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D&W has had a face-lift. In 2006, shortly after acquiring D&W Food Centers' 16 upscale supermarkets for $45 million, Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., embarked on a store-by-store rejuvenation project for the banner. The retailer enlarged some locations to make extra room in produce, deli, bakery and seafood departments. Several were converted to other banners. One was sold off to an independent

D&W has had a face-lift.

In 2006, shortly after acquiring D&W Food Centers' 16 upscale supermarkets for $45 million, Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., embarked on a store-by-store rejuvenation project for the banner.

The retailer enlarged some locations to make extra room in produce, deli, bakery and seafood departments. Several were converted to other banners. One was sold off to an independent chain.

Despite the need for such extensive alterations, D&W was still an excellent addition to the Spartan portfolio, Craig Sturken, Spartan's chairman and chief executive officer, told SN.

“D&W was all about fresh food and a high level of service. That was their go-to-market strategy,” he said. “We already had middle-of-the-road conventional supermarkets, so adding D&W gave us a high-end fresh format to work with.”

Indeed, Spartan had its Family Fare chain. Glen's Markets and Felpausch Food Centers were also under its corporate umbrella. The retailer even tried its hand at Rx, owning and operating 14 The Pharm stores, but in late May 2008, sale of the small pharmacy chain will be finalized — most of the stores are being purchased by Rite Aid.

With D&W in the mix, Spartan is now able to reach more affluent shoppers, a demographic previously unaddressed by the chain, said Dennis Eidson, president and chief operating officer for Spartan Stores.

“The amount of fresh exposure at D&W is significantly greater than any conventional supermarket, with nearly twice the floral, seafood, bakery and deli,” he said. “This format is also exceptional when it comes to service to the high-end shopper, who is a very discerning consumer.”

Founded in 1943, D&W has catered to this core demographic for 65 years. However, when the acquisition was final, the powers-that-be at Spartan believed that only 10 of the stores warranted the upscale approach. Those included the Portage, Kalamazoo, Holland, Grand Haven, Caledonia, Grandville and Rockford, Mich., locations. Three additional sites in Grand Rapids also made the cut.

The six remaining locations had varying fates. One was sold to Plumb's, an independent customer of Spartan. The rest were converted to the retailer's Family Fare banner.

“When we combined this new format with our existing banners, it made us a more formidable competitor in the local marketplace to challenge chains like Meijer,” said Eidson. “We were very impressed with these locations, but still had to fine-tune the stores a lot since acquiring them.”

The Overhaul

With a long list of alterations in hand, Spartan started with an addition to the chain's name. D&W became D&W Fresh Market, a title that better emphasizes the retailer's focus on freshness.

The corporate logo also underwent a change. The old design, which consisted of white D&W letters tucked inside a red heart, was given a bold, black background. The words “Fresh Market” now appear in bright white lettering, making the logo much more prominent than the now shrunken and offset D&W symbol that consumers had come to know.

“Our circular has changed, too, and is very different from a traditional supermarket flier,” said Eidson. “Product is definitely the star, with lots of photos of each item, recipes, and information about organic and natural foods. There are also a lot of tie-ins with wine.”

Fresh foods come first in the fliers now, with Center Store positioned near the back. This, he said, lets shoppers know what takes top billing at the chain's stores.

Like the new logo, all of the pages in D&W's fliers are also set against a black backdrop. In this format, photos of fresh Alaskan halibut fillets and 12-count Diet Coke packs are featured like fine jewelry in an upscale ad. The contrast also makes the products appear to pop from the page.

Spartan's eye for aesthetics was then redirected to remerchandising and remodeling its newly acquired stores. Each department was assessed individually, and improvements were made wherever necessary.

Produce, said Sturken, experienced an elaborate revamping. Each store's produce department was relit using special bulbs positioned perfectly to highlight the vibrant hues of every fruit and vegetable. Accent colors were incorporated into the decor too, on signage mostly, further brightening the space.

“We did a lot of work on presentation in this department,” Sturken told SN. “Along with lighting and other hardware adjustments, we expanded our variety, including the selection of organics. We now carry over 100 varieties of organics at any given time.”

After addressing produce, the retailer set its sights on prepared foods. This, said Eidson, has been a core component of D&W's business for decades, and Spartan plans to continue increasing the number and quality of premade items offered at its new chain.

“When you look at the breadth and quality of the prepared food offerings at our 10 locations, they are so different than anything the competition is doing in the marketplace,” he said. “With the purchase of the stores came D&W's Central Kitchen, which is responsible for developing most of the signature items found here.”

Recipes made there run the gamut, from chicken pot pie to pecan-encrusted salmon. Panini sandwiches are also highly popular, particularly with the lunchtime crowd. Most days, D&W food courts, such as the one at the Cascade store in Grand Rapids, are standing-room-only during the noon rush hour, said Eidson.

Fresh deli sandwiches and homemade soups are commonly purchased by the lunch crowd. And, the same customers often return later in the day to grab takeout from the chain's Hot Foods & Meals to Go department.

“We have an extensive variety of items in our to-go foods section, and we also have a ready-to-serve salad bar and a Starbucks in every store,” noted Eidson.

Service and Selection

D&W has perfected the high-service food counter concept. Its meat, deli, bakery and seafood departments are top-notch in this regard.

The retailer's wine departments are equally impressive. Each store has its own wine specialist, who is on hand throughout the week to answer shoppers' questions and to help pair a pinot with the appropriate protein.

Wines from around the world are on sale there daily in virtually every price range, from the 35 selections under $10 in its Bin 35 section to collectibles such as Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon, which runs $135. Shoppers in search of blends not stocked in stores can place an order with any of the chain's wine specialists, who will locate the items and have them promptly shipped as an added service.

Wine-related events are also hosted on a regular basis. April, for example, is Michigan Wine Month at D&W. Locally made bottles of Riesling, sparkling cider, sweet red wine and sweet rosé are among the current promotions.

“We also host two wine-and-cheese events, one in the spring and another in the fall,” said Sturken. “One is a fund-raiser put on in conjunction with a local university, held at a museum in Grand Rapids. Guests are always encouraged to sample the food and wine, and they can purchase a bottle on the spot if they choose.”

The chain occasionally incorporates wine into its Culinary Classroom sessions, which are held at its Grandville location, directly across the street from a major mall. This May, Jeffrey Starr, culinary director and executive chef for Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena, Calif., will host a class. Starr joins an elite list of gourmet cooks who present at the Culinary Classroom year-round.

“We have 15 different chefs who routinely present recipes, covering themes like Italian or German,” said Sturken. “There's even a class with multiple recipes to help attendees prepare an entire Christmas dinner.”

A few classes are merely demonstrations or educational courses, but most are hands-on events that last upwards of three hours and touch on everything from appetizers and soups to main courses and decadent desserts. Many also include wine samplings and informational seminars on how to pair various colors and flavors of wine with different dishes. Whatever the topic, sessions are seldom underattended, with most filling up with preregistered guests weeks or months before the scheduled date.

In-Store Smarts

Education doesn't stop there, though. Class participants are encouraged to purchase the ingredients used in Culinary Classroom recipes at D&W stores to try them at home. Any cooking questions they might have while shopping for steak, seafood and other center plate sundries can simply be addressed by the chain's experienced department staff.

“The managers and specialists who work in our stores tend to be foodies themselves, so they are very knowledgeable about the products they sell, and as a result, they appeal to other foodies who are shopping our stores,” said Sturken.

D&W's specialists not only know about food preparation, they are well versed on the products they sell, he added.

Gourmet brands like Bell & Evans chicken are standard in the meat department. La Brea bread is a hot-ticket item in the bakery, offering unique varieties like Pecan Raisin Oval, Sesame Semolina loaf, Wheat Baguette and Pane Tuscano. Starr Ranch Angus beef supplies the chain's steaks, ribs, roasts and other cuts. D&W also carries a wide selection of fish and seafood: whole and filleted fish, live and cooked crab and lobster; and scallops, shrimp and squid, to name a few.

“We have people in our seafood department who constantly offer information about how to prepare trout or how to cook crab legs, and butchers are in the meat departments to cut meat any way a customer wants, every day of the week,” Eidson told SN.

Sushi chefs are also on staff at each store to make fresh raw-fish rolls and seaweed-wrapped recipes daily. Sushi varieties sold there include Nigiri, Maki, Inari, Oshi, Temaki, Sashimi, Chirashi and Bara. Party platters are available as well.

“International foods are a big thing at D&W, too, really differentiating the chain from others out there,” said Sturken.

Many of the retailer's gourmet cheeses are imported from overseas. Belletoile Triple Cream Brie, Boursin and Comté are brought in from France. Goudas come from the Netherlands, and a selection of Stiltons hail from England.

D&W's wine specialists advise intermingling international items with cuisine from other countries. On the chain's website, Stilton is paired with Jonesy Port from Australia, and aged Gouda is tied with California-made 7 Deadly Sins zinfandel.

Having people on staff who can offer such in-depth suggestions is truly what sets D&W apart from others in the area, said Sturken.

“We have more people in our stores than most conventional supermarkets, and each of the departments is very service-focused and hands-on,” he said. “This allows us to have people taking care of customers throughout the entire perimeter of the store.”

This high level of service, coupled with a renewed focus on freshness, has helped D&W increase profits since the buyout. In fact, the upscale supermarket was the strongest-performing brand in the Spartan family during the past year, noted Eidson.

The chain has been such a success that Spartan is preparing to construct several new D&W Fresh Markets in western Michigan. One store is currently under construction in Grand Rapids, and another has been announced downtown within the city's “Medical Mile” corridor.

The retailer expects to add a third new store within the next few years, and it also plans to convert an existing Felpausch Food Center in Williamston, Mich., to the D&W banner.

“This concept has legs and can be deployed wherever the demographics make it practical,” said Eidson. “We have stores all the way up north, along the Lake Michigan lake shore, like our Glenn's store in Petoskey, which we may still keep as a Glenn's, but will eventually be more like a D&W in terms of its offerings.”

The market, he said, is ripe with possibilities.