SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- Harps Food Stores here is cooking up impressive sales with a new branded deli concept -- Martha's Kitchen -- that emphasizes from-scratch cooking of fresh meals.
"This is a totally new image we've created," said Dan Kallesen, deli-bakery director at the 38-unit chain. "We want to be known for top-quality homestyle meals that are convenient for the customer to buy."
Kallesen added that in-store, from-scratch preparation has been increased in the department by about 60%, making the mix of prepared foods offered now more than 80% Harps-made.
The name Martha's Kitchen is, in effect, the extension of a successful store brand. It plays off a signature line in the in-store bakery that had been named after the late Martha Harp, wife of the chain's retired president, Don Harp.
Beyond leveraging a store brand, the Martha's Kitchen concept represents a fresh philosophy for Harps that involves creating new partnerships with manufacturers and wholesalers, Kallesen said, and the department will serve as a test bed for increased cooperative merchandising between departments.
Officials at the chain told SN that since its debut at considerable expense three months ago, Martha's Kitchen has proved its worth with double-digit sales increases. They said, in fact, that year-to-date sales figures in the department are currently running 30% to 40% over last year.
The concept, which entails a full remodel of the deli, was introduced at the chain's 65,000-square-foot prototype store here. The second Martha's Kitchen will be unveiled at the grand opening of a remodeled unit in Rogers, Ark., during the first week in December.
Under the Martha's Kitchen banner, a trendy panini grill, a service Bagel Station, and a gourmet coffee bar have been added to Harps' existing deli programs.
A service case, loaded with homestyle items like meat loaf, roast pork and twice-baked potatoes, features a larger proportion of product made from scratch in-store than before the makeover. And an expanded gourmet salad program offers additional variety.
The deli line-up begins right inside the entrance as in other Harps stores; but a major change involved taking the seafood department out of that aisle and putting it in the back of the store. That created enough extra space for deli product variety to be boosted by about 50%, Kallesen said.
The new concept represents a substantial investment that includes the addition of new equipment, display fixtures, and smallwares, he said. It will be rolled out to most of the chain's stores.
Martha Harp's name already stands for quality in the chain's in-store bakeries, Kallesen said. Signature dinner rolls and signature bread designated as Martha Harps have become destination products, he said. The chain is also developing prepared foods that will directly bear her name, he said.
Besides choosing the name Martha's Kitchen to underscore a new level of homeyness for the department, the chain also threw in new decor to add warmth. Faux windows with panes, for example, have been added against the wall. Brass pots and pans and knick-knacks also are part of the new look.
The Martha's Kitchen logo is displayed on a large oval-shaped sign that hangs over the deli counter.
Before hanging that sign, however, Harps deli strategists took steps to minimize any risk of damage to the name upon it.
"We're not going out there all of a sudden with massive self-service displays of prepared foods," Kallesen said. "We feel that we have to win the customer's confidence, and to do that we need to get things right. So it's a slow process. We're carefully cross training everybody in the department, for example.
"In each store, we need to have everything in place, including the level of service, before we identify the department as Martha's Kitchen. If we were to just put a sign up without being ready to give customers excellent service as well as quality, we could discredit the Martha's Kitchen name. It would lose its value."
Martha's Kitchen represents another stage of evolution for Harps: pulling together different elements in the deli under the umbrella of home-meal replacement.
"We're not worrying about who gets credit for the sale. Our vice president of marketing, Kim Eskew, has brought the departments together to figure out what we can do to make things more convenient for the consumer," he said.
The chain, for instance, pulled down warehouse shelving that had lined the outside wall across from the deli counter to make room for multideck, refrigerated cases. Heading up the first aisle on the right side just inside the door, those cases will be used to display convenience items such as milk and bread, some value-added items from the meat department and some produce, Kallesen said.
Eliminating the "Wall of Values" warehouse shelving also signified a shift in the chain's philosophy, away from competing on price.
"We want to be your hometown grocer, not your high-low operator or your everyday low-price operator. We don't have the highest prices, but we're not concentrating on low prices. We want to set ourselves apart with quality and value," Kallesen said.
"I think that's one of the best things about the home-meal replacement trend -- that it's getting retailers to pay attention to these [prepared-foods] programs like they should. They're realizing these things are closer to a restaurant than they are to other departments in the store."
He said that while supercenters are offering rotisserie chickens for $2.99, Harps is charging $3.99 for a product of better quality. Harps' panini grilled Italian sandwiches, $2.99 at Martha's Kitchen, also represent a great value, Kallesen said.
"We watched the size of them. They're just a little smaller than some I've seen elsewhere, but it's certainly an adequate size to be satisfying." And the margin satisfies as well, he said. The panini sandwiches are some of the most popular items at Martha's Kitchen, which sells an average of 80 of them each day.
"We wanted to meet customers' demands, but we wanted the programs to be ones that we could do well and could manage well," he said.
"For example, we've always sold a lot of bagels, so we expanded on that success with the Bagel Station. Just the size of it, with a sign and logo, attracts more attention to bagels. And sandwich-making at the station also provides some theater."
The chain makes its own bagels at one store, then ships them daily to all other units. Kallesen said one of the most popular is an apricot bagel, which has dried apricots as an ingredient.
As with bagels, the chain had also done a good job with rotisserie chickens. "We're using restaurant-quality birds. In fact, we're using the same bird that a well-known and respected restaurant in town is using. They're fresh chickens marinated with the restaurant's own special recipe," he added.
The hot-food service counter, long a destination for Harps' customers, has been cut back from a length of 10 feet to six feet.
"It's easier for us to control at six feet. It means we have to replenish the hot table more often. So the product out there is fresher and it also gives a perception of more service," he explained.
The most fundamental change in the deli prepared food menu under the Martha's Kitchen concept is expanded variety, which Kallesen said is up about 50%.
Customer wants were the major stimuli to adding other components such as coffee drinks, panini and bagel sandwiches, he said.
"There's a company here in town that's been doing very well with bagels, so we saw that was one of the things the consumer wanted. We vowed that we could make a bagel just as good or better, and I think we have."
Kallesen schedules menu changes at least every six weeks, which affords the opportunity for promoting products with demos and sampling.
"It isn't enough to have a lot of great food. You've got to present it well and you need to do a lot of demos to let customers taste it.
"But you also need to educate your employees. Just before we opened Martha's Kitchen, we fed the whole store twice. We wanted associates' feedback and we also wanted them to be enthusiastic when they're helping customers," he noted.