EAST SETAUKET, N.Y. -- King Kullen is going a bit "wild" with a new store concept that pushes all the same marketing buttons as the natural foods supermarket chains.
by Fresh Fields, Rockville, Md., and Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, the leaders in the natural foods supermarket business.
True to the form, Wild by Nature places overwhelming emphasis on high-quality fresh foods, with a tendency toward the gourmet and unusual and a high level of service.
Wild by Nature also opts whenever possible for verifiably organic, additive-free and drug-free products, sourced from suppliers that adhere to practices like treating animals humanely and treading lightly on the environment.
Not much is actually "wild" about the format itself; a visit to Stew Leonard's on any day will likely be a wilder experience. On the contrary, this store is designed to offer a shopping experience that is comforting, even tranquil -- what its developers hope is an atmosphere conducive to experimentation rather than shopping by rote, and to learning rather than bargain-hunting.
Wild by Nature represents years of careful planning by King Kullen. The chain formed a separate division, also called Wild by Nature, to handle the project.
It installed Tom Reilly, a King Kullen vice president of operations, as president of the new entity, and assembled a team of mostly nonsupermarket talents to hone the concept, run the initial store and roll out additional units. The next one reportedly is planned for the Long Island community of Huntington later this year. Sources involved in the project said the company will be operating as many as five or six units over the next several years, in former King Kullen sites in Long Island, as well as Connecticut and New York.
Reilly insists that King Kullen has essentially kept its hands off the proceedings ever since it brought in the "experts," and has only provided services as needed.
"This is not a King Kullen store," he told SN, a declaration he repeated more than once in the course of a store visit. "King Kullen is not involved in the buying, distribution, merchandising, marketing or how the store is run. Wild by Nature is completely independent, and we want it that way."
While the store was built on the former site of a conventional King Kullen, Reilly was even careful to dissociate the word "supermarket" from his new store, as such an association would be stigmatic.
It may be just as well, because King Kullen has rendered up a carefully crafted entry to the field. It is a hybrid format that blends a health food store's commitment to good-for-you products and knowledgeable salesmanship with a supermarket's devotion to convenience, consistency and operational efficiency.
As Reilly put it, "This is designed to be a marketplace for food, with, we hope, something like the feel of a European open-air market. We want to offer consumers some enjoyment and relaxation while they shop."
Bruce Perlstein, a key member of the development team, embellished that image. "The goal here is not to feel at all like you are in a supermarket," he said. "Shopping here is supposed to be fun, a bit of an adventure, an opportunity to make some discoveries about natural food and its relationship to your well-being."
"The type of customer we expect to attract here is not necessarily the typical King Kullen customer," Reilly added.
Reilly said produce is the flagship department and the best performer, accounting for at least a quarter of total store distribution. The other perishables take up another 30% or more of sales.
Produce greets customers as they enter, unfolding just beyond a small floral display.
At the peak of the season, well more than half the department's assortment will sport the green color code that signifies it is certified organic. "It can go up to as many as 200 items at the right time of the year," said Perlstein. On the day of SN's visit last month, the department carried 106 organic items, and boasted as much in a tally on a large overhead sign. The sign also defined the terms "organic," "transitional" and "conventional," and explained in detail Wild by Nature's policy for sourcing and marketing a mix of fruits and vegetables grown using those three methods.
"We try to support organic farming whenever we can. We are putting an emphasis on transitional because it helps support the farmers we are encouraging to go fully organic," Perlstein said. "We want to help carry them through that three-year period before their products can be certified as organic."
In practical terms, Wild by Nature will choose the organic version of a given item when it strikes the right balance of quality, availability and price.
The philosophy leads to a strong presence of organic within a department offering a lot of variety. Of the 14 apple items in the store on a mid-December visit, eight were certified organic, for example. Five of the store's six onion varieties were organic; and in a tiny grape display, organic Emperor grapes, at $1.99 a pound, were a less-expensive alternative to conventional red seedless at $2.99. Every lettuce item in the store was organic, save for the head lettuce.
The produce is sourced primarily through a core of brokers plugged into the organics industry, Perlstein said. The buyer and merchandiser, meanwhile, are both based right in the store, as are their counterparts for all the other departments, along with Wild by Nature's development team.
The roughly 2,000-square-foot department is laid out in a fairly conventional manner, with multitiered refrigerated cases along wall and dry tables and bins planted on the floor. A smallish, 20-item salad bar caps it off.
Product adjacencies are typical, but a closer look at the mix reveals a penchant for some unusual choices such as frisee, imported figs and organic dates.
"See this? This is frisee," said Reilly, scooping up a bunch for emphasis. "It is not your typical supermarket item, but it is an example of what we want to offer regularly here -- different, high-quality produce that customers won't find easily elsewhere and would like to try, given the opportunity. We are looking to build their confidence in such alternatives."
"Someone told me yesterday that they'd spent three hours in the store," Perlstein added, "exploring the departments, finding new things, sitting and eating at the cafe. It was a different experience than going to the supermarket for that customer."
Like produce, the adjacent bulk foods section is another star performer, Reilly said. It features 120 items. "This is unusually large, even for a health food store," Perlstein noted.
At this point in the shopping pattern, customers will have caught sight of what is arguably the most visually arresting feature in the store: a circular cafe with counter-style seating for 25.
The cafe seems to serve as a nucleus for the store, with the other fresh departments and grocery aisles arrayed about it. The island, constructed of marble, wood and tile, crammed with polished steel equipment and ringed with wrought-iron stools, looks like a transplant from a trendy coffee bar.
"This is a real focal point for what we are trying to do in the store," Perlstein said. "We have tried, with this department especially, to put aside the connotations of a health food store that a lot of people have -- that the food is uninteresting and not flavorful. What this cafe has is very flavorful, fresh, fun foods that are also health-oriented."
The menu is eclectic, ranging from $2.99 shots of wheat grass juice to $7.49 shrimp stir-fry. It includes soups, entrees, desserts and beverages, all made from scratch and prepared to order.
"We've got an authentic wok cookery; fresh juice being squeezed to order; a pasta cooker and equipment for making fresh sauces; frozen yogurt and nondairy desserts; coffee, espresso, cappuccino, herbal espresso; and lots of herbal teas, including tazo teas." Everything speaks of health; even the sugar in packets at the counter is organic and unrefined.
With six to eight employees, the cafe is well staffed, making for a cramped work space at peak times. Perlstein said the counter fills up solidly during
lunch hours, and stays very busy on the weekends as well.
In a line along the back wall flanking the cafe are the service bakery, deli, cheese and meat departments. Bakery is a showcase for the store's devotion to in-house production and all-natural ingredients.
A large sign overhead offered more detail. "Made with primarily organic flour, grains and unrefined sweeteners and expeller-pressed oils," it read. "We never use bleached or bromated flour, solvent-extracted oils, hydrogenated fats or chemical additives."
The biggest category is bread, with more than 20 varieties merchandised primarily from a service rack placed high behind the counter; an adjacent self-service three-tiered display holds bagged loaves. The focus is on European-style crusty breads. Besides bread, the bakery merchandises muffins, pies, scones, cakes, cupcakes and other goods in European-style service cases. The assortment mixes some full-fat items with specialty items for dieters or people with food allergies. "Some items are full-fat versions, for the sake of taste, but still with no additives or chemicals. But where taste permits, we cater to people with allergies, to give them a chance to enjoy some indulgent foods."
The prepared food case adheres to the store's theme of interesting natural foods. A colorful selection of 20 salads includes creations such as arame daikon salad, wheatberry salad, curried cous cous and eggless egg salad.
"The big sellers in prepared foods include salmon, grilled Mediterranean vegetables and rotisserie chicken," Perlstein noted.
The chicken is the main item in the store's small hot case, supported by alternatives such as Singapore wings and sides that include organic roasted potatoes.
"This is free-range chicken, raised with no antibiotics, the same as the chicken sold in the butcher shop."
Self-service merchandising is practically nonexistent in this part of the store, a situation that Perlstein said may change after the company gains more knowledge of its customers' preferences and the menu evolves.
The cheese department is a study in artful merchandising, a busy but elegant presentation of 150 varieties, almost every one lovingly described on small signs.
"These are all cut here in the store. Many of these cheeses come from small farms that our cheese expert seeks out," Perlstein said. Just above the cheeses is a battery of tubs containing fresh olives, handmixed with herbs, spices and oil in the department. The display is topped off with fresh pastas.
The meat department, next in line, integrates service and self-service, but the emphasis is on the service case, with about 50 items merchandised in 16 feet. Coleman products anchor the department, with free-range, all-natural poultry another option.
Much of the store's fresh fish, merchandised in a 12-foot case, is sourced locally. "We support the local fishermen, and that helps us get hold of superior quality," Perlstein said. The 20-item selection includes no chlorinated products, and the scallops have not been injected with water.
Organic and natural items also mark the dairy department. While Wild by Nature stocks organic milk, it also sells conventional milk, but from farms that do not treat cows with bovine growth hormones.
"And that goes for all our dairy products." Perlstein pointed to a clerk clearing away a section of cheese from a particular manufacturer. "We found out that that manufacturer uses some BGH milk, so we are pulling it all," he explained. Placing subsequent Wild by Nature units in markets where people are predisposed to health and environmental consciousness is also a key to the format's future, Reilly acknowledged.
With Fresh Fields poised to move onto Long Island as soon as this month, and Whole Foods also eyeing the New York metropolitan region, King Kullen has only a slight head start in a natural foods fight that is bound to get wild.