MINNEAPOLIS -- Nash Finch Co.'s food court experiment in a South Dakota Econo Foods has jammed the store with hungry customers -- and enough sales to encourage the wholesaler, based here, to consider replicating the experiment elsewhere.
Since the installation of the prototype food-service operation was completed in late July, the fresh meal sector business has jumped 25% in the store, according to Dave Johnson, store manager at Watertown Econo Foods.
"We have a constant flow of people who come in just to eat," Johnson told SN. And so far, consumer response has been good. "We've had nothing but positive comments on the new setup," he said.
The "Fresh Place" -- the brand-name collection of home-meal replacement ventures that includes a 56-seat section surrounded by a pizza station, oriental buffet and wok line, soup and salad bar, hot entree line and sandwich shop -- was built during a renovation that expanded the store from 41,500 to 57,000 square feet and quadrupled available fresh meal space.
Fresh Place also incorporates a coffee shop, ice cream shop, traditional deli section and expanded bakery, produce, seafood, ready-to-serve and fresh meat departments.
Meals at Fresh Place are all made from scratch, said Johnson. "We bring in nothing frozen from outside; we're making everything on premises," he said. To staff the various sections, employee hours have approximately doubled, he added.
Nash Finch, the concept's developer, may install two or three more Fresh Places in the next year, most likely during the expansion of existing Econo Foods stores, said Dave Richards, vice president for corporate retail stores. The company currently owns 35 Econo Foods stores.
Nash Finch demographic analysts will determine which Econo Foods are suitable candidates for Fresh Place, he said. He added that he believes the company's affiliated independent operators will also be watching how well the new fresh meals concept performs through the year-end holidays at the Watertown store.
Accordingly, Richards ex-pects Nash Finch will be ready sometime in early 1997 to offer the independents a chance at their own Fresh Place concept merchandising.
For Johnson at Econo Foods, it's a new sort of business. "Before, we really just had a small deli, which was basically only a 4-foot-long hot case," he explained.
Now, each department within the food court has its own menu, mounted on the wall, and a dedicated register. Customers order and pay for their food at each section. And for those shoppers who want to eat immediately in the market, the meals are brought to the table by Econo Foods' servers.