CHICAGO -- Hot pizza served up on demand is the latest addition to a large and impressive menu of ready-to-eat foods at a contemporary, new Jewel-Osco in the city's up-and-coming South Loop neighborhood.
In April, this 52,000-square-foot store acquired a compact, flash-bake oven that is capable of making a frozen Home Run Inn pizza in less than three minutes. According to a store-level associate, other Jewels sell Home Run Inn pizza, but rely on employees of the pizza company to make it on-site. Also, the item is meant to be eaten in the store, or taken home. Here, Jewel employees make the pizza, and it's strictly a takeout item.
Sales have been strong, according to store director Phil Irwin.
"A gas station across the street sells Connie's Pizza," Irwin told SN. "I thought why not get pizza in my store? [Customers] love it. They're very health-conscious around here, [but] they like pizza, too."
Prominent signs on the counter in the prepared-foods area let customers know the pizza's available, whole and by the slice.
The urban footprint for the store, spread over two levels, is a tad smaller than the average Jewel, generally around 60,000 square feet and on one floor. Elevated train tracks cut through the store property, requiring construction of soundproof walls to muffle the roar of passing trains.
In recent years, new office buildings, condominiums and townhouses have sprouted up in this neighborhood, replacing low-rise office buildings and cold-storage facilities. Jewel officials saw an opportunity to serve a developing neighborhood with a format that emphasizes freshness, convenience and product diversity. The store's customers represent a mix of races and income levels, with urban professionals making up a growing proportion of the mix.
Fresh flowers greet customers as they walk through the front door. Steps away from the floral department is the deli, a focal point between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., and 5 and 9 p.m.
There's a dearth of restaurants in the neighborhood, and that may be helping Jewel's deli business.
"We're focusing on this case to help our customers with meal solutions," said Jewel spokeswoman Karen Ramos, pointing to the service deli case, which stretches 40 feet.
In developing the deli, Jewel sought a vendor capable of producing a line of gourmet products made to Jewel's specifications, Ramos said.
A unit of Albertson's, Jewel found Chicago-based Gourmet Kitchens and struck up a brand-new partnership with the small, family-owned corporate catering company. Ramos said this store serves as a testing ground for the new line from the supplier's Last Minute Gourmet division.
Making deliveries six days a week, Last Minute Gourmet supplies the store with salads, entrees and sandwiches made fresh every day at the caterer's kitchen west of the loop. Jewel sells the salads in the service deli, as well as prepackaged.
Last Minute Gourmet supplies other Jewel stores with products, but none of the other stores carry as many different items as this one, said Tom Trepanier, director of sales for Last Minute Gourmet, estimating the store offers about 60 items.
"Sales are meeting our expectations," he said. "They've done nothing but flourish" since the store opened in August.
Three fryers keep the service cases full of regular and spicy chicken, shrimp and hush puppies. On the day of SN's visit, the "Hot Meal of the Day" was turkey breast with gravy and roasted garlic mashed potatoes ($3.99). The package is available at only a few Jewel stores.
Sushi is popular, too. A self-serve sushi case is filled with five-ounce, seven-ounce and eight-ounce packages. When the store opened, there were two employees dedicated to sushi preparation, and four feet of case space reserved for the product in the seafood department. Now there are three sushi chefs, and nearly eight linear feet of space for packaged sushi in the prepared-foods section. California rolls and spicy tuna rolls are in demand, one sushi chef told SN.
Bottled fruit-juice beverages are in a new place in this store -- in line in the produce department, Irwin said.
In the meat department, the community's diversity can be seen in the product assortment. A six-foot, self-serve case features an unusually large assortment of smoked meats, including turkey drumsticks, bacon skins, sweetmeats, neckbones, pork tails and pork hocks.
Nearby there's a selection of packaged, premium specialty sausages from Aidells and Hans, also in a self-serve case. Sausages are popular year-round, a store associate told SN during a visit.
Salmon and catfish are top sellers in the seafood department, which includes a 12-foot service counter.
This neighborhood was a new challenge for Jewel, which did not have a presence in the community before the opening of this store. The retailer will make further inroads when it opens a 32,000-square-foot store in a downtown office building in the fall, officials said.