BRONX, N.Y. -- Morton Williams Associated Supermarkets here has turned up the burner on hot meals at a new store it unveiled late last month.
The nine-unit independent, a member of wholesale cooperative Associated Food Stores, Jamaica, N.Y., has brought theater, variety, convenience and sales of prepared foods to new heights at the site in mid-town Manhattan.
The store is situated just down the street from Carnegie Hall. Nearby are office towers and high-rise apartment buildings that offer as many as 100,000 consumers in just the four-block area surrounding the unit.
While the retailer carries many of the same prepared foods featured at the new unit in other Morton Williams Associated stores in Manhattan, "We're pulling everything together here," said Morton Sloan, the company's president.
Sloan said he believes the company's future lies in ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat food-to-go. Ten years ago, the retailer was a traditional grocery store with no delis and no bakeries. Now, it counts nearby restaurants as its competition.
"What has driven us into this [prepared foods] is that today's adult consumer works all day and doesn't want to cook. They don't want to be in the office all day and then come home and make pot roast and bake a cake," Sloan said.
"I think everybody is moving in this direction. Food Emporium and D'Agostino are, but we've gone a little further because we're into preparing so much of the food in-store," he said.
Sloan told SN that since the store opened late last month, freshly prepared foods have been accounting for a full 25% of sales. That compares with a typical performance for prepared foods of 12% to 13% of total sales at the company's other units.
The new site includes a dining area on a second level with tables and chairs to seat 60 diners. That much seating is unusual for a supermarket in Manhattan, where real estate commands premium prices and space is scarce. One other Morton Williams Associated unit in Manhattan has seating, but the extent is much more limited.
Virtually all the prepared food is made on the premises, with a few items produced by an outside source to the retailer's specifications.
Associates in chefs hats spinning pizzas, creating pasta sauces in flaming skillets and grilling hamburgers and sausage sandwiches are a prime ingredient in delivering the "fresh" message to customers, Sloan said.
The emphasis on on-site production is extended below ground, where the store's "pre-prep" kitchen can be seen from the large seating area through a glass window. There, diners can watch such activities as huge turkey breasts being fed into ovens and cake batters being mixed.
Sloan said that on-site preparation makes it easier for the retailer to control quality, as well as fostering its fresh image.
"We've brought quality to a new level, with food-to-go that's made to order. We have one person who is responsible for making sure all the prepared foods, including the sandwiches, are up to standards, at all our stores," he said.
Back on the main level, a 24-foot-plus island "hot and cold salad bar" offers an eclectic variety of hot entrees as well as a large variety of salads.
In-store prepared Chinese food and popcorn shrimp have been added to the mix, as has a Mexican food bar and a variety of pizzeria-type sandwiches including chicken parmigiani and sausage and pepper.
The Mexican entrees and a wrap sandwich program at this store are new for the Morton Williams Associated. A self-service island case merchandises the selection of dinners and sandwiches.
The retailer has also installed three dedicated express cash registers tied to the prepared-foods offering for the first time. Signs over the checkouts identify them as deli registers, able to accommodate only five items or fewer. An employee is stationed at the front of the store to herd hurried deli customers toward the express checkouts.