CHICAGO -- The ins and outs of getting more customers into supermarket food courts may have bred a whole new concept.
A workshop on food court trends at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention here opened the door on a fresh idea in food court design -- a prototype store format that enables customers to enter each station of a food court via an outside entrance, as well as from inside the store.
The idea stirred particular interest among retailers who attended the workshop, who were offered a grab bag of ideas about how to bring additional customers into a store's food court by Howard Solganik, president, and Carin Solganik, vice president, of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio-based food consulting firm.
The brother/sister team explained that the concept's elements -- prominent positioning up front, the identity of each food station on the outside of the building, and easy accessibility -- are all designed to increase customer traffic.
And customer volume is especially critical when it comes to selling freshly prepared food, they pointed out.
"This could be one solution. It positions all the fresh departments at the front of the store, so they've all got good exposure inside, and they would have their identities on the outside of the building, too," Howard Solganik said.
He showed a slide of a design rendering which features the name of each food station on the facade of the building, and a row of parking spaces directly in front of them. Part of the front of the building is a modified hexagon, which gives each food station what looks like its own front, bumped out into the parking lot.
"The outside entrance enables customers to get in and out in a hurry. So, there's the potential new customer who wouldn't have previously gone into the store itself for his coffee and bagel or sandwich; also, regular customers would theoretically visit the food stations more often, not just when they do their grocery shopping," he added.
After the seminar, Solganik told SN that this concept, over any of the others presented, seemed to spur the imagination of the audience. "A lot of people commented on it afterward and wanted to know if it was being done anywhere," he said.
One retailer told SN he thought the concept was a good one and a workable one.
"The key to it is the outside entrance to each section. It looks like a row of little shops," said David Ball, store director, for Price Chopper Food Centers, Kansas City, Kans.
"Naturally, you have to have the right products, and top quality. But, what makes people generally choose a little corner bakery over you, for instance, is that they can get in and out fast," adding that this design would give the supermarket the opportunity to offer that convenience, too.
The prototype format was designed by Design Forum, Dayton, for Solganik & Associates.
"The objective was to show how a store could leverage its prepared food business out into the marketplace. With the names of the various sections on the outside of the building, it gives authority to the products themselves," said Bill Chidley, vice president of design, for Design Forum.
The facades of the food stations incorporate brick "for a warm, home-style feeling," Chidley said. His company was involved in the design of Hearth Express, the new McDonald's concept that features a family-style setting and "comfort foods" such as pot pies, meat loaf and hearth-baked breads. That restaurant, located near McDonald's headquarters in Forest Park, Ill., features brick and wood in its design.
The exteriors of the food stations highlight their identities in bold letters and colors on the front of the building. The Italian food section, for example, is identified as Italia Cafe.
"There is an identity separate from the store, as well as a separate entrance. That's just as important, I think, because there's a segment of customers that will begin to think 'Italia Cafe' when they think of Italian food," Chidley said.
Among their other proposals, the Solganiks suggested that supermarkets would be smart to "export" some of the signature products they've developed themselves.
"I see products that got their start in restaurants come into the supermarket, like Uno and Wolfgang Puck's pizza, but what about taking our products into other areas," Howard Solganik said.
"For example, Dorothy Lane Markets here in Dayton has a wonderful Killer Brownie. People come to the store just to buy them. But, supposing there was a Dorothy Lane Killer Brownie cart at the Dayton airport. Can't you see travelers grabbing one for the runway and half a dozen as a gift? Or how about a pie stand?" he asked.
He showed slides of an illustration of a Dorothy Lane Killer Brownie cart and of a free-standing pie stand that featured Marsh Supermarkets' pies. "Marsh's [in Indianapolis] is known for its fabulous pies. Can't you see a Marsh's pie shop in a strip or shopping mall?"
In a slide presentation, Carin Solganik pointed out other concepts she said are harbingers of the future. Moveable food stations, such as Caesar salad carts at Harris Teeter, Matthews, N.C., and espresso bars at D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., were among them.
New equipment design has made it easier for retailers to be flexible, and that will become even more important in an increasingly competitive market, she said. "With competition coming from so many places, and markets differing so much, the cookie cutter approach is out. Supermarkets need to be able to act quickly," she said.