PONTIAC, Mich. -- Old stores can have fresh starts, especially when they are remade by an ambitious independent from a store stuck in the 1960s into a store poised to do business in the new millennium.
That's what one independent, VG's Food Center here, is finding out as its recently, and drastically, renovated supermarket keeps building business.
The store, originally constructed in the early 1960s, operated as an Atlas Food Land until VG's acquired it -- and another Atlas store, in Waterford, Mich. -- in the fall of 1995.
It was built following the "buy and hold" philosophy of the day, according to officials from VG's who spoke to SN.
The design had afforded a great deal of space in the back, to store the bulk quantities of groceries that it had to keep in stock, they said. But that made it woefully obsolete in the wake of the needs of today's customers, they said.
To bring the outdated design up to today's expectations, VG's chose not to expand the 38,000-square-foot unit but instead reconfigured the store's space to place more emphasis on fresh foods.
In essence, VG's took 6,000 square feet from the back of the store and put it up front. The difference was like night and day.
"You really have to see the store to appreciate the difference," Steve Begley, store manager, told SN. "It was straight out of the 1960s or early 1970s, and now it looks great. And the customers love the concept."
Four departments experienced profound improvements: the produce section, deli area, bakery and seafood/service meat counter.
The produce section, which was located in the rear, left-hand side of the store, was moved to the much more prominent front, right-hand side.
Along with the move, it doubled in size. It now carries 350 varieties of produce, as opposed to the 200 that it previously carried. Its biggest area of product expansion is ethnic foods.
The deli started out as a very small, traditional deli offering premade salads, various meats and cheeses. A small cheese island featured some dips and spreads and a limited assortment of domestic cheeses.
Today, however, the deli area is made up of 32 feet of chilled deli products, 8 feet of gourmet sandwiches, 12 feet of self-serve cold items, a 4-foot service hot case, all in one run. A three-tier, 16-foot cheese island showcases a variety of cheeses from around the globe.
In the rotisserie island, besides a rotisserie oven and a slow-cook and hold oven, there is a 4-foot service hot case. This island provides customers a quick, one-stop station to select a precooked bird or ribs and fresh side dishes to go.
This concept was such an instant hit that shortly after its inception, a second, larger rotisserie oven was added in the back of the department to keep up with demand. According to Begley, the store sells about 100 chickens a day, nearly always a sell-out. This can be attributed to many factors, he said, not the least of which are the exhibition cooking rotisserie in the store and the top-quality, hand-fed Amish chickens that the store cooks.
Customers vote with their dollars. This deli's sales are up 38% over one year ago, according to Nick Lenzi, deli product director at VG's.
Another big addition to the store was the bakery. Previously, only a few feet of shelving were devoted to freshly baked goods. Nothing was baked on premises; it was all trucked over from the Waterford store, 15 or so minutes away. Selections included basic white and rye breads, some dinner rolls and a very limited dessert selection.
Today, the store features a full-service bakery with 10 feet of self-serve doughnut shelves; 5 feet of self-serve bagel shelves; 4 feet of pies; 4 feet of crusty breads; and a large amount of wooden slant shelving and freestanding wooden display pieces.
The service seafood/meat department is new. There previously had been no seafood department, or service meat counter, to provide specialized service. The additions provided these touches, along with a frozen-meat section.
The seafood/meat counter is in the same place the self-service meat department used to occupy, plus some new space. Currently, the store has 60 feet of fresh meat; 24 feet of frozen meat; 36 feet of lunch meat; and an 8-foot dual-temperature case, which features an ever-changing selection of specialty items.
With labor costs always a consideration, VG's designed this department to be adequately staffed by two people during peak hours, and one person during off-peak hours. The cases are in one continuous run, easing employee mobility and visibility.
In its quest to update the store, the independent received considerable assistance from Spartan Foods, Grand Rapids, Mich., its grocery wholesaler.
"When we sat down with a blank sheet of paper, we knew what we wanted and what it wanted it to look like," explained Lenzi. "Spartan helped by telling us which equipment would be best suited to those environments and provided architectural services."
Work began in April 1997, and the store remained open and fully operational throughout the renovation process.
The bulk of the renovations were completed by the end of September; however, not all the details were worked out until early this year.
The work was carefully orchestrated into phases, allowing different sections to move about the store while work was being completed.
"Every move hinged on something else," Begley noted. "We moved every department and every grocery shelf in the store. The dairy section moved three times over the course of the project." To assist confused customers in their search for their favorite items, VG's stationed a greeter at the front door and other employees in the aisles.
VG's second unit that was previously an Atlas Food Land is in Waterford, Mich. Now, that unit is undergoing a major renovation, slated for completion in June.
The redesigners again took space from the store's back-end and brought it up front. However, this time the company also added 10,000 square feet onto one side of the building. This will bring its footprint to 52,000 square feet, one of VG's larger stores.
Since the Waterford store will be larger, it will contain a more in-depth selection of fresh items, as well as other perimeter services. All new and included in the renovation is a pharmacy, a full-service bank, a full-service floral department, a sushi bar, a coffee shop, an organic produce center and a Caesar salad station, VG's officials said.