Just as the full scope of the nation's financial woes began unfolding in the news last fall, Stauffers of Kissel Hill was set to open its largest store yet.
What's more, the latest addition for this three-unit Pennsylvania independent placed heavy emphasis on a category — fresh, in-store prepared foods — that for many retailers is still a shaky business.
Adequate space for a huge variety, from towering pans of macaroni and cheese to osso bucco, arugula salad, and locally revered slaw, was paramount in the store's design, officials told SN.
But there was no reason to delay opening the 78,000-square-foot replacement store that's meant to showcase prepared foods and other perishables, according to company leadership.
“You don't back off from five years of planning and investment. The costs just keep going,” said Paul Stauffer, one of the owners of the family business and the company's director of marketing and branding.
So far, the picture has been bright, with sales growing, but that's not a surprise to Stauffer and his nephew, Eric Stauffer, also an owner and chief operating officer, who talked to SN as well. The focus on prepared foods at this new store was part of a plan built on figures that could realistically portend good things to come.
Ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods made virtually from scratch in a much smaller kitchen at the company's 43,000-square-foot, home-base store in Lititz, Pa., were selling very well over the past few years. Indeed, this past year they showed double-digit, year-to-date increases.
So SKH officials knew they were on the right track by giving prepared foods star status at the new store.
“We were doing great with prepared foods at Lititz,” Stauffer said. But he also spoke of taking the quality up a step.
“We have to keep getting better. The restaurant business around here is still doing pretty well, especially on weekends. That makes it all the more competitive.”
So he set out to see what other people were doing to sell great-tasting, eye-appealing prepared foods at retail.
“We took our team to New York to see how some of the best delis there were doing it. We went to Zabar's, Grace Market, Whole Foods and a lot of others. We'd tour 10 in a day.”
And that didn't end with just one trip to the Big Apple.
“We went back a few times, last time just before we opened this store in September.”
Both men emphasized that delving so completely into top-quality ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat food was a huge venture.
“What we learned in New York and elsewhere is the food has to have a great taste profile, has to have great eye appeal and has to be sold at a fair price,” Paul Stauffer said.
That's not to say SKH didn't already have a great product, but his philosophy is there's always room for improvement, he said.
“The way lifestyles are now, it gives us opportunities. People want food prepared for them, but they want what they buy to be great, not just good. They want it to be like eating out at home.”
The company employs four chefs and several cooks at the new store who keep on top of trends as well as to cook the best comfort food there is, Stauffer explained.
While mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, chicken pot pies and beef stew, and a whole repertoire of cole slaws that reflect regional tastes take up much of the chefs' case, rare, grilled tuna and seared scallops have their place there, too.
“Customers can get food cooked to order right there,” Eric Stauffer said.
“I asked for pasta primavera the other night to take home and they made it while I waited. It was a great dinner, a lot, for my wife and me. And under $15.”
Carefully planned lighting helps show off three different venues offering ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat fare. And huge, colorful photo wall murals of delicious-looking food help set the stage.
The major display is the 29-foot chef's case, featuring platters heaped with store-made meal components, some chilled, some hot. The display case is flanked on one end by a staffed sushi station and on the other by a fried-chicken display that's constantly being replenished.
“We have three fryers going all the time,” Eric Stauffer said.
The chef's case more than quadruples the size of the prepared-foods display at Lititz, where the service counter is no more than 7 feet long.
Sitting at an angle to the chef's case is a 16-foot, tiered, self-service island that offers packaged meals, entrees and side dishes, sandwiches, appetizers and snacks.
A third prepared-foods venue — a sit-down bistro, the company's first — adds to the “comfortable eating” ambiance. It's situated on the right at the front of the store, and features its own entrance, making it easy for customers to get in and out quickly.
“There is some self-service. People can help themselves to hot and cold selections and pay by the pound,” Paul Stauffer explained.
Or they can be served hot items ready to eat in the bistro or to take out. Table seating accommodates 50 people.
At one end of the bistro's hot and cold self-service table, a cooked hot dog station is a busy spot on any day, but on a typical weekend the store sells 150 pounds of locally made Kunzler-brand hot dogs.
The retail price could have something to do with that volume of sales.
Offered all day on a roller cooker from 7:30 in the morning until 9 at night, the dogs are 50 cents. Buns are nearby and equally inexpensive slushies, sodas and coffee are available as well. Sales are all on the honor system, as they are at the company's other two stores. Between the three stores, SKH sells 350 pounds of 50-cent hot dogs on a weekend.
Eric Stauffer pointed out that the price has not been raised since the company introduced the honor-system hot dog program in the mid-'80s.
Paul Stauffer explained that the hot dog station fulfills its purpose of attracting customers, positioned in each store near other ready-to-eat or chilled foods.
At 50 cents, even with some shrink, “we manage to cover the cost.”
Besides being a draw, the inexpensive hot dogs and drinks provide a real convenience for customers.
“It's ‘walk about’ food. You can feed the family, the kids. You can get three hot dogs for a buck fifty. Your can't beat that anywhere.”
The newly designed, brightly lit store, with high ceilings and low-profile fixtures gives customers a sweeping view of all the fresh departments as they enter.
“The store is made to look like an open-air market with six large produce tables facing you as you enter,” Paul Stauffer said.
“Standing in one spot inside the door, you can see at least 30% of the sales floor, and even the open kitchen.”
Hundreds of spotlights, shining down from the store's 20-foot ceiling, are trained on carefully merchandised displays.
“The perishables departments are about the same proportion of total store as they are at Lititz, but everything is just bigger. The store's footprint is designed to make the perishables products dominate, Eric Stauffer told SN.
He and Paul Stauffer emphasized that super customer service is another ingredient that drives SKH's sales of prepared foods, and other products as well.
The buyers also are in the stores several times a week. So are the owners. They're constantly monitoring displays for freshness and quality, and looking to see how customers are treated.
Such a high standard of customer service begins with hiring the right people, the SKH officials agreed.
Prospective employees undergo “hard screening.”
After being hired and ideally before they go out on the sales floor, associates have three hours of classroom instruction on how to treat customers. Then, after they come to work, six more hours of customer service training are worked into the first two weeks they are on the job.
The company's motto — “We Delight Shoppers” — is everywhere, and associates are reminded of it daily.
In addition to that, every department manager is urged to hold at least three “power meetings” a week.
They can be about a new product, a new strategy, a customer suggestion. The huddle-like meetings can be as short as 10 minutes.
“One we had in the deli last week was on our fried chicken,” Eric Stauffer said.
A customer had complained that the fried chicken didn't meet her expectations, because the breading wasn't right. With no hesitation, the culinary team got together and experimented with double breading and a higher temperature in the fryer.
Then, at a power meeting, all tasted the chicken and decided it showed improvement, so a reformulation of the recipe was confirmed.
“That's just an example,” Stauffer said. “If something goes off track, we [at corporate level] know immediately. Managers, buyers and chief operating officers are reported to very quickly.”
SKH first got involved in prepared foods during the 1990s, when many retailers were trying various home meal replacement programs.
“But the quality of the products now can hardly be compared with what we had then,” Paul Stauffer said.
“We've improved things greatly over the years, and now we're just looking to get even better and to grow the business.”