GARDEN CITY, N.Y. -- A hot-food bar that was an afterthought has become the featured attraction at a Melmarkets/Foodtown unit in Long Island, New York.
Sales from the bar, which includes some cold salads, are 18% of deli sales at the store and continue to grow at a brisk pace, said Harvey Cohen, deli director for the 18-unit chain, which is supplied by Twin County Grocers, an Edison, N.J.-based cooperative wholesaler.
"The word-of-mouth advertising is fantastic. People bring others from their office at lunchtime," he said.
"We're very happy with it. We weren't sure what to expect when we put it in, but it's doing better than we could have hoped for in the first year, and it's getting better," Cohen said, noting sales volume at the bar is up 10% to 15% from three months ago.
The 23-foot, self-service hot-food/salad bar island -- a first for the chain -- was installed at the last minute in a new unit opened last spring in Great Neck, N.Y.
Set at an angle to the service bakery counter, the island bar is what customers see first upon entering the store. The service deli, which has rotisserie chickens and a limited selection of other hot foods, is adjacent to the bakery.
"We decided to try this because of where the store is located," Cohen said. It's situated in a strip mall in an area that has residences and office buildings, and there are young couples and older, retired people living in the area, he said. The store is in the same block as a commuter railroad station.
"Business in the evening is building," Cohen said, pointing out that more people are taking food home for dinner. Now sales are about evenly divided between lunchtime and the early evening hours. Initially, the bulk of business was at lunchtime. Asked if the concept would be rolled out to other units, Cohen said the demographics probably wouldn't support such an extensive effort at other locations. "Here, it's the ideal combination," he said. But demography is only part of the success recipe.
"It's the quality that keeps people coming back and has them talking about the food," Cohen said, adding that every item is cooked from scratch, without any preservatives, in the store's kitchen.
The bar offers at least 50 different items a day, at least four times the variety of in-store prepared foods offered at delis at the chain's other stores. Microwavable containers as well as regular clam-shell packages are offered. The price is $3.99 a pound.
"A whole group can come in together from an office and everybody can find something they want. We have four people cooking in the kitchen and they're turning out some great ethnic items, too. We have an Israeli woman, for instance, who makes a wonderful Israeli salad," he said.
The day's items are rotated, chosen from a large list of recipes. "We want people to see something different all the time," Cohen said. Just about every item introduced has sold well, but sliced brisket and chicken cutlets are particular favorites, said Cohen. Some dishes with sauces, such as a pasta entree with a white sauce and vegetables with a cream sauce, didn't move well and have been discontinued.
"I think it's just that people are looking for light food. We sell a lot of vegetables like broccoli and spinach, but they want them dry, nothing on them," Cohen said.
At peak hours, up to four staffers keep the bar replenished and clean, and they interact with customers. When SN visited the store shortly after it opened, an associate offered samples and pointed out that all the food is homemade. She even offered the information that pot cheese, instead of cottage cheese, is available because customers have said it travels better in take-out containers.
Getting in and out fast is important to customers, Cohen said. "We keep at least one checkout lane at lunchtime dedicated to the hot food/salad bar customers. If it gets backed up, we open another one. We know people don't have much time for lunch," he said.
Asked if Melmarkets/Foodtown had considered adding seating, Cohen gave an emphatic "no." The help-yourself, get-out-quickly setup suits Melmarkets' customers, he said. And it suits Cohen.
"It wouldn't give us any advantage. There's not much room, and we'd have to hire someone to keep the seating area cleaned up. We'd probably just have employees spending their breaks there."