LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- At its newest Hen House Market here, Balls Food Stores is striving for a balance of hometown comforts and a taste of adventure.
The 90,000-square-foot store, in this growing Kansas City suburb, has a fresh-meals assortment of programs that are fast becoming industry standards -- rotisserie chicken, gourmet coffee, specialty sandwiches and pizzas, and grab-and-go chilled entrees, for instance.
But Balls Food also sought to set its prototype format apart with unique touches such as authentic Kansas City barbecue. The meals programs are integrated seamlessly within a fresh-foods power aisle that also includes a traditional deli, produce, bakery and seafood. (A closer look at the bakery can be found on Page 32.)
At the same time, the chain took some untraditional turns in design by giving prominence to pharmacy as the first department customers face when they pass through the door.
"We located the pharmacy here to provide convenience -- the design just invites you to jump right in, and if you need to, get right out," said David Ball, executive director of Hen House Markets, which is the Kansas City, Kan.-based chain's upscale format.
The design -- calling it The Corner Drugstore, and placing it inside a faux structure for a true store-within-a-store feel -- also makes what is typically a sterile department feel warmer.
"We put the flower shop right up front, too, alongside the pharmacy, to make that connection," explained David Gryszowka, executive director of sales and marketing/store development for Balls Food.
"Behind it is greeting cards and health and beauty care, all bundled together." The two executives were interviewed during a store walk-through.
The meal concepts sit just to the right of the store's entrance. First in line is a bagel/coffee combo called J.F. Bagel, two concepts familiar to the Hen House banner, but joined as one unit in this store.
"We are making a stronger impression with the coffee and bagel sandwich bar here, both of which we are doing in other Hen House stores -- but we've bumped it up here," Gryszowka said.
"The bar has more linear footage. We want more impact."
The bagels are made from scratch, using a steam injection process. A menu of 11 made-to-order sandwiches, including veggie, Italian hero and five-cheese varieties, is perched just above the work station.
The coffee bar offers the requisite cappuccino, latte and espresso, plus four Hen House signature "Roasterie" blends available via self-service. On the counter is a small service case with muffins, brownies and cookies.
A 4-foot sushi case is next in line, the company's fourth such installation, with sake cross-merchandised. "This is an upper-end neighborhood, and the demographics here support sushi, with more disposable income and a willingness to try new things," Gryszowka noted.
However, the neighborhood is partial to the traditional as well. The new store's smokehouse section, Smokey Mountain BBQ, is a hometown Kansas City food line that Gryszowka said is proving the most popular food-service element here so far.
The chain linked up with a local barbecue expert to run the program. "He is just a guy who has a passion for smoking meat," Gryszowka said. "He and his people make these products fresh every day, and they sell out every day."
Two hot cases hold the smoked items, selected from a menu of 20 that includes many traditional pork and beef entrees, along with sliced turkey, sausage, turkey legs, hot wings and more, all smoked in a huge smoker in the parking lot.
The barbecue line is paired with hot, fried and rotisserie chicken, in the Fired Up section. A case holds the chicken items with four hot sides. A large open rotisserie, set into a wall with stainless-steel and marble accenting, can cook chickens at a rate of 48 birds in 45 minutes, Gryszowka said. Between the two hot lines is a cold case holding five salads, such as coleslaw and ambrosia.
Hot and cold also are blended in the other major themed food-service section, the Tuscan Hearth, focusing on Italian specialties like calzones, panini and pizza.
The panini program is an especially strong performer, Gryszowka said. In other Hen House units it's integrated in the service deli; here, it made more sense to bundle the program with hot pizza.
The third major meal component in the store is less traditional for Hen House. Called Ready, it is a cold case that serves as a self-service meals center, pulling components from throughout the store, including beverages, ready-to-heat items from the deli, ready-to-cook entrees from the meat department, desserts from bakery, dips and spreads from dairy and prepacked salads from produce.
Each department is allocated space in the case, which is filled and maintained by the departments, Gryszowka said.
Normally, Hen House stores would have a refrigerated case in the deli to hold grab-and-go items, but it wouldn't be as comprehensive an attempt at meal solutions as this one.
"This is the first such case in any of our stores. What is in there is likely to change, as we evaluate movement reports. Nobody has been disappointed by the sales of their items yet," Gryszowka added.
"At this stage, everything in the case is already merchandised by Hen House -- it has just been gathered together in a central place. Soon, you will see food lines developed specifically for this case."
To streamline the food service operation, Balls Food moved almost all fresh-meals production to a 30,000-square-foot lower level, leaving the upstairs free for more intensive customer service and selling. (SN reported on the store's division of production and merchandising in the March 31 issue.)
The store has also taken money handling out of the hands of its food-service personnel by installing a dual cash register -- dubbed "Eggspress" -- just in front of a cafe seating area.
"In any stores where you have a deli register, you may think it is convenient, but it is harder to balance the activities of serving food and taking money and making change," Gryszowka said. "It cuts down on the efficiency."
Overall, Balls' balancing act here seems to be working. Gryszowka said the design elements are likely to be incorporated in new stores wherever possible. So far, the format is hitting its marks as a sales builder and an image builder, he said.
As if on cue, a customer stepped up to him and said, "You know, Martha Stewart ought to be here. This is nice."