Supermarket retailers are using innovative combination counter cases to enhance their food-service image, save space and boost sales of prepared foods.
While supermarkets have been trying to expand their food-service operations for years, competition today has intensified to the point that display has become critical, said Reggie Daniel, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Daniel Design, a consulting company that specializes in food-service design.
"I have been pounding on people for years to get away from cases that have so much metal on them and no glass," he said. "Supermarkets can't artfully merchandise the foods, and customers can't see the visual appeal of the foods, without glass. And now you see the manufacturers are getting better and better in terms of glass screens that radiate heat, but at the same time allow you to see the product.
"Retailers can keep product hot without needing a massive stainless steel top," he added. "It's a better merchandiser. It can be self-service, or it can be on a counter with a server preparing and handing the customer the foods."
Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets, which operates more than 270 supermarkets and convenience stores, uses a variety of combination cases.
"The greatest advantage of combi cases is the opportunity they give us to create tie-in merchandising presentations," said Kent Tapley, Marsh's director of deli, bakery and food service. "For example, we can offer hot chicken or ribs from our hot cases on top, and cold side dishes, salads, blue cheese dressing to go with chicken wings can be merchandised on the bottom. We may have a service deli on the top and beneath that refrigerated self-service, so we can tie in prepackaged salads below lunch meats on top."
Now that so many retailers have combi cases, the newest trend is for upscale supermarkets to separate the pieces and to build a custom countertop, "maybe heated marble around the cold cases and the heated shelves and bases so they can have a custom look," said Robert Simmelink, executive chef and business development manager for Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Alto-Shaam.
By customizing the look of their food-to-go sections, upscale supermarkets, like upscale restaurants, are creating ambience that supports higher-ticket food items.
"They are taking their food-service operations to a higher mega-level," Simmelink said. "So instead of selling chicken precooked for $3, they may be getting $6 for their chicken, but it's not the same rotisserie chicken everyone else has. It may be a Thai roasted chicken, and their upscale presentation makes it easier to justify their extra dollars."
Simpsonville, S.C.-based BKI Worldwide may have been one of the first manufacturers to introduce combination cases when, in 1994, they put a rotisserie on top of a self-service deli case.
Mike Walpole, engineering manager for BKI, called the presentation "a little piece of theatrical show-and-sell. As customers saw the chickens cooking, they could reach right under the rotisserie and grab a chicken from the self-service case."
"Combination cases are space-savers," Walpole said. "We can put hot cases over cold cases, and instead of needing eight feet of space, supermarkets can merchandise the same amount of product in two four-foot cases, one on top of the other. Now they can get the same amount of merchandise to the customer in less space."
As supermarkets venture further and further into takeout food, they are relying more and more on combi displays to give them the flexibility to merchandise "complete home meals for a family in a compact four feet of space," Simmelink said. "You can grab a hot chicken to go from the top heated case, salads and beverages to go from below in the cold cases, and you have an entire home meal for the family."
Working with combination display manufacturers, supermarkets are experimenting with fixtures that offer unusual features. Carrier-Tyler Refrigeration has even included sinks in some of its combi cases, and in ethnic markets the company has developed service hot cases for fresh-cooked corn-on-the- cob, said Jason Babin, product manager for the Niles, Mich.-based company.
One independent supermarket merchandises the corn-on-the-cob display as its "Hot Corn" case. "They sell the corn cobs from the back of the display from the service counter, and they sell self-service cold foods from the front," Babin said.
College Park, N.Y.-based Stark Products is introducing new fresh-fish vertical combination cases that give supermarkets the ability to add a refrigeration case underneath a fresh-fish display.
"We call it a knee-knocker," said Bob Grasch, a co-owner of Brookfield, Wis.-based Grasch Foods, a 30,000-square-foot independent. "In the front, there is a little refrigerated well that goes all along the 12-foot case, so you can merchandise packaged refrigerated items in the same case. Stark also has a lobster tank that can be built underneath a fresh-fish case.
"We've considered putting in some of the Stark units when we are ready to retrofit our store," he continued. "We like them because you can merchandise related items right next to the main items. You can display fresh fish on top and refrigerated sauces that complement the fish underneath, or you can display ready-made seafood salads, very premium salads, in tubs in the front of the display. It's more convenient than putting the salads in service cases, where customers have to wait for them to be scooped and packaged."
Because so many supermarkets are upgrading combination cases to accommodate their growing presentations of grab-and-go food, there is an increasing need for brand differentiation, said Robert Mullen, product manager for the Specialty Products division of Bridgeton, Mo.-based Hussman Products.
"Combination cases allow retailers to save space, and cut back on labor and shrink, because they combine a small section of service and self-service products," said Mullen. "But today, each retailer is trying to create a configuration that allows them to specialize in some ways that would be unique to them.
"If a retailer wants a prepared sushi bar on top and packaged sushi below, we have the ability to create that configuration. We have the designs and the technology to fit into various departments within a supermarket, including meat, fish, deli, cheese, prepared foods and bakery."
A growing number of companies that make display cases are introducing special lighting, using more black and less utilitarian white on the interiors and exteriors to call more attention to the food inside the cases, "so the food itself becomes a color," Daniel said, "and the color of the case and the lighting, too, becomes a palette for displaying the color of the food inside."
Alto-Shaam is using more heated-glass technology, because it looks nicer than stainless steel. "You have shiny black tempered glass that really makes the food pop," Simmelink said.
BKI, which is a hot-case vendor, is now partnering with its sister division, Belleville, Wis.-based Federal Industries, which makes cold cases, to make integrated hot-over-cold cases. Both BKI and Federal are owned by Salem, N.H.-based Standex International.
The hot-over-cold cases, which will be available by the fall, will complement the rest of BKI's line, Walpole said. The integrated cases will be available in a variety of sizes for both self-serve and full-serve presentations.
On its hot cases, BKI is also introducing an innovative new single-point, touchscreen control called TouchTec, which will allow retailers to control the top and bottom heat individually for each well within the case, all from one display.
"Retailers will be able to touch the screen and control all the wells inside a case from one display location," Walpole said.
TouchTec was rolled out last month.
Carrier-Tyler Refrigeration has a fairly new type of combi case that is just starting to gain broader distribution. It has 12 feet of self-service refrigeration in the front; on one end, it has a four-foot service deli dome, and on the other end of the case is a four-foot hot dome that can be used for self-service. In between is a four-foot pass-through counter where deli workers interact with customers.
Alan Greenfield, vice president of operations for Stark Products, said the company is working to refine its open refrigerated case display, using a low-velocity coil to gently cool fish so it won't dry out.
Stark is testing the latest version now with Albertsons in a few of the retailer's Acme stores, Greenfield said. The display, which has a Corrigan fogger system, can be set up as a combination unit with a self-service case in the front. "That would be our next step for Acme," Greenfield said. "The merchandisers today really want the look. They want their cases to look spectacular from the front and to be a showcase for the products they are selling."