RICHMOND, Va. -- Five years ago, like many retailers, Ukrop's Super Markets here decided to try introducing food-service items to its product mix.
The difference between Ukrop's and those other retailers is that the family-owned company stuck with its program and had the patience and commitment to see it grow and turn a profit with prices that are friendly to Virginians' pocketbooks.
Ten items were on the menu at first. Today there is a rotating list of 125, with seasonal changes and frequent new additions, such as chilled soups, new sauces for grilled chicken breasts and a rotating list of 24 grab-and-go dinners for two.
There are 10 box lunches to choose from, unusual toppings for hand-tossed pizza such as apple and cheddar, and a grill that takes center stage in the 22-unit retailer's four stores with full-service food courts and cafes.
As what some might call a testament to savvy product introductions and a keen awareness of what the local customer wants, the 10 original items on the menu, including twice-baked potatoes, lasagna, and macaroni and cheese, are still top sellers today.
"They are really impressive because of their persistence in developing a program and staying with it," said Neil Stern, a partner with the retail consulting firm McMillan/Doolittle in Chicago, the judge of the 1994 Leading Edge awards for bakery and deli sponsored by the Retail Bakers of America and Supermarket News.
"For most retailers, the problem isn't coming up with a new idea, it's the ability to execute it," said Stern. "They are not the flashiest. In fact, they are the opposite of Larry's in terms of trendiness. But what they do, they do very well."
Stern noted that many products in the prepared entree selection were under $3. "It wasn't duck a l'orange," he said. "It was very middle America. They obviously know who their customers are."
Jacquelyn Legg, director of creative food merchandising for Ukrop's, took some time out of a spring menu planning session -- there are three seasonal menus each year -- to speak with SN on a recent afternoon. She calls Ukrop's menu "food you would cook at home if you had the time."
The recipes she has helped develop for the company include spoon bread, cobblers, meat loaf, simple chicken salads, potato salads, and various soups and relishes. One great surprise success in the mix, Legg said, has been gelatin salad, which is offered at $2.49 a pound in several flavors, including Mandarin orange, blueberry delight and strawberry cream. "They remind people of Sunday dinner at Grandma's house," she said. "We are cooking real food for real people. We are not in the gourmet food business. And we do not price above the family budget." Legg credits the central kitchen the retailer built to serve all its stores for the program's success. "Our owners were visionary enough to know that you can prepare more efficiently centrally," she said. "We don't have the added overhead of cooking staff in each store," she said, noting that the kitchen allows bulk purchasing and other labor efficiencies. Another plus has been that the kitchen has its own sales representative whose job is to help the stores merchandise the product. "She is able to bring us back a great deal of feedback," Legg said.
Legg and her colleagues also pay close attention to customer requests. There are customer advisory councils, opinion cards in every store and frequent visits by top management to the stores to interact with customers and to dine on company-made food.
"One of the things that keeps this company glowing and growing is a very clear set of values," Legg said. "The No. 1 value is superior customer service."
Stern, who visited Ukrop's newest store last month, which opened in December and is located in the Woodlake area of Midlothian, Va., said he was particularly struck with the high level of customer service there.
"The people you talk to in the department are truly friendly. We went there unannounced. People came up to us offering samples. There were these totally unexpected things that they do that make them so good."
Variety, freshness, animation, and health and nutrition were all leading-edge qualities very much in evidence at the store, Stern said. "Ukrop's has almost all the bells and whistles a customer could possibly expect in self-service, service or ready-to-eat form. They focus on 'real' food, simple entrees that everyone is comfortable with."
A real point of differentiation, Stern noted, is the self-service merchandising. "This will continue to be a bigger part of the supermarket of the future, and Ukrop's entire positioning is very well equipped to seize this opportunity."
Legg said the dinner-for-two program has succeeded beyond expectations. Items are packed to go in bags with Ukrop's label and merchandised in a self-service case.
Current menu items include Dijon breast of chicken with long grain and wild rice, steamed vegetables, herb butter and petite butter croissants for $8.99; veal parmigiana with linguine, herbs, steamed vegetables, marinara sauces and garlic bread sticks for $8.99 for two; and chicken cobbler with fresh broccoli florets, herb butter, honey baked apples and wheat rolls for $7.99. "They are one of the most popular thing's we've done," Legg said.
Health and nutrition. Heart-healthy items are noted throughout, and choices for light fare are extensive.