PHOENIX -- Supermarket food-service operators here may soon be offering more upscale Italian-style meals, if Cucina! Cucina!, a Bellevue, Wash.-based restaurant chain, realizes its expansion plans in this marketplace.
The chain specializes in good food with quick service and an informal Italian-cafe atmosphere. Following the opening of three new freestanding Cucina! Cucina! locations in the Phoenix area, the chain will seek to open a total of 10 additional cafe-sized units alongside supermarkets.
This marketing scheme has been tested in the Seattle area, said Terry Labrue, director of marketing.
Typically, Cucina! Cucina! enters a marketplace with freestanding restaurants and then backs it up with the presence of the chain's own dry grocery line of seasonings, sauces, dressings and other specialties. Finally, the plan is to come in with Cucina! Presto! operations within supermarkets.
"When it comes to supermarkets, our market thrust is to identify a supermarket operator that is in the top end of the marketplace," said Labrue. "Their customers are our customers."
The concept has been tested using a 5,000-square-foot mini Cucina! Presto! concept in two western Washington QFC supermarkets. "Business did not develop per our plans and one has been closed," Labrue said. "The other unit we are continuing to test."
A recent Cucina! Cucina! installation was built into the new QFC location at University Village. In this location QFC employees are providing Italian-style dishes made to Cucina! Cucina! specifications using the chain's ingredients.
"We have since pulled back and reformulated a new concept," said Labrue. This Cucina! Cucina! location opened last March as freestanding 2,300-square-foot cafe on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill at the QFC location there.
"It's a hybrid," Labrue said. "It is a nice compromise between a fast-food restaurant and a full-service dining room. This concept also has room for 80 people to sit down. People want to sit down and have a dining experience."
The menu includes hearty sandwiches, specialty pasta dishes, pizza and the chain's signature salads. Wine and beer, in addition to fountain beverages, are served. Part of the dining experience includes the stylized blend of both contemporary and nostalgic Italian music that is played as customers select their cafeteria-style items. Wooden tables add to the informal atmosphere.
From the exposed kitchen, which has a wood-burning oven, each order is cooked -- or tossed -- to order.
"People don't want steamed table food," Labrue noted. "They want fresh, good-tasting food they can afford."
An average meal ticket is less than $4.50, according to Labrue. "This price structure can compete with a combo meal at a fast-food chain. And you get to eat with real silverware." Even with the seating, 30% to 40% of the orders are packaged for takeout, he said.
In preparation for the expansion, Cucina! Cucina! hired an independent survey company to conduct extensive exit interviews.
"Ninety-six percent of the respondents rated their experience as good or very good," said Labrue.
In addition to the Phoenix area, the restaurant chain also is eyeing the northern California and Denver areas.