HOLLAND, Mich. -- Supermarket executives and consultants are flocking to this small town west of Grand Rapids this summer -- and it's not for the weather.
They're here to figure out whether the fresh-meal department introduced at the new D&W Market Square here by D&W Food Centers really is the next step in meal formatting, marketing and design.
The preliminary answer must be "yes," and visitors to the site likely are leaving with lots of food for thought about what aspects can be adapted to their own stores.
The Market Square's unorthodox shape and layout -- some have likened the 63,000-square-foot building's "W" form to a Stealth Bomber -- is drawing some industry attention, and so are its multiple entrances.
However, the main attraction is probably the way the store's design incorporates ideas that meal executives and consultants have been repeating ad nauseam, to each other and to those who should be listening; ideas such as creating truly convenient stores-within-stores and establishing cross-departmental cooperation, thoughtful cross merchandising and design flexibility.
At the Market Square Meals Center, the company's first dedicated meal department, D&W has placed all its solution components -- ready to cook, ready to heat and ready to eat -- in one "meal planning" area. The spot is tucked between two entrances and designed around the idea that customer service, education and advice is essential to success in the category.
The meal section quickly became a beehive of so much consumer activity that D&W executives, originally expecting the department to be traveled primarily by hand-basket shoppers, were forced to open the area up after it immediately jammed with full-fledged shopping-cart shoppers, said Mike Eardley, D&W's vice president of fresh foods.
While most of the thinking behind the store comes from D&W, customers, store architects and designers, Eardley said at least one well-known outsider also made a contribution -- Dallas-based market/restaurant hybrid Eatzi's.
"What we borrowed from Eatzi's is the sell-through concept, how to sell it and keep it fresh. That's how the approach to this store differs from others."
Staff chefs under the leadership of D&W corporate chef Laurie Lindrup prepare a demonstration meal each day from available components. Then, along with the department head, they prowl the aisles, giving preparation tips and generally encouraging customers, training them to shop the area.
As if on cue, the day SN visited a woman approached in-store chef Brad Meek with a package of pecan-encrusted chicken breasts to ask him the best way to prepare them. It's the kind of interplay essential to the store's success, D&W officials said.
"The other day, a woman came in here who had to provide meals for a family member who had a heart attack, and she didn't have the time to cook them herself," Meek told SN. "When she saw this refrigerator filled with entrees and side dishes, she grabbed about 18 of them.
"It's people like this, who are coming back to grab a few days worth of meals to have on hand in the refrigerator, coming in right out of work to shop here, who are really ready for this. We're here to help them and educate the others on how to use these items."
That's just the job Eardley has in mind for the in-store chef: to move product through those fresh cases fast, without the obstacles that get in the way of meal merchandising in other stores. Cross-departmental problems are avoided, for example, by making sure each originating department gets the gross margin for item sales, he said. Meanwhile, the meal section here is kept separate financially, as well as operationally, from the deli.
The keystone of the more than 2,000-square-foot meal department is the demonstration kitchen, where the sample meals are prepared. It is a fully working, top-of-the-line setup equipped by manufacturer Kitchen-Aid, Benton Harbor, Mich., that anchors one side of the department -- although it may be misleading to describe the department in terms of sides, since there are so many in the uniquely sinuous store.
The kitchen is attractive, but the money's in the three coolers that, with the deli, form wings on either side of the demo kitchen. One cooler is stocked with such value-added, ready-to-cook meat and seafood entrees as stuffed pork loin and cracked-pepper beef tenderloin; another with many of the company's esteemed commissary-prepared and vacuum-sealed ready-to-heat entrees and side dishes; and a third case with chilled sauces, dips, spreads, appetizers and prepacked salads.
D&W is using the new store to introduce new ready-to-heat items distributed from its central commissary, three new marinated chicken flavors and five side dishes, such as grilled asparagus, twice-baked cheese potatoes and mixed grilled mushrooms.
But there's more at this store-within-a-store, merchandising concepts that consultants have been pushing retailers that are serious about the meal business to create.
There's a pushcart filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, store-baked breads and desserts; a cooler filled with sparkling wines; a sushi bar, staffed and supplied by supermarket sushi company AFC Corp., Compton, Calif.; a traditional salad bar; and a made-to-order Caesar salad station open for lunch and dinner, one of three locations in the store where consumers can find the popular salad, with commercial mixes sold in the produce section and the store-made variety packed in the meal-solution appetizer cooler.
In the morning, associates make room in the coolers for yogurts, cut fruit, juices and other breakfast foods to augment the bagel and cream cheese options at the Manhattan Bagel station. Total reset time: under 30 minutes, said Eardley.
It's not that the more traditional hot-meal department across the way -- where fried and rotisserie chicken, rotisserie pork loin and turkey, and hot side dishes are sold from the front of the working commercial kitchen -- isn't doing well; about 100 chickens a day are moving out of the department. The Manhattan Bagel kiosk, which D&W operates as a franchisee of the Eatontown, N.J.-based company, does about $1,000 in business daily, and the deli rang up about $65,000 the first week, to capture about 7% of the store's business. "This store has probably the best defined ready-to-eat section that we've done," Eardley said.
But most retailers have already tried one or more such hot-food systems, and have established the extent of their commitment. It is the fully integrated chilled food system for selling meal components that has been lacking in many strategies, but that is not lacking here.
The Holland, Mich., customer base itself was custom-made for this meal enterprise, said Eardley. "When we first went into the market in a store across the street four years ago, the customers responded strongly to our prepared food, and so we developed here more of a quality prepared-food niche reputation than in some of our other stores.
"Their support encouraged us to do more and more, and they rewarded us handsomely for what we did. That's one of the reasons why the store is here. And the consumers are jumping all over it.
"If I were to sum up this store, I'd say it's our answer to the way people eat food now, instead of just shopping for groceries," said Eardley.
Dividing consumers conceptually into ingredient shoppers and meal shoppers, D&W has made it convenient for meal customers with a separate entrance and parking on that side of the store. Far from the main registers and twin front entrances, parking here is inconvenient for anyone not shopping for meals.
The rotisserie area shares space with new and established D&W store concepts gathered under the "Ciao Italia" banner. Pizza is sold hot by the slice or the pie, and a small cooler in front of the service station stocks ready-to-bake pies. At the pasta station, customers choose from two types of pasta (cooked al dente in advance and steamed hot to order), two sauces, two meats -- sausage and meatballs the day SN visited -- and such toppings as toasted pine nuts and sliced black olives. The set-up and equipment is similar to the Borden Classico in-store kiosk system, which was on display on the show floor at last May's Food Marketing Institute Show.
Next to the pasta station is a panini station with five varieties of grilled sandwiches, and a cooler with prepackaged sandwiches made with wraps, ciabatta, focaccia, subs, rolls and plain old white bread.
But it's in the meal center that the state of the art is being tested.
All the ingredients are merchandised so shoppers can mix and match chilled meal components, select hot food and a made-to-order salad for that night; pick up value-added ready-to-cook entrees and a few side dishes for tomorrow; grab a few raw vegetables for snacks and some bread and dessert from a cross-merchandising cart; bag up some bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, and coffee for the drive home from the Manhattan Bagel kiosk; and pay for it all at the meal register, all easily accomplished within a few minutes in the segregated confines of a store-within-the-store.
If D&W can successfully satisfy that many meal occasions -- immediate beverage, dinner for two nights, breakfast the next day, snack for midday -- at one time, many other retailers will turn green with envy. The ultimate question, and one that awaits a long-term answer, is whether D&W's customers reward the company's time, energy and dedication with some green of their own.