WEST BEND, Wis. -- The home-meal replacement program at Prescott's Pick 'n Save Supermarkets here is based on a premise that is simple yet inspired: Make people as key an ingredient as the food is.
The six-unit operator is looking not only to fill bellies, but to build relationships. It is committed to a store-branded program of quality food, and is backing it up with consumer education spearheaded by a high-profile chef devoted to interacting with shoppers.
George Prescott, president and chief executive officer, calls the recipe "chefing and branding." You take the presence of a chef who is definitely a people person, and mix well with a strong brand -- the "Kitchen Express" in Prescott's case -- to attract attention.
"They're the glue that will attach customers to us," Prescott told SN. "Having a chef builds credibility in the consumer's mind that the food is restaurant quality," and so does the dramatic use of a brand, he explained. "From talking to people around the country about their successes and failures, we found that those were key elements in the successes."
And it's working for Prescott's, he said. The retailer's HMR program rang in the New Year with such positive customer feedback that it has spurred a decision for a rollout from one store to all six units. The company is a member of the Pick 'n Save network of stores supplied by wholesaler Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis.
"We're certainly still fine-tuning, but our team is really pleased with it and it's highly acclaimed. We get great comments from customers," Prescott said.
Many of the comments doubtlessly have to do with the accredited executive chef, Gregg Wozniak, who makes himself very visible and available in-store.
Prescott said that the chef's interaction with customers is paramount. "Having food knowledge would not have been enough," he said, and a rapport with customers creates a real point of difference for the store.
He was looking for a particular personality when he hired Wozniak. "We had to have a Gregg to get the message across to our customers. We want to be known as the food experts. We want to be identified as having more knowledge about food than our competitors," Prescott said.
That kind of identification will serve the company well by transcending the meals department and bringing customers into all parts of the store, he pointed out.
Wozniak manages an aggressive demo and sampling program and cooking classes in-store that are also aired on cable television. The chef is even featured on a radio program.
In an area already rife with supermarkets, and where a Wal-Mart Supercenter is set to open this year, the Kitchen Express meals program with its accompanying exposure stands Prescott's in good stead, Prescott pointed out.
"We felt a need to be proactive in home-meal replacement and felt this was the way to go," he said, referring to the decision to focus on chilled items for takeout and use a chef to oversee the program.
Launched in a single store last summer, the program features a large variety of entrees, side dishes and desserts, made on-site and offered up as ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat and ready-to-cook.
The items are packaged both in single servings and in family-sized portions. Limited selections of chef-prepared food are offered hot at the deli counter. Hot food is offered in other Prescott's units, but most of the products are sourced from outside for those stores.
Prescott's Supermarkets is not the only Pick 'n Save operation to use the "Kitchen Express" brand; cartons and containers and other printed materials supplied by Roundy's to Pick 'n Save stores carry the "Kitchen Express" brand and logo. But Prescott's HMR program is entirely its own, and the operator sets off its Kitchen Express with flair.
An awning over a 19-foot-long island case displaying refrigerated meal components -- as many as 80 different varieties daily -- carries a large graphic of the Kitchen Express logo. An in-store newsletter calls attention to the case, which is situated right across the aisle from the service deli in the 69,000-square-foot store here.
"You can see that big awning a mile away," said Wozniak, who personally prepares most of the fare and oversees the fixing of the rest of the food.
Wozniak was hired prior to the launch, to get things going. Prescott said it is the philosophy of the company to hire good people, give them fairly free reins, and then make them accountable. The chef is no exception. "We showed Gregg the numbers and the ropes, but we want him to have fun," Prescott said.
Now, the biggest draw to the area is the chef's station where Wozniak or his assistant demonstrates products every day of the week from 11 a.m. to 1 or 1:30 p.m., and then again from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., or later if customer traffic warrants it. The chef's station is situated at one end of the island display.
"Once you've sampled a product, it's almost an automatic sale," Wozniak said. "For example, portabella mushrooms. When I sampled them, a lot of people told me they'd heard of them but had never tried them. Then, when they tasted them, they'd ask where they could find them in the store."
Wozniak said he enjoys interacting with customers. "I've done a lot of demonstrations in shopping malls and have talked to groups. I feel very comfortable talking to people and they trust me. Our customers come to me and ask me for suggestions. I have a lot of women tell me they're bored cooking the same things every week, and I show them how, with seasonings and herbs, they can make a simple dish taste different."
Wozniak is used to the spotlight. He has had years of experience in the food-service arena, including service as president of the Milwaukee Chapter of St. Augustine, Fla.-based American Culinary Federation.
Wozniak and Prescott both believe that consumer education is essential for the success of an HMR program.
"I'm out on the floor every day, talking to customers and introducing them to foods they may not have tried and making recipe and cooking suggestions to them," Wozniak said.
He also plays up the fact that he uses only natural ingredients and talks to customers about how important it is to eat healthy food.
"I tell them my aim is to make it convenient to buy wholesome, quality items and I point out that the price is not any higher than they would pay for a bag of burgers or tacos," Wozniak said. As an example, he said a whole roast chicken or roast pork with four croissants and enough vegetable and potatoes for four retails for about $13 at Prescott's.
He also offers a dinner of the week with the components at a special price. Recently, the dinner of the week featured one of Wozniak's personal favorites as the entree: burgundy pepper steak. Romaine salad, double-baked potatoes, fresh corn and a chocolate parfait were the meal components.
All parts of the meal, except the meat, are fully cooked -- and the meat is marinated and ready to grill, broil, bake or stir fry. "It doesn't take long to cook, and a lot of people like to cook the meat," he said, adding that they just don't want to bother with all the other parts of the meal.
The mix of cooked entrees and ready-to-cook entrees is about 50-50 in the display case and sales ring up at about the same ratio, Wozniak said. He added, however, that sales are tipped a little more toward fully cooked in the winter.
"I display the dinner of the week on a fine piece of china, shrinkwrapped in the display case so they can see how it will look on the table."
For the dinner of the week, Wozniak usually drops the everyday price of the entree by $1 a pound; on the other items, 20 cents to 25 cents, he said. He also recommends five wines under $15 that would go well with the week's dinner choice.
"I'm actually a salesman for five departments -- deli, bakery, produce and floral, meat, and liquor. I'm apt to suggest that they get flowers; I always have a fresh flower at my chef station. And I tell them that my wife and I, especially during the winter months, try to have a candlelight dinner on Saturday. And I suggest they have one this weekend, too," Wozniak said.
He also has an opportunity to tout a wide range of products in a free cooking class he launched last fall. That class is held right on the selling floor.
But Wozniak doesn't stop at educating customers inside the walls of the store.
He has an hour-long radio show once a month and his cooking classes are shown on cable television. Both the radio station and the TV station approached Wozniak which, he said, showed him that the community already was talking about Prescott's and its new chef.
In fact, Wozniak was first invited to appear as a guest on the "Neighbor-to-Neighbor" radio show, but after the first time, the response from listeners was so strong, the station asked him to be a regular.
Wozniak also frequently addresses students at local intermediate schools, to spread the word about how easy it is to eat healthy, he said.
"I show them stir-fry cooking and I use strictly vegetables and the kids absolutely love it. And then I pass out little cookbooks. Hopefully, they'll take them home and say, 'Hey Mom or Dad, why don't you try these? It's healthy and I like it.' "
He said he emphasizes to customers that he uses no preservatives or ingredients that aren't natural. When he needs a meat tenderizer, he uses papaya extract, for example.
Wozniak is a strong believer in applying couponing to the HMR area. He keeps $1-off coupons nearby and often doles them out to customers who ask him questions.
Prescott emphasizes that the HMR program is an investment. "Sales are good, but not great -- not yet. It's not yet sustaining itself," he said. "But we're gaining contemporary knowledge and attracting new customers."
And the company is learning things that can be used in its other stores.
"They won't all be the same. It will be fun for us to leverage the knowledge that we gain in this first store. We're already tweaking the delis in the others as we go along," Prescott said. The addition of desserts in the retailer's other delis represents one such adjustment.
"We'll continue to watch what's going on here and transfer it to the other stores when it's warranted, even before they're remodeled," Prescott said.