ABINGDON, Va. -- K-VA-T Food Stores, based here, has been updating -- and upscaling -- its meat departments. Not only has K-VA-T gained, through acquisition, six service meat departments, but it has also made adjustments chainwide with the adoption of an Angus beef program, according to officials with the 86-unit chain.
Until now, the rural retailer has operated only self-serve meat departments. But the chain saw a new opportunity when it recently acquired seven units in eastern Tennessee from Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores. With the purchase, K-VA-T gained something that it had never had before -- service meat departments. Six of the seven units had them and, considering their success under the Winn-Dixie banner, K-VA-T decided it would be wise to keep them, learn from them, and bring them to future stores.
"We intend to keep the service meat department at all six of the seven acquired Winn-Dixies that have them," K-VA-T president and chief operating officer Steven Smith told SN in an earlier interview. "And we plan to expand the departments to other stores where we have the space available and a clientele with more disposable income." (See "K-VA-T's New Focus," SN, Aug. 23, 1999.)
Lou Taylor, the chain's director of meat operations, said the lone Winn-Dixie location without a service case did not have one because of its proximity to other stores that did. While there are no plans to create a service meat department, a service seafood department will be retained.
Meanwhile, he said, there are two new K-VA-T stores in development that will be equipped with service meat departments.
"We will be adding more service meat departments in stores that warrant [them]," he said. "But the two new stores will have the department from the beginning."
There are no exact numbers concerning how many K-VA-T stores will eventually add the service meat departments. Taylor said those decisions will be made on a store-by-store basis.
"We operate in a lot of rural areas that don't warrant such service," he said. "It just happened that these Winn-Dixie's had them already and they're a good addition to our operation."
The service departments are located in the rear of the stores, and are connected to the service seafood departments. Taylor said the areas range in size from 12 to 16 square feet. There are typically seven employees manning these two departments, working under the supervision of a seafood coordinator and designated service meatcutter, both of whom report to the meat manager. K-VA-T plans to maintain this working arrangement, according to Taylor.
"The setup just functions very well," he said.
The service meat departments offer a broad menu developed in conjunction with Everson Spice Co., Long Beach, Calif. Taylor said they have maintained items from the previous Winn-Dixie menu, but have expanded on it as well. He added that, at one time, Winn-Dixie had also used Everson, but had since gotten away from a uniform program, making recipes and ingredients inconsistent from store to store. K-VA-T wanted the consistency of one supplier and decided to go with Everson.
"Everson is a very reputable company," said Taylor. "They have an excellent program and they really make it easy for the stores to follow."
The updated menu includes everything from the usual steaks, roasts and ground meat to more than 10 marinated meats; seasoned, stuffed pork and chicken breast; marinated rib eye; chicken cordon bleu; and Italian beef and pork roast. All preparation of the meats is done on premise.
While some of the special items may be carried in the self-serve department, the marinated meats will remain exclusively in the service case, due to certain limitations presented by packaging, said Taylor.
"Most people who would come looking for marinated meats are also looking for a service department," he said. "They're looking for that something extra all around."
K-VA-T is seeking to further jumpstart its meat category with the adoption of an Angus beef program for all units. Taylor said this decision was made with the customers in mind.
"Angus beef has to meet very high specifications," said Taylor. "It comes from the cream of the crop of choice Angus cattle. It really is a better product, which is why we've gone ahead with the program."
According to the program's Web site, Certified Angus beef is impartially evaluated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grading Service, with close monitoring of each processing and distribution step to ensure that the product is consistent. Angus cattle must meet eight specifications before being certified.
The program's product specification's state the beef must possess a modest or higher degree of marbling, which is essential for flavor and juiciness -- only about 25% meet this high standard. The texture of the marbling must be medium or fine. Coarse marbling may have a negative effect on quality.
The cattle must be from the "A" maturity range, typically nine to 30 months of age, to assure superior color, texture, firmness and tenderness. It must also have a yield grade of 3.9 or leaner, ensuring a product without excessive fat cover.
There should be moderately thick or thicker muscling characteristics and no hump on the neck exceeding 2 inches in height. And, finally, there may be no evidence of internal hemorrhages and no dark cutting characteristics.
"This will provide our customers with consistency and flavor and tenderness," Taylor said. "That's very important to us."
The program was in effect in all service cases in mid-September and should be in every store, in the self-serve cases, by the end of November, according to Taylor.
K-VA-T has been running newspaper ads regarding the service cases, but Taylor said the chain is keeping it relatively low key until the full program is rolled out to all stores. At that time, K-VA-T plans to expand the advertising of the new program to television.
The Angus beef is replacing beef with a regular "choice" grading, which was carried by all stores. Taylor said while it's too soon to give figures, customers seem to be fond of the change.
"We have had quite a few positive comments [from customers]," he said. "And the product seems to be moving quite well."