WICHITA FALLS, Texas -- United Supermarkets has created a new shopping experience here with United Market Street -- brick-paved aisles lined with action stations serving up fresh food, home-style meals and competitive price points.
In creating the venue, the 38-unit retailer sought to add variety and theater to the otherwise mundane chore of food shopping. The October opening of the 64,000-square-foot United Market has done just that. Shoppers stroll through the market's "streets" and encounter different-themed food depots in their travels.
Response to the new concept has been great, according to Larry Martin, store manager of United Market. "Right from the beginning actual sales have been higher than what was projected," he said. "The customers really seem to enjoy the new concept and are responding with repeat visits."
In building Market Street, United realized that the concept had to promote more than just visuals if it wanted to capture repeat customers. All the fresh-food offerings had to incorporate quality and value.
"We strive to provide choices that are convenient and affordable, but also restaurant-quality," said Renee Underwood, director of marketing for United Market. "The environment is important, but the food quality has to be there as well."
Recently, the retailer's efforts were acknowledged when its chilled prepared meals sold under the Meals to Go label won an award.
United Market was invited to participate in a regional competition sponsored by the Red Cross of North Central Texas. The contest welcomed 40 competitors from local restaurants and hotels, with United Market the only supermarket in attendance.
Singled out specifically for its Italian pasta dishes and King's Ranch Casserole -- a Texas specialty chock full of chunk white chicken and a variety of cheeses -- United Market walked away with the coveted "Best Overall" award, which was based on presentation as well as food quality.
To create these award-winning recipes and develop a full menu for all in-store stations, United brought in certified executive chef Chris Wilson. "To staff our food-prep areas we turned to the restaurant industry and other specialty areas, like military bases and country clubs," said Underwood. "The chefs really sell the sizzle. They're a big part of the show."
She added that Wilson develops the menus and recipes and trains new line cooks to familiarize them with the food-as-theater concept. The retailer also has a full-time registered dietitian on staff who contributes to menu selection and recipe development.
The Meals to Go format has been a part of United Market right from the start. But while the prepared-food portion only makes up about one-third of the store, Underwood emphasized that this is not the only area where prepared food can be found.
"This isn't a case where we have all our chilled prepared food in one specific area," she said. "We've incorporated the idea throughout the entire store."
Strolling down the street-like fresh aisle, shoppers will encounter the Market Street Kitchen and Grille, featuring items like cast-iron skillet chicken-fried steak, hand-carved turkey breast and fire-roasted chicken. The Italian Kitchen features pasta specialties such as shrimp scampi or tortellini and sausage. Guests also have the option of creating their own pasta dish and are provided with a variety of pastas, sauces and toppings. All dishes are served with freshly made specialty breadsticks.
Those searching for more casual Italian fare can check out the Market Street Pizza station, where they can purchase handmade pizza -- by the slice or by the pie -- in creative variations such as the green garden pizza topped with fresh spinach, broccoli, artichoke hearts, feta and mozzarella cheeses or the cowboy pizza with chopped brisket, onions, jalapenos and mozzarella cheese.
At the Real Texas Bar-B-Que, there is mesquite-smoked beef brisket or sausage. A barbecue feast platter includes the brisket, sausage and hand-rubbed pork spare ribs. For authenticity, the area also features old-fashioned cornbread and biscuits stuffed with jalapenos and cheddar cheese.
On the lighter side, there is a full-service salad bar where salads are made to order and tossed fresh. The salads -- some of which may be found to-go in the self-service case -- are made with fresh ingredients such as grilled chicken or shrimp, chopped hard-boiled eggs and sliced mushrooms. Regular and large portions also come with their own Italian cheese breadsticks.
Each area features a refrigerated reach-in case below the cooking station where customers can quickly select any menu item without waiting for it to be prepared. To-go items are packaged in either individual or family-size portions in windowed, lined cartons that allow the customer to get a full view of a prospective purchase.
For the sweet tooth, there is a New Orleans style-gourmet bakery featuring freshly baked breads, doughnuts, muffins, creme-filled pastries and homemade cookies. Also featured are specialties like Belgian Chocolate Mousse and Strawberry Cream Torte. All baking is done on the premises by staff chefs.
Here, the Market Street's signature cinnamon buns are prepped in the bakery and finished off in the Coffee Shoppe, where they are sold alongside a variety of freshly brewed blends.
"We did extensive tastings, both within the company and on the outside, to develop the perfect recipe for our cinnamon buns," said Underwood. "We didn't want them to be like anyone else's and when we finally hit it, we knew."
Coffee Shoppe customers can grab a latte and rest in the seating area or buy a pound of beans to brew at home. Martin said this is a popular spot for students trying to get in some study time.
Given the intensive on-site activity and the investment in labor, prices are still being held to the affordable end, according to United officials. Customers can sit down with two slices of pizza and a soft drink for $2.98. A brisket family meal, complete with the customer's choice of two side dishes and biscuits or cornbread, costs only $6.99.
Pasta dishes, ready-to-go from the shelf, are priced at two for $5. The pasta creations share display space with their likely accompaniments -- salads. Prepared at the in-store salad bar, there is a variety of leafy options that also sell at two for $5.
Variety is also evident in the music heard throughout Market Street. As shoppers progress from area to area, they will notice the music changing to suit the scenery. For instance, traditional Italian tunes set the mood at the Italian Kitchen and the sounds of the bayou can be heard at the New Orleans style bakery. Underwood said this helps to complete the theatrical atmosphere.
"When you create energy and excitement, the customer naturally responds," said Underwood. "We've stimulated every sense, and the more you stimulate, the more you encourage the repeat customer."
To help achieve the unique new look of the Market, United brought in DS arts, a Dallas-based design firm, that worked in conjunction with architects, graphics teams, consultants and the United staff to bring the dream into reality.
"United saw a special need and opportunity in Wichita Falls and wanted to create something truly unique," said Michael Sobering, president and co-owner of DS arts. "Creating a point of visual difference is what we were tasked to do."
He added that the Market is unique in that the various-themed shop areas give it an almost escape-like atmosphere that has been compared to Disneyland's Main Street venue.
And, according to Martin, customers have taken notice. "Our lunch sales are fantastic," said Martin. "Customers find it more enjoyable and convenient, and just as gratifying, to dine with us than at a traditional restaurant."
The eat-in/take-out area of the store seats approximately 45 people and is serviced by a special entrance for those only interested in the prepared food.
With all its success, United Market is not content to rest on its present reputation.
"One thing we have certainly learned is that you just can't keep things the same," said Underwood. "We are constantly adding to our menus and offering a variety of promotions to accommodate the customer's lifestyles, such as specials on fish during Lent."
One such addition was the breakfast program, introduced shortly after the grand opening. Underwood said shoppers expressed an interest in a breakfast daypart and it was an easy addition for the Grille to make. Customers can stop in, select their ingredients and watch as a custom-made breakfast burrito or quesadilla is prepared for them. Underwood said this has been a great attraction.
Other areas contributing to breakfast service are the Coffee Shoppe, with its cinnamon buns and coffees; the bakery, which offers a variety of doughnuts and pastries; and even produce, which features fresh, diced melons and other fruits.
Throughout the store, there is a growing emphasis on daypart marketing to alert the customers of the vast options available. Underwood said the signage changes throughout each day to draw attention to corresponding meal choices.
Market Street also encompasses the more traditional grocery areas of a supermarket with 14 aisles featuring everything from baby needs to canned vegetables to cookies and snacks. It has also found creative, helpful ways of serving customers by providing refrigerated cases in the front of the store that hold milk, juice and eggs, the three items most typically purchased.
Underwood said while the store is up against the local Albertson's and a Winn-Dixie Marketplace unit, as well as three other United Supermarkets, it is also in big competition with the local military base's commissary. She said this is primarily due to the loyalty of the heavily military population in the Wichita Falls area.
"The people in our community are busy, dual-income families," said Underwood. "They need to get to work, get the kids to soccer, and have a nice meal at the end of the day. We're trying to help simplify their lives."
United declined to provide actual sales figures, saying it is too soon for true accuracy, but stated it is pleased to the point that a second United Market Street, scheduled for opening in November, is currently under construction in Amarillo, Texas.
"What has happened is a company formatted for the '90s has zoomed ahead to 2005," said Brian Salus, president of the Richmond, Va.-based consulting firm Salus & Associates, who collaborated with United on menu selection. "United has leapt over the interim progressive steps and moved right into the future."