SEATTLE -- Larry's Markets here has brought its fresh foods savvy to its first downtown city location.
The privately held independent has built a store into the urban fabric of the Queen Anne section, a neighborhood close to businesses, homes, several theaters and Seattle Center, home of the city's signature Space Needle, and soon to be home of a new basketball arena for the Seattle SuperSonics.
The store doesn't have any brand-new food concepts for the retailer, but it does take the programs Larry's has developed at other units, most notably in food service, to a more advanced
level of execution.
"I always felt very strongly that our concept, and especially our food-service concept, would thrive in an urban setting because it's such a city concept," said Karen Malody, the former vice president of food services at Larry's who is now director of food service at Starbucks Coffee Co. in Seattle.
"Those thoughts have been 100% accurate," said Malody, who happens to live in the Queen Anne section near the store. "It's a great place to eat. In the area we very much needed a strong cheese department and a great meat department. It's a service that wasn't being provided."
The store opened without fanfare Feb. 8. The retailer apparently didn't want to draw overwhelming crowds. Local radio ads announced the store was open, but there was no grand opening. Officials at Larry's declined to comment for this story, and told SN they were not granting interviews to the local consumer press either.
Larry Andrews, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the five-unit independent, said the much admired company tends to get so overwhelmed by press attention and subsequent food industry visitors that it becomes difficult for staffers to do their jobs of selling food. "We simply don't have the staff or the time," he said. "All we truly want to do is address our customer base."
Located on a corner site at 100 Mercer St., the store is part of a new mixed-use shopping center that has two levels. Larry's is on the first level, and above it is a drug store that also had its opening day Feb. 8. There is parking below street level, as well as on a plaza.
Using the constricted city site, the retailer has packed a huge
fresh punch, even from the outside.
Along Mercer Street, the store has a glass front, which provides a window onto a floral preparation area where staffers can be seen trimming blooms for bouquets. There's an elevator with its works exposed where shoppers can be seen descending to the sublevel parking area. The windows also allow a view of a catering office, where orders are taken, as well as the checkstands.
Along another edge of the store, at First Avenue North, pedestrians can peer into the cafe eating area, and look in on shoppers pausing to sip coffee at a stand-up counter just past the main entrance.
To enter the store, shoppers pass an outdoor floral department with potted plants and fresh-cut blooms and are confronted with a tunnel of fresh prepared foods. To the right, just beyond Larry's signature coffee bar, Lorenzo's, is a service deli case brimming with bowls of prepared food shown off to advantage in high glass cases.
To the left are the prepared foods programs Larry's has developed at other locations. While at other Larry's units the prepared foods programs have been somewhat scattered about the deli department, here they are lined up against a wall with a common space for food preparation.
Malody said the change is a good one. "The fact that they finally put all of the food-service elements in a contiguous line had to happen for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is labor," she said. "The back of the house is more available now to the discrete units. The synergy between them is just much stronger."
Shoppers select the food cafeteria-style, making stops at each ethnic food station, and wind their way past the area's cash registers to the cafe seating area.
The programs include sushi, which is prepared in view of customers and set out in a self-service case in the cafeteria lineup; Taqueria Aprisa, which features Mexican specialties, and Panizza, which features Italian sandwiches grilled on bread from the retailer's bakery. There's also rotisserie chicken cooked in a variety of ways, some with new fat-free marinades, and cooked-to-order breakfast, lunch and dinner items that can be taken out or eaten in-store. Winding toward the cash registers, there are various self-service items like fruit salad, desserts and bottled drinks.
At the checkstand, shoppers can request cups and pay for them and then serve themselves fountain soft drinks and coffee en route to the cafe seating area. At the various stations along the prepared foods line, staffers check off the order on a pad and slap on a bar-coded label for the items selected. The shopper presents the form to the cashier. A Panino Roma, a grilled cheese and vegetable Italian-style sandwich, was $4.75.
In the food-service area, called the Market Court Cafe, there's also a salad bar and a self-service case with sandwiches and other grab-and-go items.
Local observers said the prepared foods should prove popular for area workers looking for a quick bite at lunch, as well as for people going to the various area attractions at night who want a reasonably priced meal.
"A lot of single- and dual-working couples who want to eat well but don't have the time to cook are just thrilled to have a takeout meal section and know they have a good alternative to fast food," Malody said.
The challenge, she said, will be "continuing to stay out ahead of trends and keeping the concepts and merchandising fresh and unique."
Malody predicted that shoppers will visit the store frequently to pick up food for their daily meals. "People will go there more often on their way home. It will be a challenge to keep everything fresh and new," she said.
There's no mistaking the fact that the retailer is reaching out to the theater crowd. Over the side entry a marquee reads, "Lettuce Entertain You."
And entertainment -- or at least a theatrical, action-filled atmosphere -- is what the rest of the fresh foods lineup seems to be all about.
Dramatic lighting and mass displays contribute to the sense of theater.
Just beyond the prepared foods area is the deli cheese department, which has service and self-service merchandising and a selection that store literature says nears 400 items, 160 of which are imported. At a self-service display of goat cheese, a television played a video showing how the cheese was made.
A similar video was used in the produce department at a bulk display of strawberries, showing where the berries were harvested.
Sampling added to the action. In the bakery, which features open production, a demo stand was set up with little cups of birthday cake, which a staffer offered to passing customers as a way to promote the retailer's custom cakes. By the service deli case, samples of the branded upscale deli meats featured in the department were offered and eagerly taken. The department has some 75 meat items, according to
a store flier.
The produce department is at the back of the store beyond the prepared foods area, and is followed, in a somewhat traditional supermarket lineup for such a progressive store -- many retailers are bunching all the fresh departments in one huge aisle these days -- by seafood and meat and then dairy along the perimeter.
The produce department, called Produce Row, a play on Seattle's famous Skid Row, begins with the fancy stuff: an extensive organics section along the left wall with some 50 items, and European-style slant tables piled high with imported produce, including Chilean peaches and $2.49-per-pound apricots from New Zealand. The country of origin is highlighted for all the imports.
"Oh, my word. Where did they get these?" an older woman asked her husband as they paused at the apricots on opening day.
"Look at the peaches," another woman said to a companion. The woman squeezed a few, looking for one that met her criteria for ripeness, and moved on. "They're hard. I would have bought one if they were ripe," she said.
The department also has a refrigerated case of value-added produce, including cut vegetables that are made in-house and ice tables of precut fruit and fresh-squeezed juices.
The organic items are stickered with labels that read "organic," and there is a roll of bags next to the section stamped with "organic" in bold black letters on a yellow background.
Both the seafood and meat departments feature extensive offerings of oven-ready items from rolled, stuffed roasts to marinated fish fillets. The retailer makes its own sausage, and has a wide selection of shellfish on ice. The seafood case boasts a number of prepared salads. The new Larry's got strong reviews from local competitors SN spoke with.
"I thought it was a nice store in general," said Rick Kavanaugh, seafood manager of Queen Anne Thriftway, a nearby store that is known for its own strengths in fresh foods merchandising. "It fits the neighborhood that they are in."
Kavanaugh said the lunch business at the new store is "really phenomenal," and added that he is surprised the store doesn't have more seating. Seating is limited to an area behind the cafeteria-style lineup.
He said the prepared foods in the deli are particularly strong.
"From feedback I've had from my customers, they are definitely busy. They are doing well. Their opening day exceeded their expectations," Kavanaugh said.
What's Larry's effect? "We've been able to weather the two QFCs in our area. We were able to handle that. The Safeway next to us, they pulled out seafood. We've weathered that," Kavanaugh said. "We're just going to continue to do what we do best."
"Awesome" was the word used by a produce clerk at the QFC store across the street from the new Larry's to describe his reaction to the store. He said there were two things he didn't like about the store: the low ceiling in the produce department and the lighting, which he said was too dark.
Responding to a compliment about his attractive produce displays, the clerk joked, "They look nice because we've had plenty of time today to make them this way."
In other words, for opening day, at least, Larry's was doing a good job of drawing away QFC's customers.