CHICAGO -- While supermarkets continue their experiments with food courts, a restaurant-operated food court here is trying its hand at retail.
The concept, called foodlife Market, features fully cooked prepared foods for take-out. It was launched three and a half months ago as an adjunct to the foodlife food court-style restaurant, which is operated by a restaurant group here called Lettuce Entertain You.
The restaurant-market is in Water Tower Place, a downtown building here that houses a vertical shopping mall, offices and condominiums.
Neil Stern, a partner in McMillan/Doolittle, a retail consulting firm based here, said the outlet is a good source for supermarkets in search of merchandising ideas.
"It's interesting from the standpoint that here's another restaurant getting into chilled food-to-go. This one's a small component, but anyone thinking about adding prepared foods should take a look to see what's being sold and how it's merchandised," Stern said.
The retail unit has been continually tweaking its mix of prepared foods in an attempt to zero in on consumer needs, said Market manager Luis Garcia.
Most notably, foodlife has switched to simpler entrees. Most recently, it has added individual meals, chilled, in its self-service section. All items are prepared by chefs at the adjacent foodlife restaurant-food court.
"We've changed at least 30% of what we offer from when we started out," Garcia said. The tweaking, he added, has resulted in a 10% increase in sales of self-service entrees and salads since the end of January.
The Market is divided into three sections: a salad bar with cold and hot items, a service deli counter with a variety of salads and chilled entrees, and a self-service case. Currently, 50% of sales come out of the salad/hot bar, nearly 30% from service deli, and 20% to 25% from self-service. The Market has no seating.
At less than 2,000 square feet, the compact Market's merchandising flair is also worth noting, said Ron Paul, president of Technomics, a food industry consulting firm here.
"There's a tremendous variety of prepared foods offered in very little space. It shows that it doesn't take a major investment or a lot of square footage to put in a high-energy prepared foods section," Paul said.
"Supermarket people should see the Market and the food court as well. There they can sit and watch who buys what," he added.
Garcia told SN it's a challenge to deliver the message to foodlife's customers that the self-service chilled foods are as fresh as those at the salad/hot bar, or in the service deli.
"It takes time. Customers buy the items in the service deli and they begin to realize the same ones are offered self-service. For that reason, it's important to keep the mix the same in both places," Garcia said.
He also does a lot of sampling of new items on the salad/hot bar to get people used to them.
"We've even found that the two varieties of soup we offer hot at the salad bar on any given day will also be the two varieties that sell best that day in the reach-in case," Garcia said. Several soup varieties are offered chilled. The long-term favorites are creamless tomato soup and creamless mushroom soup, Garcia said.
The individual meals, all $5.95 and packed in microwavable containers, were added in an attempt to build evening business. And they have helped push total evening rings up slightly, Garcia said.
But what's more impressive is that the single-serve meals are selling well at lunch, too. They, along with salads, are now occupying a full half of the self-service case. They displaced a variety of quiches and containers of stir-fry sauces, both of which were going nowhere, Garcia said.
In the entree category, the Market has gone back to basics. The Market offers four to six entrees daily.
"The simpler, the better. We had tried chicken stuffed with spinach and feta cheese, but it didn't do well. People kept asking about the ingredients but they didn't buy it. So we're sticking to entrees such as plain or barbecued, roasted chicken and turkey meatloaf," he said.
The restaurant side of foodlife was opened in 1993. It occupies the entire mezzanine of Water Tower Place, a total of 18,000 square feet not counting foodlife Market, and offers a huge variety of foods at different kiosks. Seating accommodates 400.