MONTVALE, N.J. -- A&P here isn't chicken when it comes to playing in the branded restaurant arena.
The chain has launched a branded chicken restaurant of its own, inside a new store in Kenilworth, N.J.
The chain is also apparently ready to brave the competition for hot chicken meals. The A&P concept, called Just Chicken, is placed right at the front of the Kenilworth store. What's more, the site selected for the concept's debut is within a mile of competing home meal replacement units operated by Boston Market and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The chain launched the chicken restaurant in mid-May, several months after the new 64,000-square-foot store opened its doors. However, banners proclaiming "Just Chicken Coming Soon" were hung outside the store right after it opened earlier this year.
"Just Chicken" was developed by the company over the course of this past year, according to A&P officials. Rather than link up with a national or regional brand restaurant, the chain chose to create its own concept because it wanted to experiment with its own proprietary brand, officials said. The chain has McDonald's operations set up in a Farmer Jack format store.
"[Just Chicken] is a test, and sales at this point are up to expectations," said Michael Rourke, senior vice president of communications and corporate affairs. He told SN it is too early to determine, however, whether the concept will be rolled out to other A&P stores.
"Normally, testing goes on for a period of six months, and during this time, we're learning a lot," he added.
Rourke said several factors are being evaluated during the restaurant's test period, including the restaurant's positioning in the store; whether its sales eat into sales of rotisserie and fried chicken in the deli, which is located near the back of the store; and which side dishes are most popular.
Asked if A&P was influenced by Boston Market's hot popularity when it developed Just Chicken, Rourke said, "We've certainly watched them and we've also watched others, and we've also been upgrading our own takeout operations all along."
He added that Just Chicken represents quite a big step further than A&P has taken previously in the takeout food business.
"Opening our own takeout restaurant, a separate entity, is new for us. We were influenced by Boston Chicken and a lot of other factors," Rourke said.
The restaurant is situated on the street side of the checkout lanes, and it has its own cash register. That makes it possible for a destination customer to get in and out quickly, said an industry observer who visited the store.
What percentage of the restaurant's customers make Just Chicken their destination, and what percentage is made up of customers already in the store, is another factor that's being watched closely, according to Rourke. He declined, however, to offer any results of A&P's observations at this time.
One local consumer said the restaurant is positioned just right, but he decried the lack of seating. Eat-in arrangements are limited to a short, stand-up eating bar. "When I was there, the stand-up bar was crowded so I was forced to eat my lunch in my car," the consumer said.
Rourke said that at this point the biggest proportion of sales is rung up early in the evening. That presumably could represent sales to people stopping after work to take a meal or meals home with them, an observer said. Just Chicken's service counter is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., but a large selection of chilled items is also available from a self-service case.
A large number of signs keep customers informed. One huge sign, with the Just Chicken logo at its top, says, "Service Counter 11 a.m. -- 8 p.m. daily. Self-service -- 24 hours."
The restaurant's logo is a graphic representation of a chicken wearing a chef's hat and a blue-and-white checkered napkin knotted around its neck. The blue-and-white checks are a theme carried out in a huge "Just Chicken" sign over the counter that faces shoppers as they go through checkout lanes, on a sign on the store's exterior, and above a "hot-service family meals" menu. The blue-and-white checks and the chicken graphic element also are featured on the cover of a fold-out menu of the restaurant's complete line-up of selections. The menus are available at the restaurant's counter.
During one recent visit to the store, associates also were handing out Just Chicken menus to customers in other parts of the store. In addition, they were offering Just Chicken samples of barbecued chicken, chicken salad and rice pudding.
The restaurant offers whole rotisserie chickens in the following flavors: traditional, lemon pepper, herb, smoked, teriyaki, rosemary, Mediterranean, Southwestern and honey sesame. The retail is $6.99 per chicken. That compares favorably with the price for a rotisserie chicken at nearby Boston Market, where it is $7.49.
Fried chicken also is featured at the Just Chicken operation. The price for an eight-piece bucket is $7.99. Meanwhile, an eight-piece box of fried chicken at a Kentucky Fried Chicken unit just down the road from A&P is $9.99.
In addition to whole chickens and fried chicken by the bucket, Just Chicken offers rotisserie chicken by the half and quarter and fried chicken by the piece.
In easy-to-read chart form, the menu promotes rotisserie chicken meals. A quarter chicken, dark meat, is $2.99; with one individual side dish, $3.59; with two side dishes, $3.99. A quarter chicken, all white meat, is $3.99; with one side dish, $4.59; with two side dishes, $4.99. A "Family Meal," for two or three is $9.99. It includes a whole chicken, two sides and six dinner rolls. A "Family Meal Plus," designed to serve four or five people, is $16.99. It includes two whole chickens, four side dishes and 12 dinner rolls. "The Feast," for seven or eight people, is $23.99. It includes two whole chickens, four side dishes, 12 dinner rolls and eight pieces of fried chicken.
Chicken salad, chicken Caesar salad and chicken sandwiches also are offered.
An impressive array of 21 side dishes is featured. Hot sides are $1.59 for an individual serving, and $2.99 for a regular container. Cold sides are 99 cents for an individual serving and $1.99 for a regular container.
Rourke said the large array of side dishes is part of a "customer test, to see what they want to buy."
Some sides may be eliminated from the menu and others may be added, he said. However, "We're not drawing any conclusions until the test period is over." He declined to say what the current best-seller is.
Some of the side dishes, such as coleslaw, are produced in-store. Others -- spinach souffle is one example -- are sourced from outside, Rourke said. The lineup of sides includes trendy garlic roasted potatoes and carrots with dill, as well as "comfort food" favorites like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and baked beans.
An industry observer familiar with A&P suggested that since A&P has been building stores recently in malls, the Just Chicken experiment could be extended to an outparcel adjacent to an A&P unit.