BOSTON (FNS) -- Walking through a glass arcade of the Prudential Center, an indoor mall in upscale Back Bay, a young, casually dressed couple notices the entrance to Restaurant Marche Movenpick Boston. They stop, looking slightly puzzled.
That's been a common reaction of residents and tourists since the Swiss-based Marche Movenpick opened the doors of its first U.S. location Dec. 2. From the outside it looks like a bustling, Mediterranean cafe with its table awnings, lush faux greenery and zesty music.
But it also appears to be more than that, and it is. A young employee in trademark white shirt and green chef apron showed a "passport" to the couple and tried to explain the Marche concept. They seemed tentative. Another employee came over to assist.
"It's the Disneyland of food," he told them.
Indeed, the three-level, 36,000-square-foot Boston Marche has something for just about everyone: a restaurant, a food store, a takeout operation. All food stations are out front, and action, aroma and variety are used to sell food. Some industry observers say that if the concept is accepted by the American public, this foreigner could change the way food-industry operators do business here.
Marche is "market" in French, but in the food industry it means an innovative new concept known as market-style dining. Developed by Movenpick of Switzerland, and brought to the United States by the Toronto-based food-service company Richtree Inc., the Marche focus is on preparing a variety of fresh, locally grown food at reasonable prices.
But Marche also stands for service and ambience. In an atmospheric setting resembling a French-style, open-air marketplace, restaurant chefs or "marketeers" prepare food made to order in front of customers at a myriad of food stations serving everything from sushi to freshly squeezed juices, prime rib to pepperoni pizza.
The restaurant also features five distinct European-themed dining areas, where customers reserve a table; some Boston customers were seen to table-hop with each course. They can choose from the Auberge, with a French country-inn decor; the Bistro, a Parisian-style tavern; the Locanda, resembling a Southern Italian country inn; the Mediterranean Garden, with hanging grape-cluster lights; and "outdoor" seating, which is found under cafe-style umbrellas in the Prudential Center's atrium.
"Food theater" is how company officials describe it.
It felt like a "food adventure" to both customers and staff during the first week of operation in Boston. The Boston Marche is designed to encompass four food-service concepts, but only two were ready for the December opening: the first level of the Marche restaurant and the Marchelino, a takeout mini-Marche.
Slated for a Jan. 21 opening is the Caveau wine bar and restaurant on the mezzanine level, boasting a rustic Swiss alpine decor and menu of caviar, smoked salmon and cigars, and the Take Me! Marche food store, bakery and boutique on the street level.
The restaurant's fresh approach applies to both the food and to the way it is served. Upon entering, customers are issued a "passport" and map and invited to wander the pathways to the various food stations. The passport is the Marche version of a check, stamped with individual food purchases at each station and later paid in a single sum to a cashier. The map provides descriptions and specific locations of the 10 individual food stations and "Grotto Bar" as well as helpful advice for the uninitiated.
"Take your time . . . Gather your food items all at once, or have your meal in leisurely courses," exhorted one such suggestion on the printed material.
With no written menu, customers glean the daily specials and prices at station blackboards. At the Rotisserie & Grill, quail and chicken broiled on spits and seared veal sausage were offered at $3.99. Hand-cut Yukon Gold Home Fries were served from an awning-covered cart with the inscription, "Eat your vegetables."
Elsewhere, Atlantic salmon fillet, with a side of rice, sold for $6.99 at the Seafood Bar, where chilled oysters and clams were served out of a white-painted dory. Boiled lobster, a Boston favorite, is also expected to be a regular item here, in keeping with the Marche emphasis on local products. (Marche has already hired away several employees from the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, where the accent is on fresh and local.)
Especially popular was the Pasta Bar, where small pasta machines churned out fusilli, and bowls of pasta du jour were served: pasta gratin with Italian sausage and tomato sauce was priced at $5.95, regular; $7.95, large. Also offered for $2.75 was rosti, the Swiss grated-potato dish, one of several Marche signature dishes.
At the Salad, Eggs and Soups station, available in three sizes and tossed per customer specification was another Marche staple, Caesar Salad.
At the Movenpick Coffee Bar, where European machines grind and brew each cup individually, there were moments of confusion. Some customers who wanted black coffee mistakenly thought the foamy-looking brew contained milk.
Explaining -- and promoting -- the Marche concept to Bostonians is one of the challenges for Thomas Stohr, general manager of Marche Boston.
The Euro-style concept "is hard to explain," Stohr said in an interview two days after the official opening. In the beginning, the company is relying primarily on word-of-mouth to attract customers, although it is also using a variety of traditional marketing strategies, such as radio advertising and creative promotions.
For example, to celebrate the signing of a 12-year lease with the Prudential Center last March, 20 Swiss cows were paraded around the mall, accompanied by the sound of the traditional Swiss alphorn. the powerful wooden horn used by Alpine herdsmen.
Appealing to various levels of customers is critical for the concept to succeed, and is the reason there are so many stations and theme dining rooms. With seating for more than 850 customers, Marche will be the largest restaurant in the Boston area, open seven days a week and serving three meals. Company officials tout Marche as a multifaceted place, at once a festive restaurant to enjoy a full-course meal and a casual meeting place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a newspaper, with friends or alone.
In Boston, that appears to be working. During a weekday early-dinner shift, SN noted solo diners in evidence, as well as young professionals ordering take-home fare and families sharing a large bowl of pasta.
"We want to be high-frequency, but we want to be reasonable," Stohr noted. The average Marche check is about $10, he noted; and between $3.80 and $4.50 in the Marchelino.
The takeout operation, with an entrance separate from the restaurant -- and a concept somewhat easier for Americans to grasp -- attracted customers from the start. The first days, lines formed outside the restaurant at lunchtime. Many of these customers were foreigners attending two conventions in Boston who were familiar with the Marche concept in Europe, Asia, Canada and the Middle East.
It is no coincidence that the Boston Marche is located in proximity to the Hynes Convention Center and several major hotels. In addition to a ready-made base of conventioneers and tourists, the area also includes several large apartment complexes and office buildings -- with more to follow. Construction is slated for April on a 36-story retail-office tower at the Prudential Center.
For these reasons, Marche also has high hopes for Take Me! Marche, which will feature prepared foods to go. The company contends the home-meal replacement market will be the hottest trend in food operations and views supermarkets as its major competition. A Star Markets store, which attracts a high number of affluent professionals who live or work in the area, is also located in the Prudential Center.
"Location, location, location," replied Jorg Reichert, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Richtree Inc., in Boston to supervise the opening, when asked why Boston and the Prudential Center site were selected. The Boston Marche is Movenpick's first foray into the U.S. market and it plans to open locations next year in the World Trade Center in New York City and in San Diego.
"If it doesn't work here, we have a problem," Reichert said of the Boston Marche. An expensive problem, too: The company spent roughly $14 million on startup and construction costs.
Boston was also selected because of its European feel, Reichert noted. "The city is so old-world and so American at the same time. It's just right for the culture, and the city and its people," he said.
Another factor was the city's strong economy -- and a forecast that it will remain strong, Stohr noted. But the economy is also making it difficult to attract employees, he noted, and the labor costs are higher here than in other locations.
The Boston Marche will employ more than 300 full- and part-timers. About 120 employees are needed to man a full shift, Stohr said. As of the first week in December, Stohr said, 80 additional employees were needed. To attract employees, incentives such as full-time work with benefits are being offered.
Incentives to motivate existing employees are also part of the Marche approach. Each station is its own profit center, Stohr explained, and employees earn bonuses based on their station performance. A station that does not perform well will be discontinued.
Marche does not require prior restaurant experience from potential employees. "Our profile is that they be outgoing food lovers. All the rest we can train," Stohr said.
Educating the local health inspectors is also part of Stohr's duties. Food, delivered fresh daily, is stored at the individual stations, a concept unfamiliar to inspectors, who balked at the notion. There are no large, consolidated storage facilities on site, and therefore no bulk or refrigerated foods are purchased. "There should be no leftovers" at the end of each day, Stohr noted.
"Marche is like a movie and we have a tight script," he added. "If properly planned, it can be easygoing on [the] stage."