GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- D&W Food Centers has introduced a chilled soup program that takes the category to new levels in more ways than one.
The 25-unit chain, which supplies its in-store cafes and delis with prepared foods from its own central commissary, has introduced chef-created soups that go way beyond what consumers could expect to find in a grocery store. Not only that, but the send-off display at the company's prototype store is high on visibility. It's shown off in a four-foot, upright case.
"After visiting the New York market and other major markets across the country, we saw that soup was an up-and-coming trend and we wanted to be on the front end of that trend. It was that mass-merchandising, that wall of soup we were anxious to try," said Tom DeVries, D&W's director of deli-bakery-food services.
Since then, the company has rolled out the program -- which features the likes of lobster bisque made with heavy cream, and Jamaica Bay gumbo with fresh mussels and andouille sausage -- to 10 of its stores. The menu of 25 varieties was created by D&W's corporate chef Eric Chaitin to match what might be served at fine restaurants, DeVries said.
"Our purpose isn't to sell cheap soup, but instead, to sell great soup at a great value, and to sell lots of it with lots of variety in the selection."
DeVries said customers' comments about the soups have been nothing short of exceptional. They like them all, but their hands-down favorite is wild mushroom, which features fresh shitakes, portabellos and button mushrooms in a cream base. The soups are line-priced for simplicity's sake, particularly from the customer's perspective, DeVries explained.
Packaged in dairy-type, see-through, round containers, the soups are retailed as follows: $1.99 for 8 ounces; $3.99 for 16 ounces; and $6.99 for 32 ounces.
"We use containers with a good seal, containers that can stand the microwave. We also think it's particularly important that you can see the colors through the container. The gumbo, for instance, has a red, tomato base. Together, the different soups make a colorful display. In that upright case, we have about 400 to 450 pounds of soup and we fill it fresh daily," DeVries said.
Some stores merchandise the soups in reach-ins and some in tiered sections of cheese islands, but eventually an upright case, four feet wide minimum, will spotlight them at all 13 stores that have a salad bar, DeVries said.
Prior to the introduction of this program, the company's soup program centered on two to four basic selections in hot wells at its salad bars. But now the selection there can take a dramatic turn.
"The beauty of this new program financially is that we have the ability to transfer any short-dated -- thinking of code-dating issues -- items from that [cold] case directly into the hot wells, putting us in a near-zero shrink position."
But it serves another important purpose. Since any of the 25 varieties can turn up on the salad bar, depending on what's nearing its sell-by date, salad bar customers will eventually get to taste the whole chilled soup collection.
"In essence, it's a great way to demonstrate those soups while maintaining a profitable sale," DeVries said.
The soups are produced in high volume at the company's central kitchen, which has plenty of capacity to do it, DeVries said. They're packed in five-pound sealed master bags, ice-bathed, and shipped out to the stores where the soups are re-packed in the smaller containers.
At any given time, a customer can find about 30 varieties of soup in the 10 D&W units that currently have the program. That's the total of hot and chilled selections together. There are actually 31 varieties in the chilled program, but some are seasonal. Varieties such as vichysoisse and gazpacho will have their day when warmer weather arrives.
Coincidentally, the chilled soup program got its debut shortly after the chain began to aggressively merchandise and market 24 varieties of La Brea brand bread, and in the fall D&W offered a free La Brea baguette with the purchase of a 16- or 32-ounce container of chilled soup.