WEST LINN, Ore. -- A renovation of the West Linn Thriftway here has created a predominantly fresh market, creating a groundswell of support from customers for ready-to-cook prepared meat entrees, and international, organic and exotic produce. "We've rearranged the meat and seafood areas and added the Butcher's Block section with lots of stuffed and prepared entrees. We also increased the produce section by about 30% to 40%," said store manager Craig Harris about the recently completed changes in the 31,000-square-foot store located in a suburb south of Portland. "And the customers tell me they love it."
The renovation centered on the store's fresh sections, reconfiguring meat/poultry/seafood into a continuous line of European-style cases, and adding space to floral, produce, bakery and deli. The remodeling also added space for a wider selection of gourmet grocery items, like extra virgin olive oil, marinades and dressings. "There was a lot of wasted space in this store," said Harris.
The store now downplays more traditional dry groceries, although "We stock enough so that the customer looking for some Best Foods mayonnaise will find it here, too," Harris said.
In the combined meat/poultry/seafood department, the West Linn Thriftway has increased items to more than 200, said manager Joe Brandl.
"We bought two new European-style service cases and while we didn't expand the department, we did make better use of the space allotted to us. Before, the lineup of cases was broken up and spread around. Now, we put them all together in a straight line along the back of the store," Brandl explained.
The centerpiece of the renovated section is the Butcher's Block, where store-made entrees are displayed.
Prepared whenever possible with local Oregon product, the entrees have sold successfully so far, he said.
Butcher's Block is stocked with up to 20 different items at any one time, and the most popular so far is chicken cordon bleu, made with black forest ham and Oregon tillamook cheese.
Also popular have been flank steak stuffed with cilantro and a three-cheese blend, chicken breast stuffed with fontina and asparagus, and pork tenderloin rolled into pinwheels with a cranberry-walnut stuffing.
The seafood department also underwent a makeover, with up to 50 items stocked in the service case at any one time. The store added a lobster and crab tank; carries five types of prawns; stocks mahimahi, marlin and tuna from Hawaii; and local favorites like halibut and swordfish. So far, the customer enthusiasm for ready-to-cook items hasn't spread to seafood, Brandl said.
"People here are more traditional about their seafood; they like it fresh and simply prepared, preferably by themselves."
Produce footage increased between 30% to 40%, allowing produce manager Bob Willis to add approximately 100 new items, including a new organic section installed in late October.
The renovation created room for such exotic fruits and vegetables as cherimoya and pepino melons, added an iced section for cut melons and mixed fruit chunks, and allowed Willis in general the space to stock a broader variety of items within any category.
For instance, before the makeover, Willis said, he stocked a maximum of seven types of apples; in mid-November, the category was up to 15 types and sizes.
"Our plan was to do new things, stock new things and give them six months to a year to catch on with our customers," said Willis. "Whenever we get new items, we try to educate the consumer about them, and work hard to get good communication going with them about what they want us to carry."
During tomato season, the new configuration allowed him to go wild with tomatoes, stocking varieties including hothouse, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and red, yellow, orange, green and black tomatoes. Customers, he said, "just ate it up," and he's already planning to expand the tomato program next year.
The extra space also allows Willis to develop better working relationships with suppliers, since he's willing to provide a predictable market for more unique produce. He says one local grower has agreed to provide a steady supply of items Willis hopes will sell well next spring.
"We're concentrating on propagating local suppliers who in spring will bring us things like shell beans, dragon beans, Chinese long beans and cranberry beans.
"But right now, we're between the domestic and imported produce seasons, so there's not a lot of product to choose from," he said.
Recently, produce added a 24-foot organic case, stocked at any one time with about 25 to30 items, including potatoes, row crops, salad greens, salad mixes and herbs. If sales continue to be strong, Willis said he'll consider expanding the section, depending on season and availability.
In total, the produce department now has 48 feet of refrigerated cases and 72 feet of wet racks.
The West Linn Thriftway renovations started in May, with the interior portion completed recently. The store was purchased in March of this year by Philomath Foods, an independent with six other stores in the Portland, Ore., area.