Morton Williams was prepared for the area's ethnicity, but the degree of its customers' health-consciousness came as a surprise.
Organic milk, eggs and yogurt outsell the regular versions of these products at the 12-unit independent's newest store, in Jersey City, N.J. Low-fat milk outsells whole milk, and customers order their sushi made with brown rice.
In Jersey City — which is not your usual soccer-mom suburb — a new commercial and residential development anchored by Morton Williams' store stands apart.
The immediate area's population, which is more than 50% Asian and Indian, is young and upscale, and most family members work outside the home. Thus, prepared foods, both chilled and ready-to-eat, play a major role here, making “What's for dinner?” easy.
“Just beyond our very significant produce display, the next thing you see is a 16-foot, four-tiered, refrigerated island dedicated to prepared foods — the largest prepared foods display we have in the company,” Avi Kaner, Morton Williams' vice president, told SN.
Although kimchi and chicken tikka landed on the first menu draft, Morton Williams — now officially Morton Williams Fresh Marketplace — will add more ethnic dishes and tighten its focus on healthy fare, Kaner said.
The grand opening of this store in midsummer helped show off the company's new logo in a big way. By now, a gradual rollout of the brightly colored logo to all 12 of the company's stores has been completed.
The logo, with verbiage that reads “Morton Williams Fresh Marketplace” surrounding it in large letters, is an illustration showing a farm scene with a cow, milk, bread and fields. It was designed to convey “fresh” and “local,” officials said.
“The clientele here is the type that appreciates freshness, natural and organic products,” said Kaner, adding that that's been borne out by sales figures.
On the prepared food island, a line of vegan products offers a large variety of items such as macro vegan tofu and buckwheat noodles. Also occupying a large section of the island are store-prepared entree-type salads such as Cobb, grilled chicken, Greek and couscous.
Shortly after the store opened, a dedicated section of that island case was carved out for Indian dinners, featuring such dishes as tikka masala, chicken korma and saag.
Many of the items displayed in the refrigerated, to-go island mirror what is offered on the hot and cold salad bar and at the service deli.
The Bronx, N.Y.-based company's hot and cold salad bars in its Manhattan stores are hallmarks and have been a good investment, Kaner said. Here, added to the tried-and-true selections, are some items that reflect the new customer mix.
“We have items on the hot and cold salad bar here that we think appeal to the ethnic groups, but also to a broader customer base. For example, chicken tikka and chicken with broccoli and vegetable fried rice, but we're still learning,” Kaner explained. “We don't know what ratio to use yet.”
The salad bar is refreshed in late afternoon for the day's second rush of customers.
Office workers make up the bulk of lunchtime sales, when the prepared foods case, the salad bar, the service deli, and the sandwich and soup bars all do a bustling business, but local residents' food shopping is heavily skewed toward evening, according to Orlando Olave, senior director of operations.
While the hot and cold salad bars are closed down at 8 p.m., the prepared food island sees a lot of action after that.
And seafood dinners, prepared and packaged in-store — a first for the company — are offered in a small self-service section in the seafood department.
The Seafood Dinners To Go section offers a variety each day that usually includes poached salmon, grilled tuna, flounder, mussels marinara, clams casino, soft-shell crabs and others.
That section sits adjacent to a service seafood counter that runs 16 feet long.
“We learned the value of having service seafood at Westchester,” Kaner said, adding that a soup bar as a separate entity is another concept the company adopted at Westchester.
Kaner referred to a 30,000-square-foot supermarket, north of the Bronx, that the chain bought from an established retailer nearly two years ago.
“You might say Westchester has been our pilot store. We learned a lot there that we can transfer to our other stores,” Kaner said.
“For example, we had never made fresh sausage before Westchester. They had a successful sausage business and we learned it there, using their formulas.”
Sausage variety has been modified at the new Jersey City store to fit the demographics.
“We'll be making lamb and chicken sausage, in addition to others. Our Indian customers don't eat beef,” said Richard Travaglione, the chain's vice president of perishables.
“At Westchester, the big sellers were different Italian sausages.”
Westchester's successful soup bar has been duplicated here and has been expanded to include eight varieties offered every day.
A lesson in cheese was learned, too, at Westchester. During the first Christmas week at the Westchester store, Morton Williams sold 400 pounds of imported provolone and seven 100-pound wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, Travaglione told SN earlier.
There is no reason not to expect big cheese sales in Jersey City as well, he said. The variety here breaks a company record.
“We must have 500 different kinds of cheese here, many more than any of our Manhattan stores, and certainly as many as in Westchester,” Travaglione said.
The chain took a page from its Manhattan locations with its large selection of natural, fresh meat.
“We have the brands like Murray's chicken, Bell & Evans and Harvest Land, and other well-known meat brands. We even offer Bell & Evans marinated rotisserie chickens, in addition to regular rotisserie chickens in several flavors.”
Kaner pointed out that the practice of giving customers the option to choose an all-natural product has developed over time.
“The important thing is that we're giving customers the choice. We sell more of the regular rotisserie chickens, for example, which are retailed at $5.99 to $6.99 compared to Bell & Evans at $8.99 to $9.99, but the Bell & Evans are there,” Kaner said.
Kaner emphasized that a large variety in all categories is important for the customer's convenience.
The number of SKUs in fresh produce has been ramped up as well. With a variety that's about 15% greater than in any of Morton Williams' other stores, the produce department at the Jersey City store makes its abundance evident at the very beginning of the traffic pattern. Four island cases face customers as they enter. Just as in prepared foods, the selection here includes some items geared to Indian and Asian customers.
“We have bitter melon and long beans and long squash, for instance,” said Marc Goldman, produce supervisor. “And karela. That's a vegetable that looks like a cucumber with spikes on it.”
More tropical fruits than at the company's other stores are part of the mix, too.
“Asians and Indians buy a lot of tropicals,” Goldman said.
While this store is fresh-formatted, the new mix doesn't stop with perishables. In fact, 16 doors in the frozen food department are devoted to Asian and Indian items.
Going into Center Store, 50 feet of a grocery aisle have been dedicated to Indian products and another 100-foot section to Asian products.
“In addition to that,” Olave said, “we've created a whole international aisle that includes products from Spain, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Germany and Ireland.”
But there's no doubt about the message the perimeter departments send. The message is “fresh.”
The introduction of the company's new logo this summer has solid meaning in that the company has revved up its training, carrying over best practices from its other stores.
“We have raised the freshness bar across the chain,” Kaner said. “One of our strengths is that we're small. That makes it easy to learn from one store and transfer best practices to the next store without too much trouble.”