ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Kowalski's Markets here has opened a new-format store that serves up meal suggestions and instruction in new ways and also offers a dollop of foodcourt pizazz.
Forming the centerpiece are a staffed meals center; a newly appointed culinary team; a huge roster of in-store classes that runs the gamut from Italian cooking to yoga; and a gathering of locally popular food-service concepts anchored by Starbucks.The aim is to bring customers into the store more frequently and seal their loyalty, officials said.
A mezzanine, overlooking the produce department, with seating to accommodate 40, is the site for classes. Cooking instruction will be featured but subjects ranging from baby massage to self-defense also are on the schedule.
"It could be 'The Complex World of Curries' one day but the next evening it might be a yoga class," said Bob Kowalski, director of marketing and public relations, for the five-unit, family-owned independent.
"We're doing this because we want to be the community gathering place. Everybody does grocery shopping, and here you can have everything in one spot. Get your food, your dinner, take a class, have a cup of coffee, sit in front of the fireplace and catch up on things with your neighbor," Kowalski added.
"The emphasis is on education, nutrition, and lifestyles."
But always the spotlight shines on fresh food and its preparation.
The team of food experts, which includes an executive chef, a French pastry chef, a cheese specialist and a meals planner, helps customers make meals-buying decisions. It also instructs them in food preparation and answers their questions. "The Chef's Block," positioned between the service meat and seafood counters, serves as a permanent demo station and meals center.
The store design itself veers sharply away from conventional aisles and features open areas intended to nurture interaction between associates and customers, officials said. Toward that goal, too, production has been brought out in the open in deli and bakery.
Produce, in an outdoor-marketplace look that's reminiscent of Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., faces the entrance. Just to the side of that is an assembly of vendors that includes Starbucks and scaled-back versions of two popular, local restaurants -- Panino's Italian sandwich concept, and Tejas Express, which features Southwestern fare. Seating to accommodate 40 in front of a fireplace is nearby, and more is outside.
"It's like a mini food court. It's the first time we've had vendor partners and we needed the seating because of [the larger menu of ready-to-eat food available]. We did this for our customers, so they'd have more variety to choose from," Kowalski said.
The vendors here have lease agreements with Kowalski's and may have a presence in future store locations, Kowalski said. Starbucks definitely will. Indeed, it will replace coffee bars currently operated by Kowalski's in its other stores.
"We decided to let the experts do it. We do okay with our coffee bars, but Starbucks has the premium, the best coffee available. Our decision is just in keeping with the philosophy the owners, Jim and Mary Anne Kowalski, have always held to: to give our customers the best there is."
At 48,000 square feet, this store -- the largest Kowalski's unit and the first the company has built from the ground up -- gives the retailer the opportunity to offer more variety, too, officials said.
Sushi is new. So is a salad and soup bar. And a custom sandwich station has been introduced at a deli service island that runs more than 30 feet long.
"We've increased the variety in all our categories in deli, even meats and cheeses," said Terry Bennis, director of deli and bakery.
"In most cases, we've built on what was already successful for us. For example, we've always had a strong reputation for our rotisserie chickens. We won an award a couple of years ago for them. Now, we've expanded the rotisserie program to include small beef roasts and pork loin," Bennis said.
She noted that a new state-of-the-art rotisserie that cooks 25 chickens at a time, in an hour and 15 minutes, has been a real boon.
"We hit a record for rotisserie chickens on opening day. We had our hands full with reloading the rotisserie and we sold more chickens than we've ever sold in a day at any of our stores."
Chilled prepared foods, as well as hot foods, have been increased in variety, and most of them are prepared in-store.
Gourmet sandwiches, such as oven-roasted turkey and brie on ciabatta, and grilled portabello on rustic baguette, have been added to the menu, too, and are merchandised on mezzanine shelves above the store-made salads in the service case.
"Those 12-inch mezzanine shelves are great. We can put artichoke rolls or home-made twice-baked potatoes on them in the cases where we have prepared entrees. They definitely work. We're in the process of putting them in our other stores, too," Bennis said.
"We first put one of these cases in our Grand Avenue store [in downtown St. Paul] about six months ago and sales from the prepared food case rose by 20% in a very short time," she said.
The service level as well as variety has been boosted at this store. For the first time, associates are dedicated to their particular stations in the service deli.
"There are two associates at the custom sandwich station and two at the hot service counter who stay where they are. It's the first time we've done it that way," said Bennis.
In the past, the associate was expected to follow the customer through the ordering process, which may have required leaving the sandwich station to go to another section of the deli.
"Here, there are service stations everywhere so the associates are not moving back and forth from one area to another. Customers seem to appreciate that. They like the fact they don't have to wait."
Based on early customer reaction to the heightened levels of service and the accessibility of food experts to answer their questions, Bennis predicts the new way of doing things will increase sales significantly, store-wide.
Executive chef Jim Nadeau said he already sees that giving customers meals advice is having a big impact.
"I think it's just that we're so close to them there on the sales floor and they see us in chef's whites. I'm amazed at how customers are responding," Nadeau said.
He explained how he and his team deliberately create an environment that is conducive to questions.
"As I train people to man this station, I tell them to cook in real small batches, to slow down the process. I slice salmon very thin and put a little butter on the grill and handplace the fresh garlic on," he said, showing how that creates pauses in production that lend themselves to questions and conversation.
"I'll only do five slices at a time, for instance, and then cut them in half. People come up and say, 'Oh, you're doing salmon,' but we don't just offer them a taste, we explain how we're doing it, talk to them about the preparation, then let them taste it and show them where the [raw] product is in the seafood case just a few feet away," he said.
"Basically, you draw them over with the cooking process, but if you do it too fast, you just have a line of people coming through, taking a sample. You don't have time to sell them anything," Nadeau said.
His system apparently works, because in just the first couple of hours on opening day, more than half of the seafood department's salmon display had sold out.
Right now, just weeks after the grand opening of this store in Woodbury -- one of the fastest-growing, upscale suburbs of St. Paul -- Nadeau is concentrating particularly on "Dinner With Kowalski's," a cooking event at the Chef's Block from 3 to 7 in the evening. He cooks an entree that will take the customer no longer than 10 minutes to do at home, and he cross-merchandises products there from other departments as suggested accompaniments.
"I think customers -- least those around here -- have been looking for this kind of help. They want to have an active part in putting a good, nutritious meal on the table and they want to entertain, too, but they want it to be quick and easy," Nadeau said.
He said he sees more and more people wanting to finish products at home. They want the aromas of cooking and baking wafting through their homes without it becoming an hours-long project. The ideal, he said, is having part of the food ready-to-serve or heat up and then finishing some ready-to-prepare items.
"We're trying to make cooking approachable. If we can give them something that's easy and quick to prepare, and it tastes good and it's nutritious, it will get us a lifelong customer. That's the impact we want to make."