LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Kroger Co. is looking to slice more opportunity from its chef-made meals program with a new marketing twist that could be a prototype for more to come, SN has learned.
At a remodeled store here where the fresh foods section has been tripled in size and the prepared foods case brought up front, a dinner-time carvery, as well as a whole team of certified chefs, has been added.
On weekday evenings, in a scene reminiscent of Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., white-toqued chefs slice -- to order -- rare roast beef, sugar-cured ham and sometimes prime rib under a lighted marquee that proclaims "Dinner Solutions. Prepared Entrees 4 to 7 p.m."
While Kroger, with more than 2,000 supermarkets across the country, has been experimenting with chef-run programs in select stores, this is the first time it has made theater a prime ingredient. Putting its chefs face-to-face with customers at the cutting board is a good move, said a consultant who works with supermarkets and is herself a veteran of Wegmans.
"It brings such credibility -- to all the prepared foods. This is more than slicing meat; it's a marketing tool. It's very wise spending of marketing money. The more the chefs are visible and accessible, the better," said Terry Roberts, president, Merchandising By Design/The Design Associates, Pittsford, N.Y.
Another industry expert concurred.
"Such visual changes alert the customer that something different is going on, that it's not just the same old Kroger deli," said Anthony Tedesco, an industry consultant based in Atlanta.
He said that stepping up its chefs program makes particular sense for Kroger.
"The time is right for chains like this to take a new look at their food-service approach -- again, if they had tried it previously. The collective food quotient is at a point now where such efforts can work," Tedesco added.
"The industry has evolved. Managers and district directors have had some experience in how food service works, and in managing chefs. And now, too, the culinary schools like CIA and Johnson & Wales are beginning to understand retail food management and to offer courses in it."
Roberts added that shining the spotlight on the chefs does several things. It makes customers comfortable because it gives them confidence in the food and the way it's handled, and they feel they can get their food questions answered. In addition, a carving station lends a touch of class, she said.
"It adds value to the food. What high-end social event doesn't have steamship round being carved to order? People make that association. So the retailer can charge more for it, and it doesn't even cost extra labor. He already has the chefs."
Just making the chefs accessible appeared to draw customers to the prepared foods case, SN noted on a recent visit to the remodeled Kroger store. One chef came out from behind the service counter to discuss the preparation of pork tenderloin with a customer. Depending on the day of the week and the time, two to five chefs in professional garb can be seen at work in a wide-open production area just behind the 12-foot, prepared foods service case. Their photos and credentials are posted over the display case.
The mobile carving station is down the aisle several feet from the service case. It's part of a module that includes a hot case and a holding unit, and requires no additional space because it can be rolled right into the back of the hot case. The carvery has been installed at just one other Kroger unit -- also in the Louisville area -- so far. There, where the lunch business is brisker than in the evening, it is brought out from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"It has to be the right time and the right place. They're being very careful where they put these, just as they have been careful about where they put the chef program itself. It depends on the demographics and traffic patterns. It has to be a high-income area and a high-volume store to begin with," said a source close to the giant chain.
If the income level wasn't right, a chef program could actually have a negative effect, said one industry source.
"When people see those toques, they tend to see dollar signs. So they need to have the money to spend."
The two Kroger units with the carveries are situated in high-income areas where a mix of small businesses and upscale residences surround them.
The newly remodeled store, which was nearly doubled in size to about 70,000 square feet and is open 24 hours, sits smack in the middle of the trendy Bardstown Road area. There, in addition to stylish shops and artists' studios in old, interesting-looking buildings, small gourmet restaurants line the street, and many of those restaurants have installed a separate takeout counter.
Significantly, the Kroger program is obviously geared to takeout. The only seating at the remodeled store is provided at two tables that look as if they've been placed almost as an afterthought in the wide fresh-foods aisle.
"People in high-income areas don't want to sit down and eat in a supermarket. They'll probably take [the food] home and put it on their own china," one source said.
While most Kroger stores' efforts at prepared foods are represented by 6-to-8-foot, self-service cases with items such as meatloaf, fried chicken and sandwiches, the chefs' programs were launched in the mid-'90s at the chain's huge Hyde Park store in Cincinnati, which sits on the edge of a very high-end residential area. It and the approximately 40 other Kroger stores that have at least one certified chef on duty take aim at the customer looking for a more varied and upscale menu.
Rare prime rib and store-made gazpacho, for example, had a prominent spot in the "chef's case" at the Hyde Park store, SN noticed on a visit to that store last month. But there was no carvery.
"Decisions such as that are made on a Kroger marketing area basis. It's up to the top management of the KMA," said a source familiar with the workings of the Louisville Kroger units.
The carving stations in the Louisville stores represent the next step up, and they've been very successful, SN was told. However, the formula relies on several related components: The station is staffed for only a limited amount of time at peak traffic hours; it takes up little space; trained chefs are operating it; and above all, the concept has the commitment of top management in the marketing area.
"There's a lot going on in the Louisville KMA because they have a highly motivated merchandiser in that market and the top people there are just very progressive," said one industry source.
Indeed, 15 of the 40-some chef's programs are in the Louisville KMA.
The from-the-top-down support the Kroger carvery project is getting will be crucial to its success, said another Wegmans veteran, Jim Fracken pohl, vice president of the consulting firm RL & Associates -- Retail Food Design, Rochester, N.Y.
"The size of the chain isn't an issue; it's how committed they are to the project and how selective they are with the locations. The neighborhood is a critical factor. Wegmans didn't put them everywhere either. I applaud what Kroger's doing," Frackenpohl said.
The mobile carving board, developed by Alto-Shaam, Menomonee Falls, Wis., is a take-off on a concept that has been used in Europe. Very compact, it can be rolled into the traditional hot case or completely out of the way.
"It's no bigger than a regular-sized steam table pan, about 12 inches by 24 or 36 inches," said an Alto-Shaam representative.
Like other supermarkets in the South, the Kroger units have 6-foot hot cases with items such as fried chicken, salisbury steak and green bean casserole, in addition to an extensive selection of more upscale, from-scratch, chefs' creations in the refrigerated service and self-service cases nearer the front of the store.
"Alto-Shaam designed the carvery to make it compatible with a traditional hot case. Its dimensions allow it to be rolled into the back of the case. You just open the glass doors on the back of the case, roll it out and to the side a little so customers can watch the carving," said a store-level source.
"Then, when he's not actually slicing the meat, the chef can roll the whole thing back into the hot case so the meat can be held at the correct temperature. We can keep rare roast beef just at the right temperature, for example, so it stays rare and juicy," the source added.
That would head up the criteria for the success of the program, Terry Roberts said.
"That's how you maintain your profit. Not only does that holding unit protect the quality and the looks of the meat, it keeps it from losing moisture and that's very important when you're selling it by the pound."
At the two Kroger stores, carved entrees are sold by the pound, and by the plate. The plated dinners, packed in domed, microwaveable, sectioned containers, range from $7.99 to $10.99, depending on what the entree is. Two sides and two dinner rolls come with it.
"This is a big leap from the steam tables of yesterday. Having this just a few hours a day is the way to do it. You have optimum quality and minimum shrink and it becomes an event," Roberts said.
"That's what Wegmans did with their A La Carte program years ago. They'd offer prime rib just during dinnertime or brisket sandwiches just on Saturday afternoon -- at particular stores. Customers looked forward to it. That was the foundation of today's successful programs at Wegmans."