in a gourmet convenience store format. All our products are fresh and made from scratch, explained Michael Meyer, the franchised company's chief executive. There are no artificial

The Distinction of Hybrid isn't just for cars anymore. Take Marvelous Market, for example. This specialty grocer in the Washington, D.C., metro area is successfully blending better, healthier and faster food, and packaging it all in a gourmet convenience store format.

“All our products are fresh and made from scratch,” explained Michael Meyer, the franchised company's chief executive. “There are no artificial ingredients, no preservatives. We specialize in authentic, handmade foods made with natural ingredients, made fresh daily. Marvelous Market gives the pleasure of eating to customers.”

The chain positions itself as a provider of “real” foods for a balanced diet. It proposes that a moderate diet with daily exercise is key to total-body well-being. Whole foods with full flavors punctuate the menu. Organic items are also part of it, though Marvelous Market makes flavor and authenticity the lead selling points.

“We don't take a stand about purely organic or about specific diet strategies,” said Meyer. “We are not taking the road of the ‘angry chef.’ We simply offer healthful choices and we teach customers about eating better.”

However, the operation does strive to hit that so-called sweet spot when it comes to trends and offering customers healthier lifestyle-oriented items.

“Today's customer tries to have healthier and faster food,” Meyer continued. “They are looking for products without refined sugar that are low-fat, low-carb and low-sugar. As retailers, we have to have something that resonates with customers responding to a fad, but also educate that the way to live is to eat a balanced diet and exercise. That is the way to solve problems.”

In delivering on the promise, the Marvelous Market team hit the streets, talking to customers. Meyer and his group consider their market as a lifestyle store, aiming primarily at working moms. Customers are urban and suburban. “They shop, cook and clean,” said Meyer. “We help them find solutions for their everyday tasks, and we have been rewarded with loyal customers who shop, on average, three times a week in our stores.” Locations are situated where people live and work and where people appreciate good, fresh food.

Marvelous Market's merchandising style is inspired by retailers like Panera Bread, Starbucks, Dean & Deluca and even 7-Eleven.

“We see this as a big opportunity,” said Meyer. “Every day our customers' time shrinks, and they want better and better things to eat. Our hybrid concept of a fast-casual restaurant and a mini-mart with food and packaged goods is working.”

Each unit offers a small, 10-seat dining-in area. Fresh foods, from the prepared meals and bakery departments in particular, account for 70% of store sales. Of the nearly 700 items inside a typical Marvelous Market, 400 of them are fresh.

The units themselves might be marvelous, but they're small. They average about 2,000 square feet of retail space, where clean lines, wood floors and exposed brick elements are paired with retro-inspired fixtures. “We use granite and wood — real products have to be showcased with real materials,” said Meyer.

The merchandising style is similar to Dallas-based EatZi's Market & Bakery. Seattle's Organic To Go also follows a strategy similar to Marvelous Market's, though the latter has a deeper product line and a softer presentation style.

Meyer's customers are greeted with a cornucopia of products when they enter the door. “Fresh flowers, muffins, hit you in the face,” he said. “The eyes see variety and abundance.”

Despite the tight space, the units do include defined departments. In the prepared foods case, customers will find sandwiches, entree salads, soups, sushi and side salads including rice pilaf, wheat berry, tuna and chicken.

A section of spreads and dips complements the bread offerings and is presented adjacent to the loaves. To create great appetizers, customers can select from olive tapenade, hummus and specialty cheeses, pates, olives from the olive bar or gourmet pantry items such as oils and vinegars.

Healthy snacks ranging from granola, nuts and trail mix to potato chips and pretzels in good-for-you styles are offered to customers. Beer and wine in some stores and fresh flowers with an abbreviated produce department round out the Marvelous Market presentation.

Refrigerated and shelving units contain food items in grab-and-go guises. Previously, the operator had a full-service, made-to-order sandwich bar. That service style has been shifted to pre-wrapped offerings that are fully labeled, similar to those found in McDonald's-owned Pret A Manger stores. “Our customers hate waiting; they have tried full service and really gravitate to pre-wrapped solutions,” Meyer noted. “They want a three-minute shop, not a 15- or 30-minute shop. They want convenience and good stuff, not standing in line.”

The only area where full service reigns supreme is in the bakery department. Breads; breakfast pastries, including muffins, scones and traditional croissants; sweet snacks such as cookies and brownies; and desserts of cakes, pies and tarts are all presented to customers by service associates.

Marvelous Market is currently testing high-end frozen entrees and appetizers from artisan food makers, as well as locally made pastas.

Sampling stations are incorporated into the floor plan. Every week finds a different product showcased. For example, over the summer Marvelous Market used posters promoting local outdoor concerts as a backdrop for picnic ideas and offered samples of some of the picnic-perfect items on sale.

Marvelous Market initially made its name as a bakery in the 1990s. Then, it operated as an artisan bread store.

“There were lines out the door,” recalled Meyer. “There were breads based on a sourdough starter. It was a 24-hour process to create the loaves, and a deck oven cooked with steam to get that crust customers craved.” Pastries, desserts and sandwiches were soon added to the mix. Late in the decade, competitors moved in, and a conscious decision was made to take the leap and expand into a market-style venue offering a variety of fresh foods. The decision proved to be fortuitous a short time later when the low-carb craze hit.

“When the Atkins Diet hit, 80% of the bakeries went out of business,” said Meyer. “Our customers could buy other items. Soups, salad entrees were developed and gave them options.”