AKRON, Ohio -- What might you get if you combined an Eatzi's-like strategy for providing fresh meals in an exciting setting, with a formidable natural foods supermarket format such as Whole Foods?
You might get Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, a sharp one-unit operator here that is creating just such a combination by radically expanding and revamping its existing, already successful store.
Mustard Seed right now is a small gourmet food shop in an affluent market stored by several good supermarket competitors, ranging from the First National chain to upscale independent West Point Market. But it is on the way to becoming a natural foods Eatzi's. Mustard Seed owners Phillip and Margaret Nabors intend to create a new fresh food emporium that mates the creativity, high quality and in-store theater exemplified by hybrid retail-restaurant Eatzi's with the adherence to healthier, more natural foods that is the hallmark of Whole Foods and other banners like it.
What's more, the Nabors have hired a local -- though nationally well-respected -- supermarket prepared food expert to help them make the match work: Carol Moore, formerly of West Point Market.
"There used to be a sharp line between the gourmet and natural markets, but it's not sharp anymore," said Phillip Nabors in an interview with SN. "It's blurry."
As Nabors sees it, these two food trends are converging naturally -- and he wants to make sure he is positioned better than anyone to take advantage of that.
"Generally speaking, natural foods have been improved in quality, taste and packaging over the years. And gourmet food manufacturers are increasingly using natural ingredients," he told SN.
"In fact, I predicted 10 years ago that these two niche markets would be merged by the year 2000, and I don't think I was off base," Nabors said.
"What we're aiming to do here is make it convenient for customers to eat healthy, gourmet and environmentally sound foods."
Nabors has an expansive vision of what's to come concerning the consumer's quest for top-quality food that is easy to put on the table. The new Mustard Seed will be dedicated to offering virtually every meal option consumers can think of, from hot food for immediate consumption or chilled for taking home -- and to making it fun at the same time.
The company is making an investment in support of that vision: the 9,000-square-foot store will more than triple in size, to 31,500 square feet. Construction is expected to be completed this month.
The centerpiece of it all is a strong emphasis on home meal replacement, with an expanded repertoire of meals made on site, as well as fresh components to go.
This dual emphasis called for greater retail expertise, which is why Nabors recruited West Point's Moore (see related story).
"We've had an executive chef, Dan Remark, who has been responsible for prepared foods in the retail section of the store as well as in the cafe. Now, he'll devote his time to the cafe, and Carol will take care of retail and help grow our catering business," Nabors explained.
The store already is well-known for its catering abilities. Nabors said catering sales will significantly increase when the kitchen is enlarged due to the overall expansion.
Mustard Seed Market's staff of chefs, plus a new layout that will emphasize fresh foods, food as entertainment and as an educational experience, makes it sound a lot like Eatzi's. Developed by restaurateur Phil Romano and Brinker International in Dallas, Eatzi's has been getting a lot of attention both from consumers and from the retail food industry at large.
Nabors has his own simple philosophy for selling food, however.
"The future of the food industry rests not on what is sold, but on how and why it's sold," he said.
"Here, we can feed you right now in our restaurant. Or you can get a to-go meal in the retail area, where we'll be concentrating on chilled, prepared foods, and getting customers to think in terms of meals."
Display space for prepared foods in a service counter will be increased two and a half times. Meanwhile, a newly added 28-foot upright refrigerated case will display meals and meal components whipped together on-site, Nabors said. The self-service chilled foods will be presented as what Nabors calls "a wall of meal possibilities." This wall, he said, is a crucial vehicle for merchandising Mustard Seed's greatly expanded variety of meals and components.
"Customers have to have all those choices. There has to be the critical mass in order to make the meals choices statement we want to make. You could put a couple of meatloaves in a refrigerated case with other items that aren't entrees and they'd just sit there," Nabors said.
He also said the expanded self-service case will be convenient for customers during the store's busiest hours.
"They won't have to wait at the service counter to make their dinner choices. And also, some people are more comfortable making decisions at self-service because they can take their time," Nabors said.
"The expansion will allow us to offer more variety, and also it will let the customer get in and out more quickly. We're doubling our checkout stands from three to six, and we're going to scanning, which definitely will speed up throughput and increase accuracy."
But that's only if people want to get in and out quickly. The remodeled store's expansion and design will also add to the ambience, by creating new venues to help customers learn more about food -- and thus foster a more enjoyable shopping experience, Nabors said. In total, the new store is designed to completely engage the customer. '
'We'll function as the town square of old. Customers' socialization needs will be fed, as well as their need to procure something for dinner. People do enjoy coming to Mustard Seed Market, but we want to make it even more of a positive experience.
"We've increased kitchen space tremendously and [that has] made room for cooking school classes and other educational programs, and tasting events, too," Nabors said. The new kitchen, in fact, will be able to contain as many as 150 students. The store currently is restricted to offering educational events on Mondays only, because the cafe -- the only area large enough to accommodate a large group -- is closed that day.
And the in-store events are always crowded, according to Nabors. The store even charges for the events. "We've found that people will pay us money to teach them how to buy our food," he quipped.
The store also presents live music on a regular basis, but in the immediate cramped quarters, it's squeezed "literally between two endcap displays. But now we'll have a small stage, which will give the entertainers their own venue."
The cafe, perched above on the mezzanine, is also enlarged as part of the meals-oriented remodeling. It will be a prominent factor in the store and a focus for in-store fun as well, said Mustard Seed's executive chef Dan Remark.
"The way the traffic pattern has been laid out, it almost forces customers to look up at the cafe and see the activity there," Remark said. In its reincarnation, the expanded cafe will be dominated by a new juice bar.
Nabors acknowledged a link to the type of food-purchasing experience offered by Dallas-based Eatzi's. However, as he sees it, that's just the start.
"I think Eatzi's is very much on-trend, but we want to be even better. First of all, our foods are all natural; and then we'll have more options. For example, we'll offer partially prepared items, as well as prepared foods and maybe bundle the two together into a meal kit.
"An example of a meal kit we'll have is one that could include already cooked brown rice, vegetables already cut up and ready for stir frying, and maybe a store-made sauce. That gives the customer the satisfaction of feeling that they created a meal, in addition to saving them a tremendous amount of time," Nabors continued.
"It takes 45 minutes to cook brown rice. Beans take even longer to cook. If you wanted to make a Cuban meal, we could sell you value-added vegetables or meat that you can finish at home, but provide you with already cooked black beans."
"I don't believe that everybody wants everything done for them," explained Remark. "Look at what happened with cake mixes. First you just added water, but then when some smart person decided that the consumer should be allowed to crack two fresh eggs into the batter, the sales went crazy."
A larger selection of value-added meats is going into the meat department to please customers who want to cook the main course more easily.
That's today. But things will be different tomorrow, according to Nabors. He said he foresees a day in the not too distant future when operators could combine home delivery with a high-quality full-meal service.
Here is his scenario: "I expect that in the next five or 10 years, a substantial portion of our sales will be via telephone or the Internet. So I envision a service in which we deliver the grocery order, prepare a meal in the customer's kitchen, perhaps prepare meals for the next two or three days, and then clean up afterwards."
In the here and now, supermarkets are being advised by prepared foods experts to go for quality, and forget about concentrating on price, especially as their competition broadens to include more food-service operators and higher-quality products. Nabors said he has been doing that all along; he'll just be offering more choices now.
What has set Mustard Seed Market apart -- and will continue to set the new Mustard Seed apart -- is its high standards for ingredients, Nabors said.
"Even though we're broadening our categories of product -- and including some products that you might see in an upscale, mainstream grocery store -- we'll stick tight to our high ingredients standards. It's our Ten Commandments. We don't use artificial anything. Our meat is from cows that have not received growth hormones. There are no fake fats or sugars in our products," Nabors explained. "That precludes many mainstream products from being added to our mix."
Those high ingredients standards are what keeps Mustard Seed going strong in the midst of hot competition between supermarkets in its area, Nabors said. There is a Super Kmart across the street; a huge Acme Market, operated by Fred W. Albrecht Co., is next door; and a Finast is within walking distance.
Nabors, however, sees his store as above the supermarket fray, or at least small enough to slip between the punches they throw at each other.
"I don't view the players around here as head-to-head competition. We carry unique, high-quality products that aren't generally available in other stores. And I doubt if they see us as competition. In the middle of the food fight, we're probably a blip on the radar screen to them," Nabors said.
"We'll take a little bit of business from each. We'll get the quality shoppers. You have to play the quality game or the price game. We play the quality game and we stay in it. Sure, our average shopping basket is a higher ring, but sophisticated shoppers are willing to pay for quality and service and the trust they have in us."
"We're out to capture the quality-oriented consumer, and there are more and more of them every day."