ORLANDO, Fla. -- Here at the home of Disney's Magic Kingdom where virtual reality reigns, the real-world challenge for supermarket deli/food-service departments is to deliver a "quality" message to consumers.
That's the way they can set themselves apart from the preponderance of fast-food establishments that permeate this city, in numbers large even for such a mecca of tourism, local observers told SN.
Boston Market, for instance, is a strong competitive factor in the meal market here, and so is a fast-food lineup that includes just about every chain anyone has ever heard of.
Add to that family restaurants, traditionally casual eat-in establishments that are now jumping on the takeout bandwagon in this market. A case in point is Red Lobster, which a local source said has added a separate take-out section in at least one of its units here.
The major supermarket players in the area are Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., with about 50 stores in the area; Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., with 44 stores in its Orlando division; Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, with 18; and Gooding's Supermarkets, Apopka, Fla., with 12 stores. Those chains account for at least 90% of total market share, most industry sources agreed.
These chains have readied their weapons, in the form of homestyle meals, chefs, signature products, premium brands, and service -- and are telling prospective meal customers about them in new ways.
For Albertson's, one of those weapons is price. "There are so many fast-food restaurants around here -- Wendy's and McDonald's are everywhere -- that are convenient," said Glenn Teller, store director, at an Albertson's unit on Dr. Phillips Boulevard here. "So we thought, 'Why not go back in time and offer consumers a real, whole meal at a good price?"'
Meat loaf and pot roast with mashed potatoes are representative of the home-cooking timbre of Albertson's prepared-food menu. Prepacked entrees with one side are two for $5. During the early evening hours, the chain rolls a microwave up front alongside the grab-and-go display and demos product almost every day to give customers a taste of the products' quality, Teller said.
In interviews with local sources and through extensive first hand observations in stores, SN learned that, one way or another, all the chains here are underscoring the quality of their products and services, though they are not all going about it in the same way.
For meal solutions, Publix and Albertson's are focusing on chilled, grab-and-go items. Meanwhile, Gooding's and Winn-Dixie are offering a variety of hot items, as well as chilled, and are putting emphasis on service.
"They're all still trying to figure out how to do it successfully," said a local industry source. "I don't think anybody has the answer yet. Some are moving away from hot tables to more chilled, grab-and-go products, while others are increasing their varieties of hot food."
Another local source said he thinks the chains here are still in the early stages of home-meal replacement evolution.
"Actually, they seem to be puzzled about which direction to take, so they've been trying a little of everything," he said. And even when the supermarket operators do launch something interesting, they're not doing enough to draw customers in or get their current customers to try their prepared food, he added.
Sources said that the one chain that has taken a definite direction locally is Albertson's. It is clear that the company is going the self-service and chilled route, and has decided to be competitive on price when it comes to meal components. One observer said that strategic positioning is being handed down from the chain's headquarters.
But that does not necessarily mean that chain's approach is the right one for Orlando, said a local observer. "I can see what Albertson's is doing -- but they wouldn't need to go so low on price," said the source, who has had experience in the food-service arena as well as the supermarket industry. "It's hard to see how they can make a decent profit."
Besides offering chilled entrees and sides at two for $5, rotisserie chickens are $3.99 and a whole chicken with rolls and a pound of potato salad is $4.99.
"Whether it's the right direction or not remains to be seen, but at least you can tell what they're doing. They've obviously analyzed it and have taken a direction," he said.
Like Albertson's, Publix is shying away from hot food. It has trimmed down its variety of hot food and is featuring custom-made submarine sandwiches stuffed with premium, branded deli meats and cheeses.
Meanwhile, competitor Gooding's is shouting quality with its chef-prepared and chef-presented meal components, offered chilled and hot. Signature products developed by its chefs, such as their pecan chicken salad, are a hallmark of the chain's efforts.
"Gooding's has everybody beat hands down when it comes to deli and food service," said Joseph Amendola, a former vice president at the Culinary Institute of America and now a principal in Fessel International, a consulting firm here that works primarily with restaurants.
"The presentation and variety, as well as the quality are great. They're the nearest to Wegmans [Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.] there is around here."
Winn-Dixie, meanwhile, is taking several different approaches at once, and appears to be targeting everybody as a customer, industry observers told SN.
"Winn-Dixie's niche is not easily defined," said a source.
In one Winn-Dixie Marketplace Pavilion store, SN noted on a recent visit that the menu was decidedly eclectic. It was directed at consumers with upscale appetites, as well as those with more mundane preferences. There was rotisserie turkey breast for $5.98 a pound, and crab cakes for $1.75 each, side by side with breaded chicken gizzards for $2.98 a pound. Barbecued pork sandwiches were two for $2.98.
Still, the chain is attempting to foster a quality image by, among other things, using dangler signs to point out that the menu items are chef made.
Winn-Dixie's newest store here, which opened Jan. 9 on Lake Underhill Road in a rapidly developing residential area, introduces customers to resident chef Ruben Pinero via a large photo and poster-sized resume of his credentials. The poster and photo are on a stand at the beginning of the fresh-food aisle.
Gooding's, meanwhile, is adding locally trendy Barnie's coffee bars to underscore its quality and service image, area observers theorized.
Publix is touting the premium-brand meats and cheeses it is using in sub sandwiches and emphasizing that the sandwiches are custom made.
And while Albertson's is putting its money on chilled self-service when it comes to meal components, ironically, it is also featuring a high level of service in the deli, where a limited menu of hot food -- mainly chicken and potatoes -- is available.
All of these actions represent strategies focused on getting customers interested in fresh meals -- but winning sales back from the restaurant world is just one challenge facing these supermarkets. Making money on meals is another.
While Albertson's is concentrating on price points, Publix is clearly concerned with boosting the bottom line by simplifying its prepared-food programs, sources told SN.
The chain has greatly trimmed back its prepared-food offerings, presumably to improve the bottom line, sources said. Publix officials could not be reached for comment.
"They used to have a Chinese program, but they've cut that out and now they're keeping their hot food pretty much limited to rotisserie and fried chicken with some sides. Instead of getting into a lot of entrees, they're putting their emphasis on fresh sub sandwiches and side salads," said a local industry source.
"They've cut back on hot tables and have installed long bunker cases of different types of potato and macaroni salads and beans in exact-weight packages they bring in from their central commissary. I'm not sure that's in response to customers' need for convenience. I think it's for different reasons, like cutting shrink and reducing labor intensity," he said.
One Publix unit SN visited was displaying a total of 42 facings of chilled wet salads and baked beans in 8-ounce and 1-pound deli containers.
The bunker case ran the entire long side of a work island, where associates could be seen cutting, chopping and slicing ingredients for sub sandwiches. On the surface, it seemed like an over abundance of that type of product to sell-through, but a local resident said it goes fast.
"There's a lot of construction going on in [the Alafaya section of Orlando that lies just off of state Route 50] and those guys go in there every day at lunchtime to get their subs and grab an armful of those salads," the source said.
At another Publix about two miles away, SN observed a man in work clothes with a shopping cart full of sub sandwiches that he had apparently ordered ahead of time. A store associate was still carrying more out from behind the deli counter.
In some of its stores, Publix offers a simple menu featuring one variety of hot meal a day, served from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and then again from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The meals are $3.99. The week's menu is posted in the deli; at some locations, it's also posted at the store's entrance.
While most of SN's sources gave Gooding's the nod for the best quality in prepared food -- both hot and chilled -- some said Publix was a close rival.
Meanwhile, Winn-Dixie is trying to rev up its quality image, with references to its chef, its on-site food preparation and with the addition of brands such as Hebrew National hot dogs and Edy's soft yogurt. Signs spotlighting those brands were prominent in the Deli Cafes in the chain's newer Marketplace Pavilion stores.
Officials at Winn-Dixie's division office here did not return SN's phone calls. However, Mickey Clerc, spokesman for the chain at its headquarters, said offering variety in prepared food has become a priority for Winn-Dixie.
"We're putting more emphasis on prepared, ready-to-go foods. And wherever the demographics will support it, we'll have Marketplace Pavilion stores modeled after the one we opened in Poinciana, only bigger," Clerc said.
That 51,000-square-foot store, the first to be opened in the Marketplace Food Pavilion format in 1993, features resident chefs, a sit-down Deli Cafe, and a large selection of hot and chilled items made on the premise.
Gooding's and Winn-Dixie both are concentrating on their hot programs, perhaps to make a fresh statement. They both have chefs on duty at selected stores and theater is evident.
The Caesar salad stations at Gooding's and a salad bar with a work station in the middle at Winn-Dixie Marketplace Pavilion stores play important roles in this strategy.
"Overall, I think Winn-Dixie and Gooding's are trying to be well-rounded, with a variety of both hot and cold prepared food," said one source.
But Albertson's is taking the lead in advertising, in using in-store signs and in offering convenience, said another local observer.
These assessments were borne out in store visits. Albertson's has its Quick Fixin's ready-to-heat items positioned in an island case right inside the entrance. Color photos, about 2-foot-by-3-foot in a metal-stand, announce the special of the week.
"We know customers want to get in and out quickly when they're buying this type of product," said Albertson's Teller, pointing out that sales from the prepared-food grab-and-go case are heaviest between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. when people are on their way home from work. "Albertson's also is flagging their Quick Fixin's items in their circular," a local source said.
A consultant who works with the restaurant industry, however, commented that none of the supermarkets in Orlando are adequately touting what they have in the way of meal solutions.
"If you're a parent thinking about what to feed the family tonight, you're not thinking about a price in a circular," said Michael Cohen, a food-service consultant based here. "Your kids are seeing Boston Market and McDonald's ads on television and you're hearing about them on drive-time radio. So where are you apt to pick up dinner?"
Gooding's directs its efforts at underscoring quality with references to its chefs on signs in-store. It's latest move to maintain an image of quality was to launch Barnie's coffee bars in its stores.
Two units already have the trendy coffee bar, and construction on one in the chain's flagship store on Dr. Phillips Boulevard here was underway when SN visited last month.
"Shortly after Gooding's remodeled that flagship store three years ago, they started to lose some of their edge to the competition," a local source said. "They're doing more things now to emphasize the quality they offer."
In addition to replacing a small, in-line coffee station with a Barnie's coffee bar at its flagship store, Gooding's will expand its hot-food variety, a store-level source told SN.
Hot gourmet pizza is a feature at Gooding's. It's the only chain offering pizza hot, a source said.
SN noted that product cards in the service deli case pointed out that some of the items offered are made from their chefs' original recipes.
In front of a huge, crockery bowl of pecan-chicken salad, a product card said, "Our best-seller, a Gooding's original." At $6.99 a pound, it's not unusual to sell 40 to 50 pounds a day at the flagship store, according to a store-level source.
"Rattlesnake coleslaw" is the newest item to be added to the service deli's menu. It's a blend of red and white cabbage, jalepeno peppers, and a special dressing. And a product card indicates it's new and "another Gooding's original."
Self-service prepared food, meanwhile, gets short shrift at Gooding's. No more than 6 feet of tiered case was devoted to self-service deli-prepared items, and most of the items in that space were green salads, quiches and pizzas.
On the other hand, the stores underscore service. At the flagship store, for example, a Caesar salad cart is rolled out at 11 a.m. into the seating area adjacent to the service deli. There, an associate makes salads to order until 1:30 p.m. A 32-ounce bowl of plain Caesar salad is $2.99; with chicken, $3.99.
A seating area complete with a decorative fountain and faux marble tables with ice cream parlor chairs is the focal point of the food-service area. With fresh flowers in small Pellegrino bottles on each table, a lowered ceiling and indirect lighting, the cafe area is reminiscent of a Wegmans Market Cafe.
SN found the level of service in Gooding's delis high. In fact, an adequate number of associates behind the counter and polite service were evident at all the stores SN visited in Orlando and its suburbs.
That could just be Southern hospitality, but Teller at Albertson's said it's not a regional phenomenon at his store on Dr. Phillips Boulevard.
"It's a matter of training and getting everybody pumped up," he said. "I'm here all the time, working right alongside my associates. That makes a big difference."