EAST NORRITON CROSSING, Pa. -- Genuardi's Family Markets has taken a page from the restaurant industry at a new store here where the food court grabs the spotlight.
Excitement heads the menu. The look, the ambiance, the presentation and even the variety have been brought up to the minute and there's more to come in the year 2000, officials at the Norristown, Pa.-based chain said.
There's no doubt the new setup here would pique even the interest of Generation Y. Colorful graphics above each well-defined food station catch the eye. Enticing aromas rising from the pizza station and a new Mexican counter also engage the senses. So does the roar of an espresso machine at a new coffee bar that anchors the food court.
"We've learned from the food-service industry that presentation is everything. We want to appeal to all the senses. In many different ways, we've brought a food-service mentality to this [food court]," said Jim DeGilio, director of food service for 29-unit Genuardi's.
"We want people to walk in and see everything all at once so they'll know they have all these things to choose from. The idea is to have very focused concepts with a food-court atmosphere," DeGilio added.
The food stations, so well-defined with overhead graphics, offer up just one category of product each. Those include: made-to-order sandwiches, pizza, Mexican fare, fried and rotisserie chicken with sides, sushi, traditional deli, olives, a self-service island of packaged prepared items, hot soups, a cappuccino bar that also serves smoothies, and a bakery that offers gourmet chocolates and fancy pastries as well as the more everyday items.
DeGilio said that at future stores the food court will be more compressed so the customer will see more of the graphics and action at the counters in one visual sweep. That will be done possibly by making the food-service aisle wider, but shorter, he said. SN interviewed DeGilio at the store just north of Philadelphia in late March, just after it opened.
The coffee bar's retro, gleaming stainless steel front has a decidedly "restauranty" look to it. DeGilio, whose resume includes a lengthy food-service career, said that's one reason the coffee bar leads the lineup in the food court, but there are others.
"We're aiming to make things as convenient as possible for the customer. We put the coffee bar at the front so it's easy for them to run in in the morning, grab a coffee or smoothie, pay for it there, and get out quickly."
Also for the sake of convenience, as well as for its aroma-producing qualities, the in-store bakery is set adjacent to the coffee bar, he said. The first section of the bakery counter features bread branded under the chain's Zagara's banner, a two-unit grocery-specialty company that Genuardi's acquired two years ago. Genuardi's own brand of bagels, Harvest Valley, is offered at that section also.
On the day SN visited the store, a friendly young associate at the bakery counter offered samples of three different varieties of Zagara's bread. Small dishes of olive oil and a butter-garlic mixture were available to dip the bread pieces in. The associate urged customers to try an herbed Italian variety. He said it was his favorite.
"Customers by now recognize Zagara as a high-quality, high-end bread. From our end, it's a good program for us, a customer-draw," DeGilio said.
He said carrying Zagara's bread in addition to its own bake-off products has increased total bread sales.
Next in line beyond the bread counter is a particularly elegant-looking pastry case showing off tarts and tortes and cakes on several levels of risers and pedestals. Tuxedo strawberries -- a Genuardi's specialty that's a huge strawberry dipped in white and dark chocolate and decorated to look like a miniature tuxedo shirt front -- have a prominent spot there.
Adjoining the pastries is a caseful of gourmet chocolates that includes a not-often-seen item: chocolate-covered potato chips.
While the sleek-looking coffee bar and wood-hued bakery counters line the left side of the food-court aisle, a brick-oven pizza station heads the right side of the aisle. There, too, smiling associates took customers' orders.
In answer to a question about the labor intensity of such a collection of food-service stations, DeGilio said the food-service department -- which includes all the food-service stations, deli and bakery -- at this store employs about 100 people.
"Labor is a big investment, but restaurants do it successfully. And we're treating this as a very big restaurant," he said. He pointed out that all associates are cross trained in the food-service department so they can be used wherever they're needed.
Having the labor available in the store has other benefits, too, such as creating signature products to create a point of differentiation, DeGilio said.
The first such signature product, corn bread made to a custom recipe, was introduced this winter, and, by now, has been rolled out to all Genuardi's stores. (See related story, Page 67.) A display of the corn bread is set at the entrance to the food court here.
Labor intensity is at an unprecedented pitch here because the emphasis is on food prepared on-site. Nearly 90% of prepared food -- including items that are packaged and merchandised on a tiered, walk-around self-service case in the middle of the aisle -- are made in-store.
"We want to have as much of our product prepared fresh, on site, as possible because the consumers today are a lot more sophisticated than even just five years ago. They have a greater understanding of quality and freshness," DeGilio said.
He pointed out that adequate labor is necessary not only for production but for the service that makes a food court successful.
"We find service to be critical to success. Pizza is an example, and sandwiches to a lesser extent. People want to watch them being made."
But he pointed out that at Genuardi's gaining the customer's confidence started with the chicken program.
"Chicken is the cornerstone. Customers saw we could establish a quality program with a product they're familiar with," he said.
As part of its effort to ensure the quality and freshness, Genuardi's has cut the size of side-dish displays at the chicken counter.
"Customers are getting to know that smaller displays are fresher. Supermarkets have always had the philosophy that more is better, but food service knows that's not true," DeGilio said.
Whether a display at this store's food court is service or self-service, it takes more manhours to keep it replenished because the wells hold less product.
Hot dishes are being tested on the salad bar for the first time at this store and the holding pans that are nestled into the bar's tile surface are small and shallow and there are only two of them.
"Not only that, but we put those hot items out for just a very defined period of time because they don't hold too well. We'll have them on there, say, from 11:30 to 1 and then again from 4:30 to 6:30," he said.
The choices are rice- or pasta-based dishes, and maybe something like chicken nuggets, DeGilio said.
"We just want to give them another choice. If they're there getting a salad and they want a little something extra, it's right there," he explained.
At the rotisserie and fried-chicken counter, customers can choose sides from among a familiar roster that includes macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans.
"We're making a deliberate effort to create more programs around our chicken. Turkey breasts now. Sometime early next year, we're going to add to the variety of rotisseried products, maybe even vegetables," DeGilio said.
At that station, more emphasis in the future will be placed on selling meals rather than individual components, DeGilio said.
"We're working right now on an overall department effort to create more meal solutions. We'll see where we can bundle items so it takes customers fewer steps to take a meal home.
"Restaurants have been doing that for years. McDonald's is a good example. The vast majority of customers there order a number. We want to copy that mind-set," DeGilio said.
For its Mexican food station, Genuardi's literally brought in a restaurant, one that has been doing a successful business for years at two locations in Philadelphia. In the store here, space is leased out to the 12th Street Cantina restaurant for a Mexican station called Cabo Cantina. The station offers Mexican regional cooking that goes beyond the taco and burrito, DeGilio pointed out.
While the 12th Street Cantina supplies seven other Genuardi's units with chilled products it merchandises from deli cases, this store has its first hot service counter. Along with grilled chicken and cheese quesadillas and grilled vegetable tacos, the daily rotating entrees include such items as Mexican spinach lasagna and sweet potato torte.
He explained that the chain linked up with this particular Mexican restaurant because it was aware of the quality it offered. Genuardi's began sourcing products packed and chilled from the restaurant when it opened its previous prototype store at Langhorne, Pa., a year and a half ago.
"We might have done it [created a Mexican concept] ourselves, but it would have taken a lot longer."
Beyond the rotisserie station, the traditional deli begins. There, huge platters of lasagna sourced from a manufacturer of Italian entrees are displayed. There's also a selection of Italian deli meats along with other slicing meats and cheeses. Just across from there, in the middle of the aisle, is a 10-foot olive bar. That and the Italian deli meats and lasagna help to carry an Italian-market theme through selected areas of the food court.
At Genuardi's Langhorne store, an Italian market that was a store-within-a-store anchored the food court. That concept has not been rolled out to other stores.
"Instead, I think the idea is to sprinkle elements of it throughout the food-service area, such as the meats and lasagna in the deli and cannoli in the bakery," DeGilio said.
Traffic flow also could be a consideration. At Langhorne, customers stop dead in their tracks to admire and shop the Italian market and then proceed into the remainder of the food-service aisle. It is certainly a magnet, but it doesn't blend into the food court as well as the coffee bar does here.
"This coffee bar with such a strong identity is a first for us. It definitely gives us a point of differentiation, with all the smoothies we offer in addition to cappuccinos and other coffee drinks," DeGilio said.
The coffee bar also creates a good vantage point for viewing the rest of the food-service aisle. Look one way and you can see most of the food stations with their bright-colored overhead signs. Look the other way and you see the seating area tucked against the front window of the store.
"We think it has a warm feeling to it. We want people to feel welcome and comfortable. In newer stores, we'll eliminate fluorescent lighting in that area to make it warmer and we're going to add cushioning to the seats," DeGilio said.
Right now, the store is doing about 50% more lunch business than in early evening, DeGilio said. He said when the chain begins to put emphasis on bundled meals and to promote them in circulars and advertising, he expects to bolster evening sales.
"People will know they can come to the store for a take-home dinner for the family," he said and added that he's happy with the lunch business here.
"We've already become a lunch destination for business people around here and for people who are in here doing their shopping."
The 59,000-square-foot, from-the-ground-up store here opened in February in a huge mall that's not even completed.
"Staples will open here tomorrow. That gives you an idea of the size and type of retail stores going in here," DeGilio said, when SN interviewed him last month.
Asked if there were any supermarket competition nearby, DeGilio would say only that there are several. He also pointed out that there is a plethora of fast-food and family restaurants in the area.