GREENWICH, Conn. -- Fresh Fields has come to Connecticut, prepared to feed time-hungry consumers looking for meals to take home or back to the office.
The Rockville, Md.-based retailer has also come to educate them about the nutritional content of its fresh prepared foods, and is using scale-generated labels as the vehicle.
The 15-unit chain, which has built its reputation on its organic produce and all-natural baked goods, appears to be doing a tremendous business with prepared entrees and salads at its newest store here.
On a recent visit, SN found the service deli, which dishes up chilled store-made entrees and salads, to be the most bustling department in a busy store -- and that was a Sunday afternoon.
The deli service counter is 30 feet long and the five-deck, self-service case adjacent to the service counter is 10 feet long.
Some of the items are made on premises and others are made at the company's central commissary in Rockville, said Mark Ordan, Fresh Fields president. Each of the Fresh Fields items in the self-service case bears a nutrition facts label. The labels are generated by computerized scales in the deli, or at the central kitchen, Ordan said.
Here's how the system works: Fresh Fields works with its suppliers, who provide nutritional information. Then the information is fed into a data bank. Then, for instance, as a sandwich formula is developed, a code for each ingredient is entered. The software, designed for this function, then generates a label and prints it out with appropriate information.
Such a system is currently the state of the art for merging the two forces reshaping labels in the deli and bakery arenas: the Federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act's requirements for nutrition label reform, and the desire of smart retailers to turn those requirements into marketing advantages.
It's not surprising that this retailer had its act together on scale-labeling needs in deli as early as March 1994. Fresh Fields has always made a point of telling customers, via signs and brochures, as much as it can about all of its products.
"Fresh Fields understands very clearly that nutritional labeling can be used both to inform the customer and to market the product by stressing the features and benefits of value-added products," said Brian Salus, president of Salus & Associates, a food marketing consulting firm based in Midlothian, Va.
"That's what they're really good at. Whether there was an NLEA or not, it's something their customers would expect them to do," Salus said.
Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio-based food consulting firm, said the chain is correct to see the nutrition facts labels as a competitive advantage. "I think you'll see more retailers doing it, even if they're exempt," he said.
That may be, but right now it seems there is a lot of catching up still going on. In a search for the labeling avant-garde, SN encountered many retailers who said they don't have a comprehensive system operating yet in deli.
They said bakery was typically the first to get deeply into computerized labeling, but the deli departments are apparently still ironing out the hitches occasioned by attempts to accurately label such a variety of ingredients in deli items.
Some retailers said they have installed a system, but are still negotiating stubborn technical hurdles, and were thus reluctant to talk about their status.
Others are working on installing one, even though they are exempt from the labeling requirements imposed by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.
"Customers want that kind of information, and we'll eventually give it to them, even though we're not required to," said one Midwest retailer.
But it's more complicated to get a deli scales/labeling system going because there's more variation than in bakery, and there's not the information available from suppliers that there is in the baking industry, said Ronald Hanck, director of nutrition labeling at Manhattan, Kan.-based American Institute of Baking.
Well before the NLEA was made law, Fresh Fields had made a marketing tool of disseminating ingredients information to its customers in other parts of the country.
Now, with its Greenwich store, the retailer has taken its first plunge into the New York City market, and comes up against Wayne, N.J.-based Grand Union Co. and the upscale Food Emporium, a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J. Two more Fresh Fields stores will have their debut in New Jersey this year. The majority of the company's stores are bunched in the Washington area, and more recently the chain opened units in suburban Chicago and Philadelphia.
On SN's recent visit to the 15,000-square-foot Greenwich store, the deli had the most traffic. Customers stood two and three deep along the entire length of the service deli, awaiting their turn to buy such items as store-prepared veggie burgers and rotisserie chicken, with skin or without. And that was true for the more than two hours SN was at the store.
"Consumers of natural foods don't necessarily like to cook either," Solganik added.
Chickens at the store are sold by the pound; $3.49 a pound for a regular one, and $3.69 a pound for skinless. A deli employee said chicken was one of the most popular items. The store's sales of the rotisserie chickens average 210 a day, he said.
A dinner package includes half a rotisserie chicken, two sides and a baked roll for $5.95. A breast and wing dinner, with the same accoutrements, is $4.95. A chicken dinner for two is $10.95.
One customer told SN that he comes here two times a week specifically for the chickens. Another customer, carrying several containers of cooked vegetables, said she stops at the store often after work to buy side dishes for dinner. "Their creamed spinach is great," she said.
A sampler of three side dishes is $3.95.
The service deli is dominated by chilled entrees, which occupy a length of about 12 feet of the European-style case. The most recently added items are low-fat lasagna, chicken breasts teriyaki and Mexican chicken salad. A smaller section of the case devoted to store-made salads features such items as Santa Fe chicken pasta salad for $6.99 a pound.
The service deli cases begin with rotisserie chickens on large crockery platters. The rotisserie itself is against the back wall of the deli. Next in the case is a platter of polenta and tomato cakes for $1.09 each. Polenta and black bean cakes were priced the same. Garlic green beans were $5.99 a pound, and spinach vegetable lasagna was $5.29 a pound.
Wild mushroom potato pancakes were $1.09 each, and grilled chicken breasts Morocco were $4.99 each. Such exotics as potato carmelized onion torte at $5.99 a pound share space with more mundane items such as mustard potato salad for $3.29 a pound.
Mini "meatless" meat loaves were $1.99 each, and turkey meat loaves were $3.99 each.
Made-to-order sandwiches, too, are a big seller at the service deli, a store source told SN.
He said one of the most popular is a Southwestern grilled chicken sandwich, which includes jalapeno jack cheese, roasted red pepper and chili lime dressing on seven-grain bread for $5.49. Another popular sandwich at the service deli is the veggie sandwich, he said. It has artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes and sprouts, on seven-grain bread. It's $3.99. Eight types of sandwiches are listed on a large board behind the deli counter.
Less than 4 feet of the deli case is devoted to deli meats and cheeses.
Next, after the service deli, comes the reach-in case with sandwiches such as a smoked turkey roll-up, made with flat bread, for $2.99 in a clamshell container. A tuna salad hero in the case was $4.29. A garden salad and a Caesar salad, both packed in clamshell packages, were $2.99 each. A Middle Eastern salad, packed the same way, was $3.99. Hummus and salsa were priced by the pound, $4.39 and $3.49, respectively.
Ordan declined to say what is the best seller in the service deli, or from the self-service case. He did say there has been no significant difference in space allowed for prepared foods in this store compared to earlier stores. Nor is the level of sales of the prepared foods here a surprise to him, he said.
"We do well with that department in all our stores, and they're not all in areas that have the same demographics," he said. Greenwich is a high-income, bedroom community, within commuting distance of New York City.
A sign over the deli cases reads, "For your convenience, all salads are available prepacked here in our self-service case."
Nutrition facts labels are placed on the bottoms or sides of the packages in order to not obscure the product itself.
Next in line, is the bakery department, where all varieties of bread are sampled. A round loaf of tomato and herb bread was $3.29, and black olive bread was $4.99. Pecan-raisin sourdough, which a staffer said is a top favorite of customers, is $4.89
The traffic pattern begins with the produce aisle, starting at the right front of the store. The first thing that SN saw in that aisle was a large overhead sign that read, "89 types of organic produce today." Produce displays, waist-high to the ceiling, line the right wall of the store. That aisle funnels the customer into a small floral department at the back of the store.
To the left, at the end of the produce aisle, is a brightly lit fresh pasta station. Here, in light, wood-trimmed cases, such packaged items were offered artichoke tortellini for $6.99 a pound; Gorgonzola cappelletti for $5.99 a pound. A special offered puttanesca sauce for $2.29 a half-pint container. Alfredo with wild mushrooms was $2.99 for a pint; pesto, $4.99; and low-fat marinara, $3.99.
The 6-foot, tiered grab-and-go case had 19 facings of fresh pasta, and nine sauces. Right around the corner from it, a 12-foot cheese case displayed a wide variety of hard and soft cheeses, including trendy marinated mozzarella for $9.99 a pound.
A fresh seafood service counter and a meat counter line the back wall of the store. Both offered a small variety of value-added items, such as stuffed tilapia for $7.99 a pound, and boneless stuffed leg of lamb for $3.49.
After the meat counter the service deli proper begins at the back of the left wall of the store.
Light wood flooring, set off from vinyl tile used in other parts of the store, creates the path by the deli case. It and white tiles on the back wall of the deli create a bright, clean polished look.
A sign overhead read, "Our food is prepared daily by Fresh Fields chefs, using only 'good for you' ingredients. No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. Another read, "Our food contains no hydrogenated oils or cottonseed oils." Yet another read, "Our grain products are never bleached or bromated." Even a short section of the case that holds deli meats and cheeses had a sign over it that read, "Our cold cuts come from animals raised in a clean, fresh-air environment, with no growth hormones or antibiotics used."
The nearest supermarket, that rivals Fresh Fields in upscale positioning is a Food Emporium, less than two miles down the road, one of 33 units run by the Food Emporium division of A&P, Montvale, N.J. Its selection of prepared foods, however, doesn't come up to the number offered at Fresh Fields.
Most selections at the Food Emporium deli counter are salads, rather than center-of-the plate items. Entrees are limited mostly to grilled chicken breasts, $10.99 a pound; a brand of meat lasagna for $4.79 a pound; and crab cakes, 99 cents each.
Food Emporium officials could not be reached for comment about Fresh Fields, the newcomer with a lot to say about natural food and nutrition.
But one telling feature noted in the Food Emporium unit offers food for thought. This sign was perched on its deli counter: "All natural roast ham and beef, no nitrites, no artificial ingredients."