SAN MATEO, Calif. -- A sleek, black 75-item antipasto bar -- offering everything from mozzarella balls to five different kinds of hummus -- is the centerpiece of the produce department in the new Draeger's Supermarkets store here.
The 64,000-foot San Mateo store is the upscale operator's third location (as reported in SN) and is the first Draeger's to have an antipasto bar -- a concept that, according to Richard Draeger, an owner of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based retailer, is "an experiment that is going over very well."
Draeger called the antipasto bar format "a better way to be selling food. [It offers] more fresh product, and that's what this business is supposed to be all about."
In the new store, every inch of the 10 feet of space allocated to the antipasto bar is covered with multicolored ceramic bowls, overflowing with everything from a huge assortment of olives to dishes like stuffed eggplant wrapped in red peppers; deep orange chickpea salad; grilled onions and marinated garlic, all of which sell for $9.95 a pound.
The produce department also offers a salad bar which sells a more traditional vegetable assortment for $4.95 a pound, or almost half the price of the dishes on the antipasto bar.
As Draeger described it, the antipasto bar dishes are classified as "light Mediterranean-style food that is healthy, low in fat and extremely popular."
Bottles of olives and fancy olive oils decoratively surround a ceramic keg on the top of the bar. Draeger said that olives are by far the antipasto bar's biggest seller, accounting for about one-third of total antipasto sales, followed by items like sundried tomatoes, pickled beets and other vegetables.
Darell Pozzi, produce manager at Draeger's latest unit, estimated that the program sells 30 to 40 pounds of antipasto a day, most of which he classified as impulse sales.
According to Draeger, the program benefits from vigorous sampling, which helps shoppers who may not know many of the items available to familiarize themselves with them. Customers are encouraged to graze and sample, with plenty of toothpicks available for their use, he said.
"A lot of our customers are unfamiliar with it, and if they can't sample, they won't buy," he explained. Draeger added that the cost of sampling accounts for all of the antipasto bar's shrink, a figure he put at 3% to 5%, since "the product doesn't go off."
Putting the antipasto bar in the produce department was not part of the original plan, he said, and came about more from necessity than a deliberate merchandising scheme.
"We would have normally put it up front in deli," Draeger said. "When we were planning, there wasn't enough room, so we thought of the produce department." And many of the items on the antipasto bar are, after all, "vegetables," he concluded.
As it turned out, the decision to place the antipasto bar in the produce department proved to be a natural choice, Draeger said. For one thing, it opened up a window for logical tie-ins with other fresh produce items without the need for cross merchandising across departments.
"We don't have to cross merchandise it," he explained. "It merchandises itself beautifully by allowing people eat with their eyes."
In addition, its physical connection to the produce department allows consumers to more easily make the mental connection between the antipasto bar and healthy eating, one of the important trends in food sales now that Draeger thinks may be contributing to brisk antipasto sales. "People are eating more produce and this is an offshoot of that same trend," he said.
While this is the retailer's first full-fledged effort, the idea of antipasto offerings is not entirely new to Draeger's. "We have it, scaled down, in Menlo Park," said produce manager Pozzi. "We might have 20 bowls in the deli in other stores."
Upgrading such an offering to a more abundant program reflects Draeger's belief that the antipasto concept will "continue to grow in popularity, as people are grazing more."
"I think you are going to find antipasto more and more because people don't want to buy in bulk and it's along the lines of this fresh, fresh concept," he said.
"It's a way to access variety without buying a whole jar," Pozzi agreed.
And by offering his customers a more abundant selection of items, Draeger said, "I think we are appealing to a wider audience. Because if you don't, they'll find it at a restaurant or another retail format."
Draeger added that selling what could easily be defined as deli-style food in the produce department hasn't hurt his deli sales in the least at the new location. Rather, he said that it simply "solidifies the concept that we are trying to sell as many types of fresh food as possible."
Draeger's interest in keeping a focus on freshness extends beyond the antipasto bar to the entire produce department in the new store.
"We put everything out in its natural form," he explained. "You won't find much packaged produce. We like to merchandise everything in bulk as much as possible."
Draeger also said that San Mateo is his largest produce department by far, offering him about one-third more display space than in the other locations.
The department is located on the far right side of the store, which faces the wine department. Three-level shelves packed with multicolored peppers, lettuce varieties, squash and a myriad of mushrooms in wood baskets run the perimeter of the produce department's 80 feet of wall shelves.
He said the introduction of the three-tier merchandiser in this location had the double effect of increasing both product variety and appeal since "at every level the eye is glancing you have fresh product."
In the center of the produce section, next to the antipasto bar, is the 10-foot salad bar. Surrounding the two bars, 48 feet of additional island cases are piled high with a variety of red organic onions, round pink potatoes and wood trays of deep purple Japanese eggplant. Draeger said he believed that displaying the product in bulk is not only prettier, but "we think its a more artful form of merchandising. It gives a fresher appearance to the department and creates a stronger statement, perhaps unconsciously, that everything is fresh."
According to Draeger, the San Mateo store's produce department stocks 375 items -- 95% of which are sourced locally. About 10% of the department is organic, and those items are tagged and signed as such.
The produce department at the San Mateo store also supplies all the produce for Draeger's in-house cooking school -- which offers classes in subjects like Thai food, coastal cooking and fresh fruit tarts -- and 165-seat full-service restaurant, Viognier, both of which are located on the unit's second floor. A 5,000-title cookbook store and a housewares store -- where shoppers can pick up stemware and saucepans to the strains of classical music -- are also located on the second floor.
The ground floor features a sushi bar, a pizza and focaccia station, hot grill and carvery, coffee bar, and cheese and charcuterie station.