ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Here in the land of the midnight sun, the sales picture at Carr Gottstein Foods' fresh pasta bar keeps getting brighter and brighter.
A self-service hot pasta bar, featuring 20 selections a day, is a shining success at the chain's flagship store here, according to officials at the 39-unit chain. And it is also becoming the solid draw into the store that chain officials hoped it would be.
The pasta bar was launched when the store had its grand re-opening after a remodel late last summer. Carr Gottstein created the bar to accompany a fresh pasta-making operation, dubbed La Pastaria, after deciding it was important to stage the new, fresh-made pasta program in an attention-getting way, said Tammy Jerry, vice president of perishables for the chain.
"We're using the hot bar as a vehicle to introduce the new pasta we make from scratch," Jerry said. "Creating a specific identity for it is designed to make it a destination." To help the program stand out, Carr Gottstein used a 12-foot island case and kept the bar completely separate from other hot foods offered in the service deli.
"It's doing extremely well for us. We had wanted to add another customer service, and it's working," she added.
Carr Gottstein decided to add fresh-made pasta to its meals offerings because the category is very popular in Alaska. The decision to make the hot bar a self-service operation, as opposed to service, was based on the "huge success" that some of its stores have with self-service 24-foot salad bars, Jerry said.
"I also know that when people serve themselves, they buy more," she added. And Carr Gottstein's customers are extremely enthusiastic about the hot pasta bar, she added.
"Per-capita consumption of pasta in Alaska is high, and we have seen that reflected in pasta sales in our grocery department. People here climb mountains; they're outdoors people, athletes. They eat healthy and they want their carbohydrates," she explained.
And she said customers "are just in awe of the difference in flavor between fresh-made and dry pasta."
The pasta operation also seemed a logical way to expand beyond another hot program that Carr Gottstein has been running for years: from-scratch Chinese.
Jerry said there's something for everybody on the hot pasta bar. Stir-fried vegetables are very popular, and are a mainstay in the product mix; so is herb-marinated chicken, which is an item that has a guaranteed spot on the bar every day.
"People love that chicken. They ask how it's done, where they can get it. Once they've tried it, they buy it in the meat department, ready-to-cook.
"Our sales of that ready-to-cook product in our service meat department went up 200% within weeks after we introduced the hot pasta bar," Jerry added.
The fresh pasta is produced in the meat department, and is not located next to the hot bar in the food court. Still, even though it's in the meat department, the pasta-making operation "is separate, in its own boutiqued little area with four walls," Jerry explained.
There, pasta chef Kendo Shine makes the pasta from semolina flour, in full view of customers. The chef produces pasta throughout the day as needed, but he makes sure he's running the pasta-cutting machine between 3 and 7 in the evening when customer traffic is particularly heavy, Jerry said.
Shine creates pasta in a variety of shapes daily, and in three flavors: plain, tomato and spinach. The products are packaged raw and sold chilled by the pound in the self-service case, as well as cooked and merchandised at the hot bar.
Just below Shine's workstation is a low-profile case that merchandises chilled prepackaged pasta, alongside a selection of value-added meats that focuses on items seen as good companions to pasta, such as meatballs, sausage and herb-marinated chicken. Above the packages of pasta and other items, specialty products such as colavita olives and sun-dried tomatoes and garlic spread are merchandised. Even garlic bread is displayed at knee-level below the packaged fresh pasta and sauces.
While Carr Gottstein decided to place the pasta-making operation at the meat department because that was where it could find the space, Jerry noted that it also calls attention to the cross merchandising of fresh pasta with value-added meats "to make a meal." A lot of customers buy breaded chicken to go with pasta, for example, or with the packaged stir-fry vegetables that are displayed in that case as well, she explained.
"There's the opportunity to display meatballs right beside the spaghetti. It just gives customers the idea; it gets that extra impulse sale. We think the service meat department is the right place for the pasta operation. We have chefs there who can answer customers' questions or give them suggestions."
The area now occupied by the pasta-making operation had been used for smoking meats. "That was a program that didn't turn out to be as successful as we had thought it would be, so we didn't need as much room for it," she said.
The interdepartmental cooperation needed to do cross merchandising has not been a problem, according to Jerry. "Everybody works well together. They're appreciative of getting space in someone else's department. We've also been cross merchandising deli cheeses in the produce department for a long time, with success. That's just one example. We sell about 12 loaves of garlic bread a day -- by the piece -- at the pasta bar. That's from our in-store bakery."
The meat department is also happy about the cooked items it is selling on the hot pasta bar, she said. Italian sausage, made in-store, for instance, is a favorite, as is herb-marinated chicken.
Hot-bar items are retailed by the pound, for $3.99. The best-selling pasta on the bar is fettuccine with marinara sauce, Jerry said.
The chain has found that rotating a new item onto the hot bar each day is a key to keeping people interested. "We have customers who come in every day to see what the special is. It keeps it exciting, and it also gives us a chance to test products. We have a very good, aggressive chef who actually has a list of 1,500 recipes he'd like to try. We cost them out and we'll try a lot of them -- put it out there and see how it goes," Jerry said.
The dedication of associates to the operation is crucial to the project's success, she said. Two associates are assigned to the hot bar, on shifts that overlap by three or four hours.
"They're instructed to help people. If a customer looks undecided, they'll ask if he or she wants to taste something," Jerry said. The pasta clerks are also constantly maintaining the hot bar by turning products. A small spray bottle of olive oil is also used, to keep the pastas moist and looking good.
Jerry said the pasta is held on the hot table a maximum of 45 minutes, "but we might discard a product before that if for some reason it has lost eye appeal."
Pasta and sauces hold up longer and look better than a lot of other hot foods, she added. "For example, fried food dries out and there's just nothing you can do to keep it moist."
Sometimes when a product is not moving off the hot table at the expected pace, it's because people are unfamiliar with it, she said, referring to items such a fettuccine with leek sauce and spinach cabrini as examples.
Products that appeared to be slow movers at first, such as eggplant parmesan, were turned into good sellers with the help of sampling, she said.
Chicken lasagna is another example that was turned around, via sampling, from a slow-mover to a customer-favorite; sausage-stuffed red peppers could have died a quick death had the associates not urged people to taste them, Jerry noted.