ELMHURST, Ill. -- Convenience-store chain White Hen Pantry here has made a high level of service the hallmark of its new meals-format store.
The new concept breaks the C-store mold of self-service, while still following a philosophy of making the store visit convenient, easy and fast. Its mainstay is a staff trained for interaction, and some observers are considering the operation an intriguing exercise in providing service in a small space.
The 4,000-square-foot store located in a strip mall in Rolling Meadows, Ill., a Chicago suburb, resembles a C-store only in size. Called Franny's Food Express, it features hot food and merchandising flexibility. The physical layout can be adjusted to change traffic patterns and speed up lines (as reported in SN's Feb. 2, 1998 issue). It features well-defined ready-to-eat food stations as well as upscale dry grocery items.
But that's not all; while food-service in typical C-stores is actually defined by self-service, here the retailer is banking on human interaction to help make sure first-time customers get what they came for and are happy about it.
"We know that customer service is a key to bringing people back," said Thomas Romanello, director of new concept development for White Hen Pantry.
He said that at Franny's, educating and guiding customers are major ingredients in a formula that's also aimed at offering them ultimate convenience.
Associates are assigned to the selling floor both to tell customers about specific products and to show them what the store has to offer overall; the hot-food stations are visible from the front of the store, but other products such as a line of refrigerated, prepacked meal components are not immediately visible.
The company's plan is to build customers' trust with a large variety of "very top-quality" hot foods and, at the same time, gently educate them about the fresh, chilled "Franny's for Later" line, which is available in single-serving sizes and family sizes.
The chilled products occupy four shelves in a 6-foot case at one end of the hot-food line-up. Romanello said sales of the chilled line are expected to grow slowly but steadily and, as they do, more variety will be added to the line.
"What's tough is educating the consumer about what we are, that it's not just hot food," Romanello said. He added that associates are well-trained to talk to customers about products.
For example, they point out to customers that Franny's for Later products are freshly made, and have a four-day shelf life, and they also explain that they can be frozen if not used within the four days.
Food-service experts who have seen the store say the service equation adds up. One consultant said she was impressed by Franny's all-out effort to educate customers and to steer them to what they might want to buy -- a strategy that she suggested could be applied to supermarket home-meal replacement programs, some of which are confusing to customers.
"A key thing for supermarkets to learn is how to explain to the customer the difference between food to eat right now and food to take out and eat later," said Mickey McKee, chef and senior consultant at Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio, consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
McKee said that at Franny's, it's immediately apparent how a customer is supposed to proceed. "Right away, when you go into the store, you see a rack with trays and baskets, which explains the hybrid nature of the place pretty quickly. It's clear how to use them and where to go. The rack is in the middle of the store.
"What I liked most about Franny's is it's easy for you to know how to get what you want," McKee added. She said a large menu board and graphics designating each hot-food station make it clear. So does the team of associates on the selling floor.
"The company must have spent a fair amount of time training them to talk to customers," she said.
She described Franny's overall as an Eatzi's-like hybrid with not as much "chef flair" but with more emphasis on helping the customer. Other industry observers, indeed, have said that if there is one negative about Eatzi's it's that the first-time customer is initially confused about how the concept works.
"Franny's is much less of an atmospheric experience than Eatzi's, but there are great food choices and you get in and out efficiently. What I like about the configuration is it's easy to get your food and then all the stuff you need with it, like napkins and forks. It moves people around well," McKee added.
"Even at checkout, the folks were very accommodating. They packed things right for takeout and they take credit cards," she said.
Another consultant, Stephan Kouzomis, president of Entrepreneurial Consulting, Louisville, Ky., said the level of service on the selling floor at Franny's is notable.
"They're meeting a service level to satisfy the consumer. That's something supermarkets need to learn; their big concern is labor, but if they're going to be in the prepared-foods business, they're going to have to have as many people as needed to make the customer happy," Kouzomis said.
"I didn't see any barriers to convenience at Franny's. Customers don't have to jump through any hoops," he added.
Indeed, Romanello told SN, offering customers convenience has many facets. It's not just getting them in and out of the store fast. It includes anticipating their needs and bending to meet those needs.
For instance, when there's not enough seating to accommodate a sudden onslaught of customers, Franny's adds it.
Whether people will eat in or take the food back to their workplaces is hard to predict, Romanello said. But because everything is so movable inside the store, additional seating can be added at a moment's notice.
"We make room for it by moving some of the shelving out of the way," he said. One of the notable features at Franny's is that most fixtures are mounted on casters for easy mobility. Secondary serving stations, too, are sometimes rolled out onto the floor.
As the strategists at Franny's get to know customer preferences, they cater to them. The hot and refrigerated holding cases at the service counters can be fairly easily changed around, Romanello said.
"We moved the soups up the line a little and made more room for soup and less for salad, for instance," he said.
That move resulted from the revelation that soup's popularity transcends the seasons, at least at Franny's.
"That was another surprise. In August, we were selling more than 145 servings of soup a day. So we decided to offer six varieties all the time so customers don't have to choose between just two," he said.
"We can also put a different twist on items because we use combination ovens," Romanello said, pointing out that the equipment has multiple modes, such as steaming, baking and broiling.
While customer convenience is at the top of the priority list at Franny's, there's no visual connection between this format and White Hen Pantry's other formats, or for that matter, any C-store lineage.
The White Hen Pantry label is nowhere to be seen because the company wants Franny's Food Express to have a completely separate identity. One reason for that is HMR customers and C-store customers "are two separate markets," Romanello said.
"We didn't want to confuse people by having them drive up and think they can run in for cigarettes; we don't have any at Franny's," he explained. Its beer selection resembles a specialty-food shop rather than a C-store, with more microbrews in evidence.
While White Hen Pantry has a reputation for quality and cleanliness, Romanello stressed, consumers don't associate C-stores in general with the restaurant-quality food that is the feature at Franny's.