AUSTIN, Texas -- When the H.E. Butt Grocery Company, San Antonio, Texas, opened its third Central Market here at the Westgate Shopping Center, customers found some new elements that represent the latest evolution of this fresh-market leader.
Still, the basic format -- a winding one-way path that leads them through 600 varieties of top-quality fruits and vegetables, 800 domestic and imported cheeses, 2000 wines, dozens of fresh-made salsas and hot stations offering fresh-roasted meats -- remains the big draw, just as strong now as it was five years ago, when H-E-B wowed shoppers with the first Central Market.
The store's layout -- one-third perishables, one-third prepared foods, and one-third specialty foods -- has been so successful for the original store that it has made Central Market a regular Austin tourist attraction.
By way of comparison, Broadway Central Market in San Antonio, which officially became store number two in the Central Market chain in February 1998, is a more traditional supermarket than its brethren because it was a renovated H-E-B store that retained traditional grocery items.
However, at the new Central Market Westgate, located at 4477 South Lamar, shoppers enter a single door into a concrete-floored, warehouse-style store. A kids' table by the door features fruit and a large piggy bank. Feed it 25 cents and a youngster can have his choice of a banana, apple, orange, or kiwi to munch on as he shops with mom or dad.
It's chilly in the 18,000-square-foot climate-controlled produce department. A sign explains that the temperature -- 62 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit -- helps maintain the freshness of 100 organics, 32 varieties of apples and pears, an end cap of fresh salsa ingredients and two dozen different greens. Shoppers follow the directed produce path, weighing and marking their selections on European-style scales.
Of particular note in the produce department, and new to H-E-B, are four custom-designed stainless-steel mushroom drawers with perforated bases that allow 34-38-degree air to circulate among the fungi. On opening week, they were filled with hedgehog, porcini, oyster, morel, chanterelle, black trumpet, shiitake, cremini, woodear and button mushrooms. The 48-by-18-by-3 inch drawers are the brainchild of the store's perishables director, Howard Miller, who designed them for optimum temperature, air and dirt control.
Near the mushrooms is another of the market's new attractions: prepless produce. That's prepless for the customer, not the store. Four ice tables hold sliced, diced, julienned, ruffled, and minced vegetables ready for the shoppers' salad bowl, wok or grill. The produce, prepped in view of the customers, is sold on trays wrapped in plastic, or from iced plastic bulk tubs. Waste is reduced by quick turnover of unsold prepless produce to Central Market's cafe and catering department.
The produce team, among the store's 365 associates, have gone a step further and bundled some of the prepless items into kits. Diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs and spices are combined for a fresh tortilla soup starter. Zucchini, basil, tomatoes, and onion have been mixed for pasta sauce. Recipe cards are provided beside the kits and cooking advice is just a question away from one of the produce employees who prep the items and also hand-squeeze nearly three dozen fresh juice blends.
Another section of the produce department is labeled the Corner Market, an area designed to replicate a roadside stand where local farmers can sell seasonal items from four 6-foot ice tables.
"I had everything in the [produce] department put on wheels for mobility and sanitation," Miller said of the arrangement.
Beyond produce is the protein aisle where a 75-foot Aichinger seafood case, imported from Germany, displays 100 varieties of saltwater and freshwater fish (including half dozen kinds of salmon in season), as well as sushi and shellfish.
New here is the boiling pot center with three kettles cooking crawfish, shrimp, lobster, and shrimp on the spot for customers. Central Market takes pride and responsibility in the claim that they are the only retailer in Texas, and the second in the country, to volunteer and be certified by the U.S. Department of Commerce and to participate in the intensive Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point seafood inspection and safety program.
To help keep track of the seafood case and all the refrigerated cases in the store is a touch-screen computer monitor, with an automatic history database, by Micro Thermo Technology Inc. If the temperature in a case exceeds the programmed range, the system sounds an alert that will not stop until there is a response. Two monitors are located in the store: one behind the meat counter, and another one in the cheese and deli area.
Across the aisle from seafood is the 54-foot service meat case, selling 28 day-aged Angus beef, lamb, veal, emu and dozens of custom-made sausages, as well as natural poultry and pork. Beside it, Hardt Inferno glass-face rotisserie ovens fill an 8-foot service hot case with roasted prime rib, leg of lamb, ribs, stuffed boneless chicken breasts and pork loins. Complementary side dishes are also available at this meal solution station, which already is attracting strong interest.
However, at this point in the store, if customers have not found something tempting for dinner, there is a bank of phones nearby to place a Central Market Cafe order that will be assembled and waiting at one of the store's 20 piggy-back checkout lanes.
In the center of the market is a smoothie/coffee bar, a 550-item bulk-food area, a beer and wine department with 2400 different selections. A 900-square-foot healthy living area includes supplements, body care products, three sit-down library stations and a glass-fronted massage room. Specialty groceries fill the shelves with 13,000 stockkeeping units, from 170 kinds of salsa to 80 different olive oils.
Known for its cheeses (one national poster publisher photographed various varieties at the first store), Central Market continues the tradition at its Westgate location but goes one better. Near the full-service deli is an affinage, a 10-by-12-foot glass walk-in cheese-ripening room kept at 55 degrees and 90% humidity. It is the only one in Texas and one of a handful in the country, according to store officials. Its shelves are filled with cheeses from France, Italy, Spain, and England. Aging ranges from two weeks for soft, ripened varieties to one and a half years for Parmigiano reggiano.
More than an upscale gimmick, the affinage makes it possible for the market to import cheeses at a younger age, when they travel better, to reduce perishability. It also offers the marketing opportunity of letting customers pre-purchase a wheel of cheese and track its aging process with a personalized tag.
Another show-off item is a bright red and gold 1938 Van Berkel prosciutto slicer, found outside Milan, and refurbished for use in the full-service deli department. Deli workers tout the thinness of its slices.
Unlike the original Central Market, there is no in-store tortilleria here. Instead, this unit brings in fresh tortillas twice daily from the north store, and utilizes the space that would have gone to a tortilleria for an expanded from-scratch European-style bakery. It makes 60 bread varieties and 50 pastries, including numerous individual desserts for those partaking of the nation's indulgence trend.
The fresh-meals area is reserved for last in the traffic pattern, though there are well-marked shortcuts throughout the store, which is particularly helpful for those shopping for only select items. In this sense, a vegetarian could avoid crossing through the meat department, for example, and go right to bulk foods.
In meals, a 24-foot full-service station called the Chef's Case showcases pastas, salads, entrees and side dishes. The area also includes a 14-foot salad bar with greens, chopped and sliced vegetables, diced meats and prepared starch salads. A 16-foot self-serve Cafe on the Run case of heat-and-eat items includes Central Market's popular brown bag dinner for two, a complete meal that changes daily.
A central kitchen serves these areas, plus the cafe, which seats 120 inside and 172 outside. It's an eatery designed for the city's high-tech crowd, with 13 Internet connection ports. And with live music on the weekends, the cafe is an attraction for all of Austin, the proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World.
On opening day, customers jammed the entrance to the long-awaited store. Within 20 minutes, 1000 free T-shirts had been given away to curious customers, eager to check out the new 70,000-square-foot fresh-food market.
"I never would have dreamed that many would have come and welcomed us," said Sandy Golden, general manager.