CHESTERLAND, Ohio -- Russo's Supermarkets here has rolled out a meals program -- with some new twists -- companywide this month after a successful trial in one store.
Newly dubbed "Russo's on the Run" and designated by a logo of its own, the program now includes an extensive menu of prepacked entrees and sides for self-service as well as bulk items sold by the pound from the service deli. High-profile olive bars have been added and wrap sandwiches and a "comprehensive soup program" are soon to follow.
Plattered, chilled, chef-prepared foods such as slices of beef tenderloin and roast pork, in the service deli continue to be the centerpiece of Russo's meals effort. That program, along with a limited hot menu built around roast chickens, plunged the company into the meals business two and a half years ago at a new store in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The prepacked program was tested this summer at that store and now hot, packaged self-service items are on trial there.
While most of the chilled prepacked entrees and sides are currently produced at Russo's central kitchen, as are deli salads and desserts, the company will focus on more on-site preparation in the future to underscore "the fresh message," said Kathryn Lowe, marketing and public relations director, for the four-unit Russo's, which was formerly called Russo's Stop N' Shop.
"We've hired chefs, or in some instances, have taken them from our commissary and positioned them at store level. That gives a clear perception that the food is being prepared fresh. Even though we could do all the production in our central kitchen and deliver it daily, it wouldn't be the same," Lowe said.
"Customers can see the food being brought out from the ovens and can talk to the chefs and staff. That way, our chefs also get to know our customer base," Lowe said.
The Chagrin Falls store has its own kitchen and a major remodel scheduled for early spring will give another store its own kitchen. In the meantime, the other units have been reconfigured to make more room for display cooking as well as meals merchandising.
The decision to take the multimode "Russo's on the Run" meals program out to all stores is based on the successful sales of ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat food at Chagrin Falls, and it has also been strongly spurred by customer demand, Lowe said.
"Our stores are close to each other. Chagrin Falls is a tourist area. Some of our customers [at other stores] would stop in here and see things they couldn't get in their own store. Then they would ask why they couldn't get it in their neighborhood store," she said.
The decision, too, results simply from a strong company commitment to keep up with the home-meal replacement trend, said Jeffrey Babbush, bakery/deli merchandiser-buyer-supervisor.
"We've taken it slowly, and have put together a comprehensive program. But now we've secured the path we're going to take," Babbush said, adding that new concepts may be added along the way.
Right now the focus in the prepacked line is on comfort foods, he said.
"We have individual meatloaves and three meatballs in an Italian sauce and chicken wings, for example. Also some cut fruit and individual yogurts. And we'll definitely develop some whole meals, packaged. We did see that concept was successful at Boston Market," Babbush said.
He, like Lowe, emphasized the need to keep up the perception of fresh even as self-service displays expand. That's reflected in the packaging the company has chosen.
The packages are 4-inch-by-6-inch microwavable trays with a dome top. They sport a green and white "Russo's on the Run" sticker that features a stylized cartoon figure of a chef running with a platter of food. In addition to being used on fully cooked entrees, the sticker with the added line, "grill ready" or "oven ready" is used on marinated meats and chicken.
"We chose to use just one size package and work the program around that," Babbush said. He added that heat-sealed packages are not used because they take away from the "fresh look."
Commenting on the addition of the prepacked items and olive bars as well as the upcoming wraps and soup programs, Babbush said, "We follow trends in the industry very closely. The concepts that will set us apart are what we're always looking for."
For instance, the high-profile olive bars which were rolled out over the last month, are such a touch, he said.
"Other chains, I know, have olives, but they almost seem to be an afterthought. By contrast, we've given ours a featured spot with a colorful sign showing a big map of the world. It shows the areas the olives come from and describes each of the varieties," Babbush said.
He said he first saw such VIP treatment of olives at The Vinegar Factory, an upscale, industry-watched specialty store in New York City.
"In addition to giving the olive bars a strong identity, we found that for us placement is a key factor. In one of our stores, we've put it in the ideal place. We're going through 10 to 12 cases a week at that store. That amounts to upwards of 150 pounds of olives," Babbush said.
He explained that at that store, the olives are positioned just across the aisle from the service deli counter in a self-service, tiered case. On the second tier, plexiglass containers with sliding lids display eight varieties of olives.
They're designated by a huge sign supplied by the importer, Babbush said. Also in that 8-foot case are such items as gourmet, chilled pastas, Russo's own pasta sauces, brand-name hummus and tabouli and a selection of other ethnic products.
In other stores, where the olives are merchandised in the service deli case, sales are slow, Babbush said.
"We'll take them out of there and position them like the successful one. We're just waiting for the refrigerated units," he said.
"We started out at just one store with the olives, as we do with any new program, and we learned a lot in a few days. For example, we learned to straight-line price them. We had different prices at first, but people wanted to mix and match them. It was confusing for both the customer and our deli people and cashiers. So now, it's one price, $4.99 a pound," Babbush said.
Babbush expects olives sales to be big at all four stores once the display cases are moved.
"We're doing demonstrations. We got help from the importer with that and with the signage. Our clientele, too, is pretty sophisticated, and likes this type of product," Babbush said. He alluded to the fact that all Russo's units are located in affluent suburbs of Cleveland.