CHICAGO -- Retailers from across the country and around the world will be gathering here in two weeks for this year's Food Marketing Institute Convention, to explore, among many other things, their options for how to chase the fresh-meals business.
But while the show at McCormick Place will doubtless offer loads of ideas, another show can be caught in progress in the streets of Chicago and its environs, one in which the competition for fresh meals has supermarkets doing everything from star turns to pratfalls in pursuit of consumer meals dollars through their in-store food service and takeout fresh meal solutions programs.
Chicago-area retailers could well serve as a national showcase of different approaches to prepared foods. In this marketplace, dominated by two chain giants -- Jewel Osco with 158 units and an estimated 35.5% market share; and Dominick's Finer Foods with 109 units and 25.7% market share -- prepared foods as a category is being used as a point of differentiation between many competitors, with varying degrees of success.
According to local experts, while dollars spent in the market's restaurants are increasing, more meals continue to be eaten at home as busy Chicagoans discover they are actually too busy to eat on the premises.
Supermarket food-service executives, meanwhile, are all too happy to take to the stage and provide meal solutions aimed to fill the needs of these customers.
Local analysts agree that over the past five years, supermarkets have been stepping up their emphasis on prepared foods, as consumer shopping patterns have shifted. Smaller families and more dual-income households with more active lifestyles are at the root of these shifts.
For Chicago supermarkets, this has meant increased head-to-head competition in the deli and its spinoffs. For the most part, the competitors are centering their efforts on promoting variety, full selection and convenience, rather than price.
Even among the few major players, the tacks taken to meet these needs are quite different, as each operator strives to accommodate the time-crunched consumer.
Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., was the first to burst out of the pack of traditional operators running a traditional operation, with an aggressive campaign backed with aggressive building schedules, sparked by freshness marketing and a deepened in-store commitment to perishables.
The Dominick's Fresh Store format resulted, and its fresh-meal options are a big part of the makeover. This is not to say that Dominick's had sprung this freshness notion on the consuming public all at once; rather, the chain has demonstrated that slow and steady is winning the race.
Area analysts say that the chain has paid its dues. With the entry into the Chicago marketplace several years ago of quick-service meal solution providers, such as Boston Market, Dominick's went to meet the challenge by offering self-service, chilled traditional selections including pot pies, macaroni and cheese and lasagna.
That has steadily evolved to today's Chef's Collection, offered in more than 50 units, which serves as a central focus of the deli department.
The excellent presentation of service and self-service chilled items represents a selection as wide and varied as Chicagoans themselves.
Favorites include Greek Lasagna, Chicken Breast Vesuvio and Pierogis. Locals credit the chain's unusual menu, without going way-out, as an effective tool for serving the convenience-driven customer who seeks decent quality in heat-and-eat fare.
The chain rotates the menu monthly, and offers some nice price-point specials to spur trial. Additionally, health and nutritional concerns are addressed by nutritional and ingredient information and by identifying healthful menu items, prepared from recipes meeting the dietary requirements of the American Heart Association of Metropolitan Chicago, with a special "heart" logo. Telephone assistance from the chain's registered dietitian is also offered.
Dominick's Corner Cafe, which is a hot service and self-service concept offered in about 40 units, serves as the chain's entry into the restaurant arena.
Most meals are finished off fresh to order, in the concept's segmented area. Seating areas are adjacent to the cafe kitchen. The chain's commissary produces most items within the food-service and deli areas, keeping the staff's focus on the department and its customers rather than food production.
Produce and bakery departments round out the Fresh Store section of Dominick's still expanding format.
Meanwhile, marketplace leader Jewel Osco has not sat idly by.
Taking a different tack from rival Dominick's, Jewel has concentrated its operations on takeout food, rather than trying to reflect a restaurant environment.
The chain has tremendously expanded the space devoted to its chilled takeout foods, concentrating on American favorites such as sandwiches and green salad selections in the self-service area. Sources say, though, that this American Store subsidiary will soon offer a co-packed heat-and-eat entree program that is offered by the parent company, dubbed "Without Reservations."
Jewel Osco and Dominick's, in their own ways, both have crafted a strong sense of differentiation. As each chain's personality has developed, their customers have followed.
Local sources say that the percentage of cross shoppers in the area is shrinking, as a direct result of convenience factors such as driving patterns and a familiarity with store layouts.
Market merchandising trends have shifted, too, along with consumer shopping patterns. Gone are the days of the steak sale being used to spur business. Both leading chains have frequent-shopper cards, and still promote hot deals, including buy-one, get-one-free promotions; but it is the freshness and quality image that is most aggressively promoted through the chains' circulars and radio spots.
And despite the dominance of the two leaders, there is still plenty of room in the marketplace for other operators.
Dominick's, for example, has recently shifted the focus of its big-box format Omni units, renaming them Dominick's stores. The abandonment of the price-conscious Omni format may well leave the door open for Cub Foods, Stillwater, Minn., a player in the area, and newcomer Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.
Another hotly contested market segment is health foods. Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, in the Chicago area with five units, has been recently challenged by Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.
Wild Oats has moved into the Chicago area via a northern suburb, promoting it with an outdoor sign board positioned less than a mile from one of Whole Foods' stores.
Plans are to open another Wild Oats unit in the western suburbs this spring. Other marketplace players of note include the urban Treasure Island with its European flair; and traditional operators Eagle Country Market and Butera.
CLOSE-UP: DOMINICK'S FINER FOODS
Dominick's Finer Foods' advertising tag-line is, "For People Who Know Their Food!"
In its marketing materials, the operator says it concentrates on being a "complete food store, offering the convenience of one-stop shopping with the widest possible selection of top-quality merchandise at low, money-saving prices, along with many exciting departments and services."
That is a tall order to fill, so the chain has been expanding its operations to include a new Dominick's Fresh Store format, and its meals merchandising benefits from the upgrade.
This format features a store-within-a-store with fresh as the focus. Included are the produce, bakery and deli departments, presented along with a restaurant operation in one marche-style area.
This marche section features a dropped ceiling, directed lighting and earthy tones. Chalk-board signing identifies items and supplies prices.
Service is key in the Fresh Store, with employees busy behind the service counters and working the displays. Sampling is encouraged through platters offering selected items, or by employees offering a "taste so you can see for yourself how good it is."
In about 40 Fresh units, Dominick's Corner Cafe offers hot foods in service and self-service guises. The units SN visited have the cafe positioned first in the traffic pattern, just inside the revolving doors.
Comfortable, adjacent seating areas gave customers the choice of either eating at the store or taking their food out. Additionally, all items could be paid for at the cafe register. The cafe features a modular service counter, arranged in stations. Customers are given slips at each station for convenience, to pay for the entire order at the dedicated register.
Chef's Collection items are offered in the deli line. These chilled entrees, appetizers, side dishes and desserts are set apart with unique bowls and service-case decoration. Offered as both service and grab-and-go, monthly menu suggestions feature new items, seasonal favorites and special dietary offerings.
Salad bars were situated in the middle of the produce department. A refrigerated 50-item bar held a variety of fruits, vegetables, greens, pickles, peppers and pastas, each well-labeled.
A clever reach-in refrigerated area was located below the bar, allowing for easy access to single-serve beverages and juices. Two hot soups were also kept on the salad bar.
While visiting the Carol Stream Fresh Store unit on an early Saturday afternoon, SN noted the cafe was well staffed with four people.
Through the revolving doors into the Fresh Store, shoppers were greeted by the entrance to the cafe, with several signs reminding them of the chain's $1.29 Breakfast Special of a pastry, a piece of fruit and a beverage, which is available seven days a week; and a reminder to visit the Corner Cafe for a delicious meal from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
In the traffic pattern between the cafe and the unit's produce area, a sign asked, "What's For Dinner? Rib-it. Try our delicious BBQ ribs at the Corner Cafe."
Within the cafe, the merchandising lineup included: * Six feet of salads tossed fresh to order, $2.99 for lunch and $4.99 for dinner.
A cash register for convenient paying.
Six feet of hot pizza, offered whole and by the slice; priced at $1.79 per slice of cheese, $1.99 of sausage.
Six feet of panini sandwiches and a panini press.
Four feet of wraps and signature sandwiches, fruit salad and pasta salad.
Four feet of hot rotisserie chicken in traditional, Italian, lemon pepper and herb varieties.
Two feet of hot turkey, ready to be sliced and served in a meal for $5.99, which included 6 ounces of meat and two sides.
Six feet of sides, such as mashed potatoes, baked mosticolli and roasted potatoes.
Six feet of service coffee bar.
A self-service beverage station for carbonated beverages and iced tea.
Each station was situated on a modular, pleasingly earth-toned unit. The adjacent seating area included six tables of four seats each and booth seating for another 10 tables.
At the Dominick's Fresh Store in Northfield, the food-service area featured a hibachi grill for an early Saturday supper. There again, the cafe was situated first in the shopping pattern.
A colorful chalkboard sign welcomed shoppers to Dominick's Corner Cafe/Restaurant and listed the weekly specials, ranging from Monday's Turkey Dinner with stuffing and roasted vegetables for $5.99, to Thursday's Angus Strip Loin Dinner with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables for $7.99.
At the hibachi station, shoppers selected their own vegetables from a salad bar-type of arrangement, putting the vegetables in a bowl and handing them to the chef, and adding their instructions on whether they preferred chicken, beef or the vegetables only for $5.99; or shrimp at $6.99.
The orders were stir-fried with the sauce of each customer's choice. Each shopper was given receipt slips for each order, then waited a short time for the preparation.
Just around the central island-style cafe kitchen from the hibachi was a saute station, offering pasta creations including Chicken Marsala, for $5.99, and Salmon Provincial, for $6.99. Shoppers could combine a receipt slip from that station with the hibachi receipts for easy payment following the meal, at the dedicated register within the cafe area.
Over in the service deli case at the Carol Stream store was the Chef's Collection area, approximately 30 feet of merchandising in line with the deli.
A dedicated staff member was filling orders and keeping the two sample trays freshened. Made fresh daily, signature sandwiches sat ready for slicing to customer's size requirements. Within the service deli case, prepared foods were grouped in areas such as hors d'oeuvres -- including mini corn dogs, quesadilla rolls or beer-battered mozzarella sticks -- enchiladas and main-course salads.
Another Fresh Store unit visited on a late Saturday afternoon in Buffalo Grove did not have a cafe. However, the unit spotlighted the Chef's Collection prepared foods, grouping them together first in the shopping pattern of the meals department, which in turn was also first in the shopping pattern of the store.
Again, the department's unique bowls and platters showcased the food, and the service-case decor spotlighted the Chef's Collection area. And again, service was key. As consumers eyed the case, an associate asked if there was "something special you were looking for."
When one customer explained that an out-of-town relative, who was a vegetarian, was coming for a visit, the associate was quick to point out several options, including the precise ingredients. She also inquired about the type of vegetarian diet the guest observed, so that if eggs or fish were ingredients to be avoided, she could make other recommendations.
All the Dominick's Fresh Store units SN visited also offered a wide variety of slicing meats and cheeses and traditional salad offerings. Still, with all that prepared food, the potato salad seemed to lose some of its luster.
CLOSE UP: JEWEL FOOD STORES
Jewel approaches prepared foods from a different place than its main competition. The concentration at Jewel is on the basics, and its objective is to do the basics well.
While all the Jewel units visited by SN had a service deli, the depth of prepared-food presentation varied from store to store, apparently depending on the neighborhood.
One unit in the western suburb of Carol Stream on Geneva Road typified the chain's ability to offer basic prepared food in abundance, which created excitement within the department.
The deli department at that unit was positioned adjacent to the produce department, which claimed first place in the shopping pattern at one of the two entrances.
Within the deli-department shopping pattern, a huge grab-and-go merchandiser was positioned first. This 12-foot refrigerated case included a well plus six decks, and displayed a cornucopia of chilled prepared foods ranging from sandwiches to chicken to green salads to pot pies to soups.
Dinners such as meat loaf, turkey breast and rotisserie chicken were each presented on a segmented plate with mashed potatoes and a vegetable. Refrigerated pastas and sauces, commodity salads, salsa, dips and spreads, prepacked olives, garlic bread and flat bread rounded out the case.
Further down the deli department, SN encountered four hot soups; hot rotisserie chicken in three flavors, whole birds and pieces; and a dedicated cash register. Across the aisle, a hot case contained whole rotisserie chickens in addition to rotisserie pork roast and rotisserie turkey breast, priced at $8.99.
Within the service case, side dishes, including twice-baked potatoes and pasta salads, were offered. The four people working the department had apparently chosen to keep four platters in the case empty on a Saturday afternoon, which interrupted the perception of flowing product evident elsewhere.
Further down the line, where chicken pasta and mosticolli with meat sauce were displayed, yet another platter sat empty and clean.
The service staff, meanwhile, rigidly kept calling out numbers to fill orders, whether the customers already present at the counter were being served or not. They never inquired if a lingering customer had a question, for example, nor did they engage the shoppers in conversation to see if they needed assistance.
Judging from store visits, the traditional slicing meats and cheese business is where Jewel Osco is still placing a strong emphasis. A huge sign was hung over the department, stating, "Freshly Sliced Everytime." The letters were spelled out in the form of sliced meats and cheeses.
A helpful counter card also contained a chart titled, "How Much Do I Need For . . ." with per-person serving recommendations ranging in increments from 10 to 100 people.
CLOSE UP: CUB FOODS
Cub Foods also presented a prepared-food concept hinging on the basics. Focusing primarily on premade, prepackaged refrigerated sandwiches and salads, its Chicago-area units are aiming at the convenience market with a unique hot case located at the front end.
At one Cub unit SN visited, four employees were dedicated to the department on an early Sunday afternoon. A 4-foot walk-around unit displayed whole Perdue rotisserie chickens and had bread merchandised on shelves built into the unit on two sides. The birds were priced at $4.49 for the original flavor, with Italian and lemon flavors netting $4.99. Parts were priced at $5.98 and barbecue ribs were offered at $5.49.
The Cub unit also promoted a rotisserie chicken value meal within the deli department. Customers would select a specially tagged deli bag with rolls already inside, and give it to the service counter personnel to complete with chicken and salad. The meal featured a whole rotisserie chicken with four dinner rolls and a 16-ounce side salad, either potato salad, macaroni salad or cole slaw, for $5.98.
Within the service case, a corner display contained chicken wings, egg rolls, tamales and corn dogs that followed more than 20 feet of slicing meats and cheeses. Center-of-the-plate salads, such as cashew chicken at $4.99 per pound and tuna macaroni at $4.39 per pound, preceded another corner display of desserts.
An 8-foot section of traditional salads was anything but commodity in presentation. Four potato salads, two cole slaws and three bean salad varieties were among the offerings. A 6-foot service hot case kept fried chicken, ribs, macaroni and cheese, Italian sausages and potato wedges. A 4-foot hot case displayed rotisserie chicken.
Another hot case, atop the refrigerated self-service sandwich and salad case, displayed pizza at $1 to $1.35 per slice.
All the Cub Foods stores visited by SN used chalkboard signs and hung a large promotional sign above the service case to promote complete holiday dinners, such as turkey for $29.99 and spiral ham for $37.99.