PLANO, Texas - H.E. Butt Grocery's newly remodeled Central Market here makes it easy for shoppers to pick up tonight's dinner, tomorrow's lunch and ingredients for the rest of the week's meals - in one shopping trip.
In fact, simplifying the task of shopping and capturing a bigger share of the meals business were among the company's objectives. The store's floor plan was opened to ease traffic flow. The aisles were widened and shortcuts were created to help shoppers reach their destination faster.
"One of our biggest goals for the suburban shopper was to take the hassle out of their lives," said Michael Cox, manager of Central Market in Dallas, who was, until recently, general manager at this location.
The 75,000-square-foot store gained 1,000 square feet with the addition of the Central Market Cafe, an in-store, 130-seat dining area, built on a former patio in the front of the store. About half of the Central Market stores have cafes, and the company most likely will retrofit the other stores with the dining areas in the next two years, Cox said.
Shoppers "love the dining room," he said. "It really saves them time and provides affordable fresh and quality meals."
The most popular items on the menu are the store's daily hot meal specials, such as grilled fish, chicken or beef entrees with choice of two vegetables and a starch, Cox said. The specials retail for $7-$9 a plate. They're sold as individual meals or in family portions. All food is prepared in the store's kitchen.
"Our stir fry and pizzas are popular too," he said.
Many supermarkets have in-store dining rooms that rarely fill up. Central Market's dining room gets crowded during lunch and dinner hours. In fact, most shoppers who buy the hot meal specials eat in the cafe, Cox said.
Near the cafe, the prepared foods area gives shoppers an extensive choice of fully cooked entrees and side dishes to take home. Or they can order burgers and french fries hot off the grill.
"This used to be just a cold sandwich bar," Cox said. "We added a grill. We also sell tamales hot. That's very popular here. With the hot grill, the strategy was to get the talent in the kitchen out closer to customers."
Along a wall, the new Central Market Express offers a selection of ready-to-cook and ready-to-heat entrees, including three-pound, family size chicken cordon bleu casseroles and baked ziti with sausages and peppers. Kid and adult dinners for two, all in brown bags, are nine feet apart in the self-serve case. Packaged sandwiches, salads and quiche are available, too.
Offering in-store dining, with a selection of packaged meals nearby, makes it convenient for shoppers to purchase multiple meals, Cox said. If they eat in the dining area and then pick up a couple of brown bag lunches, "we've captured three or four of their meals here," he said.
While this store and the Dallas store are quite similar, the demographics of the shoppers are different. The Dallas store, in a relatively urban neighborhood, sees even bigger sales for prepared meals, Cox said. This suburban store appeals to home cooks, including private chefs and restaurant operators, who are looking for hard-to-find ingredients.
The produce department is nothing short of a mecca for ingredients, including a large assortment of organic and specialty items. Near the entrance to this sprawling department, a sign informs shoppers of the organic produce offerings for the day - 31 fruits and 74 vegetables. About 20% of the merchandise in the produce department is organic, and organics make up 15%-20% of total produce sales, Cox said.
A large selection of uncommon items, like papaya pear squash, is offered here. Glenn Jackman, manager of the store's produce department, reads lifestyle magazines to stay on top of hot products. The chain maintains strong relationships with growers who raise specialty items, including the West Texas farmer who raises the obscure gourds popularized by Martha Stewart.
"We bring growers into the store to talk to customers," Glenn said. "Most of these farmers are so dedicated."
Far away from Texas, the chain's international buyer has branched out to fresh produce. Early this year, the store rolled out radicchio from Italy. The red-leafed vegetable, commonly used in salads, is displayed in galvanized tubs. Around the same time, the chain also introduced Central Market-branded packaged salad blends. They're selling well, Cox said.
"We're constantly expanding our brand," he said.
Shoppers enjoy a bit of theater in the cheese department, where a "live" mozzarella station was installed. A store associate pulls fresh mozzarella on the floor every day. Consumers can sample the fresh cheese, offered at a station that also displays boxes of wine, fresh tomatoes, bunches of fresh basil and loaves of French bread.
People "have a show to watch, and something to put in their mouth," said Greg Randolph, who manages the department, which is stocked with more than 650 varieties of cheese from 13 countries. Parmigiano-Reggiano is the No. 1 seller, Randolph said.
In the seafood department, there's a long service counter filled with well-known and uncommon species, like Kona Kampachi fillets, retailing for $19.99 a pound. Behind the counter, knowledgeable associates are available to offer cooking and preparation tips. They also field lots of questions about where the fish come from and environmental issues like mercury and aquaculture.
The store added a self-service case containing prepared items, such as sushi.
"It speeds up service," Cox said. "There are a lot of families here who are limited on time."
The store also increased the value-added fresh meat selection, as well as exotic meats like venison and buffalo. Exotic meats appeal to consumers looking for something out of the ordinary, Cox said.
"We'll sell whole briskets and loins," he said. "It's mainly buffalo. People are tired of eating salmon and chicken."
To please the foodies and keep up with trends, the company has sent associates to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., for cooking and baking instruction. The CIA worked with associates to develop some of the 70 varieties of homemade sausage in the meat case.
In the bakery, a popular department here, the CIA developed a number of new recipes, including a line of 20 new breads. Unlike the rest of the store, which looks contemporary with its waxed concrete floors and eye-catching signs, the bakery looks old-fashioned. Oak wood and glass cases house a variety of fresh bagels, while tables weighted down by high-end chocolate attract those with a sweet tooth. There's a selection of sugar-free and fat-free cookies that appeals to shoppers with diabetes. There's also a case filled with tarts and other fancy pastries. Freshly made flour tortillas, made by a tortilla machine, have a strong following.
"Some people only come here for the fresh tortillas," Cox said.
Area resident Carolyn Herter and her children drive 28 miles from their home to shop and eat at the Plano store about twice a month. The produce department's huge selection is the major attraction for Herter, a freelance photographer who enjoys cooking.
"I like that I have a dozen different varieties of apples from which to choose," Herter said. "I like that they have the bizarre stuff, such as brussels sprouts on the stem, or fresh beets or a particular cheese that I can't find at a regular grocery store."
On a typical excursion, Herter and her sons do their shopping, load the food in coolers and pack up the car. Then they return to the prepared foods area where everyone gets to choose whatever they want for lunch. They eat outside, where the store offers seating. Then the boys get a workout on the new playground equipment.
"It's their reward for going shopping with me - getting to eat and play," Herter said.
Sometimes they eat indoors. "I do like the dining room with tables and chairs," she said.
The attractive presentation makes over-spending easy.
"My husband likes Central Market too," Herter said. "He was in the neighborhood a few weeks ago and he stopped in to pick up apples and bananas. He came home with more than $100 worth of groceries."