Seating areas can sell more ready-to-eat, freshly prepared food, even make a store a destination. But thoughtful planning and a genuine commitment to making the areas appealing are absolutely essential, retailers told SN.
It's not the seating itself, but a comfortable aura that's a draw. Attractive tables and chairs do play a part in that, but in many supermarkets, if there is seating, it looks like an afterthought, and that's not good enough. In fact, it's bad.
"If you're going to just throw in a row of plastic booths or put a couple of tables up against columns in the aisle, you might as well forget it. It looks positively unappealing," one retailer said.
The next step after getting the food right is finding the best way to let people know it's there, that it's easily accessible, and that there's a comfortable place to sit down and eat it, said Donald Rouse, managing partner, at Rouse Supermarkets, Thibodaux, La.
"Once you've got the quality and consistency of the food down, you want to work on the location [in the store], the ease of getting in and out, and the atmosphere itself."
Indeed, Rouse gives equal weight to those attributes in getting customers to think of his stores for meals, especially at lunchtime. In the last three years, the 15-unit independent has doubled the seating capacity at its 73,000-square-foot flagship store to accommodate about 80 diners. The company also has created separate entrances with parking spaces right outside the prepared foods departments, and has added lighting fixtures, and more wood, to warm up the seating areas in remodeled stores. Altogether, it makes a statement and draws more customers into the store, Rouse said.
"It's important to bring it all together up front, to separate it from the grocery shopping experience. That's certainly what we'll do in all our new stores. Some of our older stores have the seating upstairs, or way in the back, but this is how we'll go in the future. It has a 'cafe' feel and it's as easily accessible as any restaurant in town. At the same time, it makes us different from the Winn-Dixies and Albertsons and Wal-Marts."
Other retailers agreed that location and ambiance are necessary ingredients for prepared foods' sales success and even contribute to the whole store's success. In fact, Elton Reid, director of fresh foods, at 10-unit Foodtown Stores, Middletown, N.J., sees a prepared foods department with an inviting seating area as a draw for the whole store.
"You can't always be competing on price," Reid said. "You have to give consumers a reason they'd rather come to your store. The look and feel of it makes such a difference."
Reid said locating prepared foods up front and giving the area a family restaurant feel is ideal.
"We're renovating a store right now where we're allocating space for seating," he said. "It'll be our first that has any sizeable amount of seating, and it's going to be a comfortable area at the front corner of the store. We're working with a design team to bring warmth to it. There will be some overstuffed chairs and a coffee bar."
Working with design teams is a mark of retailers' commitment to creating a destination, and more are doing it.
McCaffrey's Markets, Yardley, Pa., has hired a professional designer to create an inviting mezzanine seating area at a store that's being rebuilt following a fire that destroyed it last winter.
McCaffrey's already has taken big measures to make its prepared foods department a gathering place for families, and for community groups. In the new store, the seating area will be fitted out with three moveable partitions so the area could be increased or decreased in size for a particular event.
Comfortable seating is crucial for any retailer committed to a prepared foods program, said Mark Eckhouse, vice president of the three-unit, upscale independent.
"First of all, it conveys the message quickly that we do ready-to-eat food," Eckhouse said. "And, what's just as important, we offer it in a comfortable area. And we particularly call people's attention to that by interjecting events such as our theme nights."
For example, he pointed out, there's "Friday Is Pizza Night" at McCaffrey's. A large pizza is served with a 2-liter bottle of soda for $6.99. Associates actually carry the fare to the table.
A family-sized meatloaf meal with mashed potatoes is the star on American Night when four people can dine for about $11 total.
"What that does is bring the whole family into the store. Mom and dad bring the kids with them, everybody eats, and then they do their grocery shopping. Those nights are very popular and then at one of our stores we have an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet. On Italian night, we'll have red-and-white checkered tablecloths and a flower on the tables. Sometimes floral will make up small centerpieces and people can buy those," Eckhouse said, pointing out that once retailers dedicate the space to seating, they should make the most of it.
Often, people are waiting for a table at McCaffrey's in the evening, and community events fill it up on slow nights.
"We've had singles parties and we've provided space for local Lions Club meetings. We might bring in a string quartet from the local high school. It adds another dimension to the store. There's a sense of fun about it."
That added dimension Eckhouse describes is certainly evident at Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn. At some of the stores in the nine-unit chain, seating areas include fireplaces and picture windows, and artwork decorates the walls. Water coolers and condiment counters are part of the scene and there are no little packets of salt and pepper. Each table has its own pepper grinder and hefty salt shaker.
"People appreciate that atmosphere. We have regular meetings with our customers to get their feedback on everything, and one of the things they always tell us is that they like to come to Kowalski's for lunch. At some of our stores, you have a hard time finding a seat during lunchtime," said Terry Bennis, vice president, fresh foods operations, at Kowalski's.
Recently, Kowalski's launched a Lunch & Learn series of educational seminars as a way to introduce customers to the retailer's products and services. The programs also get consumers acquainted with the ambiance of the seating area.
"We know it's important to provide a nice place for people to eat, especially for lunch. At dinnertime, most just want to grab their food and take it home," Bennis said.
Foodtown's Reid wants to create a gathering place atmosphere at Foodtown's renovated store.
"When I was with Harris Teeter, we had that in Atlanta where the seating area was adjacent to the coffee bar," Reid said. "It became a destination for garden clubs and other groups. Friends met there for coffee and something to eat, and I'd see couples meet there after work and have coffee while they went over their shopping lists."
Whether Foodtown will replicate the effort at other stores hasn't been determined.
"We know it wouldn't work everywhere. There's a tendency in the business to take a concept that works one place and get it into every store, but that's not good. It's definitely a store-by-store decision," Reid said.
Industry sources who were interviewed by SN underscored the micro-marketing aspect. "You need to poll customers somehow -- for instance, with intercepts, e-mail or direct mail to loyalty card customers. See if they would use a sit-down cafe-type area. It works sometimes in upscale suburbs. A case in point is Wegmans in Pittsfield outside of Rochester [N.Y.], a very high-income residential area," said Stephan Kouzomis, president, Entrepreneurial Consulting, Louisville, Ky.
But small offices in the area or office buildings that don't have their own cafeteria are also great potential source of lunch business for supermarkets, Kouzomis added.
The variety a supermarket can offer -- and, in some cases, convenience -- can serve it well even in an area fraught with restaurants.
"It can be a healthy alternative and if people come in a group from their office, everybody can find something they want. There's more to choose from than at a pizza parlor or McDonald's," one industry source said.
That standout variety gives an inviting seating area particularly high priority if a supermarket is courting lunch business, he said.
No matter how enticing the menu choices, the lunchtime crowd, for the most part, doesn't want to tangle with spaghetti or a signature sloppy joe on their dashboard or at their desk. An arugula-chevre wrap maybe, but otherwise it's a messy business.
As one retailer so aptly put it, "We're not just selling great food. We're selling convenience, too."