KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Balls Food Stores here will launch a new in-store food court today on the very site of its ill-fated Supreme Court, a branded format that was rolled out three years ago with great fanfare, but faded amid persistent troubles with execution.
The Supreme Court concept -- which incorporated a combination of well-known restaurant brands such as Chi Chi's, Bennigan's and Godfather's Pizza -- helped give birth to the notion that restaurant brands, served up fresh, could provide supermarkets with a ready-made food-service program.
But the Supreme Court didn't work. Industry observers have told SN that the Supreme Court concept stumbled because the restaurant operators and retail executives encountered difficulties in working together.
A series of modifications -- including eliminating some of its food-service brands over the three years it existed -- failed to keep the concept afloat.
Now Godfather's -- the last surviving component of the Supreme Court at the Kansas City, Mo., Price Chopper unit where it was launched -- has been scrapped in favor of a trio of programs from Orion Food Systems, Sioux Falls, S.D., which owns Moose Bros. Pizza and a roster of other food-service concepts with their own brand identification.
Orion, a subsidiary of Schwans Sales Enterprises, Marshall, Minn., has designed its food-service operations specifically for retail stores.
This link up with Orion comes right on the heels of Balls unveiling a completely different set of fresh food programs at its newest Hen House Village Market in Prairie Village, Kan.
Officials at Balls did not return SN's phone calls seeking comments on the new deal with Orion.
Mark Elliott, vice president of marketing and corporate operations for Orion, told SN that a second court using Orion concepts is planned to open inside a Balls Price Chopper unit before the end of the year.
Industry observers had mixed reactions to Balls' two-sided approach to following up the Supreme Court.
"[The Orion food court] is a little surprising, since I thought Balls had decided to create their own programs," said one industry source. "But it depends on the local market, and maybe even the labor pool available. I guess I could see them going in two directions. The stores are different formats, [with] Hen House a little more upscale [than Price Chopper]."
"This may be the way to go," said Tom Pierson, professor of food marketing at Michigan State University, East Lansing. "I'm impressed with these operations. They seem to be well thought out. The food is good, and I like the idea of their own brands. You're not up against stand-alone competition down the street."
Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio-based consulting firm that works with supermarkets, concurred with Pierson, and also questioned the reasoning behind any supermarket chain relying on national fast-food brands to flesh out its in-store food-service strategy.
"I never could see why you would want to bring your competition off the street and into your store," Solganik said.
Solganik suggested that the link-up with Orion may avoid some of problems with execution that had surfaced in the Supreme Court.
"Orion knows the food service industry, but the company also comes from a history of working with convenience stores and, more recently, supermarkets.
"I think they've found the right balance. They know how to chase sales and how to make money in a retail setting," he said. "They remove as much preparation from the store as possible while preserving freshness and the perception of freshness."
The new court opened today under the banner, "The Line-Up," a designation Orion gives its supermarket operations that incorporate three or more of its programs.
The court includes Moose Bros. Pizza; a Chinese food program called Joey Pagoda's; and Cinnamon Street, Orion's newest concept centered around gourmet cinnamon rolls.
The Orion programs will offer the only hot food in the Price Chopper. The service deli, which features a larger selection of salads and other chilled items, was redesigned and expanded to utilize some of the left over former Supreme Court space.
The redrawn floor plan places the Line-Up court right at the front of the store, with the Cinnamon Street counter the first concept that customers see.
The preparation and sales areas have been consolidated into slightly less than 600 square feet, about half the space used for those purposes in the Supreme Court. Seating, to accommodate 50 people, remains in the same spot as it was in the Supreme Court. "Seating is a necessity when you offer hot food. You have to give people a place to eat it; but, just as important, it gives the perception of a restaurant," Elliott said. "But we're also offering the products partially prepared, chilled, so people can take them home and complete the cooking.
"This is one of the keys to success, to offer food both ways. There are three types of customer for these types of products -- those who want the food hot to eat immediately, those who want it hot to take home, and those who want to finish the meal preparation at home with convenient, easy to fix foods."
In front of each food-service kiosk, a grab-and-go case displays the products chilled. The Joey Pagoda's counter, for example, has marinated meats and precut vegetables packaged and ready to take home for stir fry.
The meats are prepared at Orion's central facility, for example, but the vegetables are purchased from the store's produce department and packaged on site, Elliott said. Prepared and partially prepared items are shipped frozen from Orion's central manufacturing facility.
The Line-Up court at Balls will be corporately run by Orion. The company has leased space from Balls and guarantees a flat rate to be paid monthly to the retailer, plus an additional amount based on a percentage of sales.
Even though Orion franchises some of its brands out to supermarkets and convenience stores, it is going in the direction of keeping operational control, Elliott said.
"We've been much more successful with sales and profits when we do it this way. It eliminates any friction. Retail people have their own ideas about how such an operation should be run, but they don't always work with food service," Elliott said.
Tying the agreement to a percentage of sales keeps the retailer appropriately interested, he added. "We want them right there by our side, supporting us, and this is the way to accomplish that."
One of the two originators of the Supreme Court concept told SN that while Orion is a strong operator, he still thinks a concept based on well-known brands offers an advantage over other strategies.
"I believe Orion is a class act. They understand food service," said Ira Blumenthal, a former Supreme Court co-founder who is president of Co-Opportunities, an Atlanta-based consulting firm specializing in food service. "They pay incredible attention to the details of systems. For instance they understand the consumer, packaging, holding foods.
"My only concern is the lack of brand equity. Their brands are very new. If I were doing it, I might bundle Orion programs with a well-known restaurant brand that I'd use as an anchor. But their products and their systems are good and the look is real. I think they can establish credibility."
Victor Cascio, co-founder of the Supreme Court concept, and at that time, president of Victor Cascio & Associates, Leawood, Kan., a supermarket consulting firm, could not be reached for comment.
Other industry sources felt that the Orion brand names could provide a good take-off point.
"These aren't established brands like national names, but they are names that supermarkets themselves could give meaning to. I could see them building on these brands," said Neil Stern, a partner in McMillan/Doolittle, Chicago, a retail consulting firm.
Stern also said he liked the idea that the programs are all run by one company.
"Modules are the way to go, because you know for sure that your food-service programs are not all going to continue to be great successes. I'm sure it would be easier, for example, when Chinese food has had its run, to substitute another ethnic program."
Pierson at Michigan State said he liked the idea that both hot and partially prepared foods are offered at each of Orion's kiosks.
"There are always people who want to participate in the preparation of their food. It makes them feel better if they play a role in making a meal," Pierson noted.
When Orion's Elliott was asked why the three particular concepts were chosen for Balls, he said, "We go into a local market area and look around at the competition. See what people are buying. It's not scientific, but more of a gut feeling, and it seems to work for us."
Elliott declined to list all the concepts that Orion offers, but among them are Eddie Pepper's, a Mexican program, and Smash Hit subs.
Orion, in business for 11 years, has 1,000 food courts about evenly divided now between supermarkets and convenience stores. Among supermarkets that have Orion concepts are selected units of Kroger Co., Cinncinnati, and Hy-Vee Stores, Chariton, Iowa.
"We've been adding about 100 a year in supermarkets and expect to continue at that rate," Elliott said.