NEEDHAM, Mass. -- Meal sales at a Roche Bros. store located here experienced a double-digit improvement after a unit of Boston Market down the street closed its doors. The Roche Bros. store, one of three the 13-unit chain operates under its Sudbury Farms banner, posted a 40% increase in sales of its hot, ready-to-eat food within three weeks of the closedown last month.
Not only that, but sales have continued to grow. For the week ending November 7, sales were up 4% over the previous week. Chain officials attribute the huge boost in sales here almost entirely to Boston Market's demise.
"We were serving the same type of customer. So as soon as we heard about the closing, we told our associates we had a terrific opportunity to win Boston Market's customers. We made them aware of that," said Jarret Peppard, director of food service, for Wellesley Hills, Mass.-based Roche Bros.
He employed no new marketing or merchandising tactics. The idea was to keep service and quality up to par in the onslaught of expected new business so customers would have a positive experience and come back, Peppard said.
"I went out to the store right away to talk to department heads and staff about strategy. We quickly reviewed the production and service schedules and invested in additional help for both," he added.
"I told them that we not only needed to make a positive impression, but that any negative impression could lose us not just one dinner, but a dinner or more every week."
Service and production staff has been boosted by 15%, and Peppard is currently looking for ways to better handle volume as the holiday season approaches.
"We were nearly maxed out as far as handling everything in the space we have there. So we're looking at different marinating processes and ways to streamline production. We took preparation for the salad bar out of the kitchen and moved it to another part of the store. We also might do some preparation in the meat department," he said.
Thanks to a newly revised meals program introduced earlier this year, Roche Bros.' home-cooking-to-go takeout program -- Kitchen '98 -- and its price structure very nearly mirror what Boston Market was offering.
The program, which focuses on dinner and family-sized meals, was rolled out last spring to all of Roche Bros. stores, including its Sudbury Farms banner stores.
"We do a phenomenal lunch business at Needham, but the average ticket for lunch at any location is minimal compared to the meals you can sell for dinner," said Peppard.
Retail prices for dinners and dinner components at the supermarket chain's units are about the same as those at Boston Market and the menu variety is comparable.
The majority -- in fact, 63% -- of sales of hot, a la carte entrees at the Needham store is comprised of rotisserie chicken, Peppard said. Other menu items are broasted chicken, roast turkey breast, roast, stuffed pork loin, and a fifth rotating entree. Right now the rotating items are ribs and meatloaf.
Sides include such items as onion-roasted potatoes and butternut squash in three sizes -- individual, large and family, retailing for $1.59, $3.49 and $5.99 respectively. A rotisserie chicken is $5.99.
Peppard said he purposefully did not try to undercut the menu prices at Boston Market. "We have an even better quality product and our service is as good as anybody's," he said.
"Associates tell me they see a lot of new faces among our customers," he said, adding that it's probable that many of them were former patrons of the Boston Market unit that was shuttered.
"In fact, since we were winding up our fiscal year I was paying more attention to gross than to increasing sales so we had slowed our marketing. Our ads weren't as aggressive. We used the ad space for educational messages like telling consumers about our holiday meals," Peppard said.
Associates have held up well under the sales boom, he said.
"They're a little tattered, but they're ecstatic about sales. They've met the challenge as well as I could have ever imagined," Peppard said.
Selected Boston Market units are being closed in accordance with a plan Boston Chicken, Golden, Colo., filed when it entered Chapter 11 in early October [see Boston Market Declares Chapter 11, SN, 10/12/98]. There is another Boston Market here in Needham, but Peppard said consumers would have to change their path home to reach it.
The closed Boston Market unit lies just 100 feet from the back of the Sudbury Farms store.
No other Roche Bros. stores have a Boston Market in such close proximity, Peppard said. However, even with the Boston Market here closed, there are still plenty of other competitors in this affluent Boston-area bedroom community, particularly local restaurants, Peppard said.
"One Italian restaurant, in addition to having a dining room, has cut a hole in its kitchen wall so you can walk right up to a window and place your takeout order," he said. Peppard sees no end in sight for the fresh meals trend, and he credits Boston Chicken with getting the message across to consumers.
"They've been very savvy in communicating the benefits of their concept to the consumer.
They've been doing what we've been doing for years in the grocery business, but they communicated what they were doing better than any of us were able to," Peppard said.