EVANSTON, Ill. -- Just outside the confines of Chicago lies a new produce-driven concept store called the People's Market.
Reminiscent in design of a 1960's co-op, the airy market is the brainchild of Wild Oats Markets Inc., Boulder, Colo., an established leader in the natural-food arena since its formation in 1987.
According to Joseph Macchione, the chain's Midwest regional manager, the store is the first of its kind designed to complement the Wild Oats stores, but in an urban environment.
The 22,000-square-foot unit is housed in a building that was previously a car dealership. Constructed in the early 1940s, the building was built out over the years, creating a funky environment that serves as a prime area to test the idea.
Indeed, the offbeat idea of putting a food store in a former car dealership is one of the store's primary attractions, said officials. This use of existing structures is expected to facilitate the concept's growth in urban areas, as well as assist in creating an identity.
The architectural elements from the building's original purpose are used to full effect. For instance, garage doors that run the entire perimeter of the store are opened during warmer weather, which reinforces the open-market feel, said Macchione.
"It's not a traditional design and layout," he explained. "You walk into a produce department and it's surrounded by garage doors. We can turn up those garage doors and have an outdoor products' market.
"I think [a produce-oriented store] brings a lot of repeat customers," he explained. "I feel that if you get a great produce following, you have a wonderful store. It makes it a destination place."
Indeed, People's Market makes produce the centerpiece of the store. At any given time, the department may carry anywhere from 100 to 140 different types of organic produce, in addition to more than 150 non-organic produce items.
In keeping with its image, the store offers an array of local seasonal favorites gathered from a number of regional suppliers, including a local farmer cooperative. These products include varieties of corn, green beans, potatoes and berries.
Macchione described the market's design as a cross between Trader Joe Co., a small-scale natural-food chain based in South Pasadena, Calif., and New York City's Fairway, which also operates open-market type stores.
"People have really enjoyed shopping here because it feels like a market," said Macchione. "It's not your traditional up-and-down-the-aisle grocery store, so it's a real fun experience in terms of shopping."
The unit is heavy on sampling, running anywhere from eight to 10 demonstrations daily in almost every department, including bakery and seafood, he said. In produce alone, there are about two to three promotions held every day, he said.
In the produce department, the activity includes tastings of cut fruit and produce, as well as demonstrations and informal discussions of new products.
All the produce items are stacked atop big tables. According to Macchione, all the produce items are taken out of their boxes and displayed like a pitcher's mound. Wooden tables with side barriers allow the produce "mound" to maintain its shape.
To separate the organic produce from non-organic produce, different colored traditional and hand-drawn signage is used. The signs range in size from 8 1/2 by 11 inches to 16 by 22 inches, and use humor and factual information.
For example, one sign depicts three characters in black outfits dancing under the words, "Lords of the Price," a play on "Lord of the Dance."
The informational signs above the produce tables relay nutritional information, health tips and cooking advice in one- or two-sentence variables. For example, a sign may hang above the oranges that reminds customers that the fruit is high in vitamin C.
The signage used for organic items has a light green background, while the non-organics have off-orange coloring. In addition, bold lettering is used to further separate the products from each other.
From the produce department, customers enter the other fresh departments, including bakery, cheese and seafood. Toward the back of the store is the grocery department, the vitamin section, the deli and ready-to-eat items.
In the "Meals A Go-Go" area, there are two separate "meal bars." The first, 32-foot unit merchandises prepared meals, salads and appetizers, all sold by the pound. The meal offerings include prepared Caesar, Greek and tabouleh salads. The salads are either made in-house, or sourced in on a daily basis. Each day 30 to 40 ready-to-eat salads are prepared from a rotating menu of more than 60 options.
The menu of fresh meals includes vegetarian, Mexican and Italian, all prepacked and ready to go. "It's been pretty popular," said Macchione.
Four to five different hot choices are offered each day, including chicken tetrazzini, spinach lasagna and tofu stir-fry. All the hot items are prepared on-site in the kitchen located directly behind the meals bar. A 20-foot salad bar is also available for consumers who want to assemble their own greens.
Over in the deli area, an extensive cheese department offers more than 100 varieties. About 95% of the cheeses are cut from the original wheel. "A lot of the conventional supermarkets just buy [prepaccked] cheeses," he said.
In the meat department, about 85% of the items offered in the 32-foot case are natural, he said. They include sausage products obtained by a local Chicago supplier, and chicken, lamb, pork and beef obtained from a certified ranch in California, which is cut fresh in-store.
To distinguish the natural products, special signage is also used in this case. To answer customer questions, brochures accompany the different meats.
In the conventional grocery section, all the major brands are available, stacked using pallet shelving in the shipping case. There is also a beer and wine section that runs daily wine specials of three bottles for $15. Beer originating from microbreweries is also available.
This open-market feel has become a hit among local consumers, Macchione said. He said it attracts consumers from the suburbs, as well as from the city.
"[Evanston is] a pretty geographically desirable area," he explained. "It's a university town. It's also the first suburban community outside Chicago, so we still draw from there.
"Our goal at this time is to perfect what we're doing here and then eventually have additional stores," he said, adding that the People's Market format is a prototype for urban settings, like San Francisco or Cambridge, Mass., where a "hip" concept store will appeal to local consumers.
According to Macchione, Evanston-area residents were already accustomed to buying organic and specialty items due to a higher-than-average number of existing natural-food stores.
"I think people in Evanston know natural foods from their roots with Oak Street Market, Fresh Fields and Whole Foods," he said, noting that Oak Street and Fresh Fields banners have been incorporated into the Whole Foods chain during acquisitions.
Macchione said that the unit's location -- on the border between city and suburb -- allows the chain to target a much broader audience. He said that a number of consumer segments are catered to, including those who like natural foods, those looking for produce variety, and those looking for a new type of shopping experience.
He said another benefit for Evanston-area customers is that the store's pricing structure allows those who typically can't afford to buy natural produce to be able to. "This is a good alternative because we do offer [natural-food items] at reasonable prices," he said.
The People's Market is able to offer lower prices because it uses direct buying for a lot of categories, he said.
"There's a set number of SKUs that change every week, but then there's a set core group that people want everyday," he said. "They can get different products at different prices."
Another major difference between the People's Market and its 79 counterparts -- including Wild Oats Markets, Alfalfa's Markets, Nature's Fresh and Capers -- is the fact that the assortment of products is more limited, said Macchione. The number of service departments has also been reduced.
"It's a much lower cost structure in terms of the construction cost," he said. "We don't have a juice bar or a service meat department, because we want to focus on the produce, the grocery and the vitamins. It's more of a fresh market than an 'A-to-Z' store."
He said that some of the prices offered at the People's Market are also offered in the traditional Wild Oats, but are "just more emphasized here." This emphasis comes in the form of store- wide signage, weekly ads in newspapers, fliers and multiple pricing promotions.
"We have limited SKUs so we focus on particular products. You may see the product one week, but you may not see it next week, because we're able to buy at that rate."
But, Macchione said, quality is never sacrificed even under a price-driven philosophy.
"It's the same quality and shares some of the same values that we have at Wild Oats, but we also have some other values that are different SKUs," he said. "There are different products in there that you wouldn't even see in a Wild Oats."
He said that the unit also adds the characteristics of the Wild Oats Markets to the mix. These include a commitment to providing consumer information in the form of brochures, as well as providing a selection of quality products.