CHICAGO -- The natural-food competition in the Chicagoland marketplace is hot, and fresh meals are fanning the flames.
Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Community Markets fired up the heat by planting one unit in the market and putting more on the drawing board, challenging Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, which operates five stores in the Chicago area.
The vollies back and forth are emphatic. Wild Oats Community Market's initial entry into the area was in north suburban Buffalo Grove. Just one freeway exit south of the unit stands an outdoor billboard that promoted the opening. The sign is stationed less than 1 mile from Whole Foods Market's Palatine location.
Within the Whole Foods Market, meanwhile, signs at the unit's front end declare, "Whole Foods Market Palatine honors Wild Oats $5.00 off coupon."
As the competition gets hotter, it also gets harder for the two rivals to differentiate themselves. Both have chosen food-service as a front-line defense, loading up the cases with prepared foods that sport natural ingredients and high-quality flavor profiles.
"We focus on how we can drive home the image of foods being natural, concentrating on freshly prepared items," said Chris Ryding, Midwest regional chef/coordinator here for Whole Foods Market. "Unless food is prepared for a customer at that moment, customers aren't really sure where it has come from. Restaurants are making inroads into carryout -- we should too."
Both chains see prepared foods as the logical convergence of natural products and home-meal replacement.
"Natural products are a great fit with home-meal replacement, as more customers are wanting to make good nutritional choices, so we place a huge emphasis on our prepared-foods departments," said Jim Lee, president and chief operating officer at Wild Oats.
"A lot of the population appreciates great food and natural products. Convenience makes prepared food a value-added desire," Lee said. He indicated that it is not uncommon for prepared-foods departments (with the deli and bakery combined) to produce 20% of total store sales in his units.
When asked why the chain selected Buffalo Grove as a location, Lee said that his chain seeks out demographic locations where there is a high education level, not simply a high income level.
He indicated that several units are slated for construction, with a 30,000-square-foot unit scheduled to open in early fall in the western suburb of Hinsdale.
Strict quality control and stringent product-quality standards are the focus for these natural-food operators.
While not wanting to be termed "health-food" sellers and preferring the "natural-food" or "whole-food" label, both operators rely heavily on natural products without artificial additives or enhancers.
Full flavor creams and butter, along with meats and seafoods, are used in recipes. The difference is that the animals used to produce the meats or dairy products are free-range fed, without chemicals used on or added to their feed.
"Our focus is to create the freshest, closest to natural products we can," said Ryding of Whole Foods. "We are taking mainstream deli expectations and deleting the stabilizers, emulsifiers and other unnatural ingredients from popular items. For example, we sell potato salad, but we use the highest quality mayonnaise and organic produce when possible."
Always a moving target, Whole Foods is currently remodeling the Palatine unit. This unit is a former Fresh Fields store that was acquired 18 months ago.
Along with the facelift comes a new emphasis on prepared foods. While the former Fresh Fields relied on only centrally prepared items to fill the deli case, Whole Foods tack is to use a commissary for the production of department staples and in-store kitchens to produce specialty items. As a result, part of the Palatine unit's remodel includes a kitchen.
"We do have a commissary, but we want to allow our stores to have some autonomy and use their creativity to serve each unit's customers' tastes," Ryding said. "We see the commissary as supplemental to our store's success. Each unit specifically defines the community and strives to present items that they are looking for."
The commissary's main charge is to provide the staples, the bean salads, potato salads, chicken salads and the standard dips and spreads to free in-store chefs to create new items and offer favorites. One example noted during SN's in-store visits was a root vegetable medley offered in the Palatine unit that was not offered in the Wheaton store.
"This system gives us the opportunity to take some labor away from the store as well," Ryding said.
Whole Foods' commissary also supplies the products for each unit's "Express Yourself" grab-and-go section. "This takes away the stress from our in-store people and lets them concentrate their energies on customer service."
Wild Oats employs a commissary operation in other regions where it has a unit base to support that system. As expansion continues, Lee expects to build a Chicago-area commissary to supply up to half of the food-service items offered. In the meantime, in-store produced items are supplemented with products sourced from local vendors.
Expansion is also on the boards in the Chicago marketplace for Whole Foods. Plans to break ground in the late fall on a new location at Erie and State Streets on the city's Gold Coast are under way. According to Ryding, this unit will reflect some of the same food-service concepts already in operation at the chain's Evanston location.
One of the concepts that has proven successful for the chain is a wood-burning hearth oven. "We have found that the hearth oven enhances the image of food being freshly made to order," said Ryding.
Where so many other retail operators have failed, Whole Foods takes a different spin on how it uses this expensive piece of equipment. In menu developmental stages the operator plans to make use of the wood-burning hearth oven to the fullest, with a number of items being rotated through the hearth oven on a daily basis. In addition to the obvious wood-fired items, including pizza and chicken, Whole Foods lends wood scenting to vegetables, hummas, yam stuffed pork chops and calzones.
"We strive to use the hearth oven as a part of our standard kitchen equipment," Ryding said.
At the Wheaton Whole Foods unit, shoppers enter the produce department and are greeted by a coffee and juice bar. A smoothie menu offers nine combinations, with one at a featured price of $2.75. Tazo tea, tea, coffee, coffee beverages, vegetable juices and fruit juices are also available. Two flavors of granitas are also offered. Bar-style seating is available at this station.
The traffic pattern winds through the unit, passing the bakery, seafood, meat, dairy and specialty cheese perimeter departments. The food-service department, including the salad bar, is situated just before the cosmetics and health and beauty care products in the shopping pattern, while the cafe seating area is in an atrium-feeling area in front of the front end. A microwave oven and water cooler are available for customer use in the cafe.
Within the food-service department, the salad bar, self-service section and service case show foods containing natural ingredients.
As a general guideline, the service cases at Whole Foods are set with meat and seafood dishes at one end, with vegetarian selections (no meat ingredients) coming next and moving to vegan (no meat or dairy ingredients) offerings.
During one recent visit, the hot case offered in-store prepared rotisserie chicken, meat loaf, egg rolls, turkey chili and vegetable focaccia pizza. Also on-hand were knishes, pierogi, twice-baked potatoes, chicken and tuna salads, chicken sausage calzones, poached salmon with raspberry vinaigrette and stuffed peppers. The vegetarian and vegan selections included tofu rice cakes, toasted couscous, dolmas, mixed bean salad and cranberry kashi. Six separate items were being sampled atop the service case. Hors d'oeuvre-sized samples offered more than a taste.
The salad bar is a refrigerated unit offering more than 30 linear feet of 40 items priced at $4.29 per pound. Six hot soups are also offered.
The self-service case houses single-serve beverages and more than 40 linear feet of prepared foods. Store-branded soups, pizza, wraps, spreads, sushi and pierogies are prepackaged. Additionally, plated dinners with burritos, pasta, turkey, meat loaf and chicken breasts serving as entrees alongside mashed potatoes, vegetables or rice are ready to go.
At Wild Oats' Buffalo Grove location, customers also enter through the produce department, and then encounter a food court-style food-service area.
Dark overhead lighting allows the food to be "spot lit" to give it special emphasis. Centered around the food-court seating area are the operator's bakery, coffee and juice bar, hot and cold food, salad bar, and hot and cold service deli concepts.
The Wild Kitchen serves as the operation's chilled service deli section. Stuffed peppers, whole grain and bean salads, sweet soy salmon, turkey meat loaf and Chipotle barbecued chicken breasts are just a few of the selections offered.
Vegetarian and vegan selections are also grouped for easy identification. Traditional and vegetarian sandwiches and wraps are freshly made to order. Panini sandwiches are grilled to order on focaccia bread. A selection of three premade wraps is displayed on trays and a small selection of grab-and-go sandwiches was available during SN's visit. Complete meals are promoted with price point signage. Three salads are offered at $4.99; two sides and an entree are offered at $5.99.
The Tuscan Grille is a hot service area in the store, where a selection of freshly cooked pastas is combined with the customer's choice of sauce. Brick-oven fired pizza, sold whole or by the piece, is also made fresh to order in this area, as is rotisserie chicken, also available whole or by the half.
The salad and food bar is a show stopper. First, the operator offers ceramic plates and real silverware as an alternative to conventional to-go containers. This detail, along with food consumption, probably contributes to the reason for the dual pricing strategy of $4.99 to-go, $5.99 in-store all-you-can-eat.
The walk-around four-sided island structure contains individually priced ready-to-eat fruit and juice on ice and more than 40 items on the refrigerated side. Caesar salad with grilled chicken and Greek Salad were the two specialties available during SN's visit. Four soups, including mushroom barley and cream of broccoli, and sushi completed lunch.