AUSTIN, Texas -- H.E. Butt Grocery Co. is set to open a second edition of its innovative, all-food Central Market here.
Elements to be added in the new, 70,000-square-feet Central Market scheduled to open in January 1999 will be designed to make shopping for prepared foods -- both ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat -- easier for the consumer, officials at the 245-unit, San Antonio, Texas-based chain told SN.
Changes and upgrades will be based on customer responses to the first Central Market over the past four years, they said.
A major difference will be a "less-directed" pathway through the store that allows easier access to all departments.
"Our customers have told us they don't want to necessarily have to go through the meat and seafood department. So we will include a passageway between the produce department and the rest of the store," said Nona Evans, public relations director for Central Market.
Also, a telephone will be installed in the meat department that will enable customers to order takeout items from the store's cafe. They will refer to a cafe menu posted at the phone. They will be able to order via phone and the items will be ready for pickup at the end of the shopping trip.
"That was an idea we tried to play out in the original store but it [the store] just wasn't logistically set up to do it correctly," Evans said.
A European-style coffee bar, probably with some seating, and a service olive bar will also be new at the second Central Market here, she said. And the positioning of the specialty cheese counter will be different from the one at the first Central Market.
The company had installed a coffee bar in its first Central Market but took it out during the store's first year in order to make room for additional bulk foods selections such as nuts and grains.
Evans declined to offer additional details about the decision to put a coffee bar into the new Central Market even though the one at the original store was taken out. It could be, however, that the company is responding to customer requests. Evans said, "customers write to us all the time and tell us what they like and don't like."
A service olive bar will be added "because it's an area where we have big interest in Austin," Evans said. She explained that the self-service olive bar in the first Central Market, which offers more than 20 varieties of olives, and also fresh salsas, is a big success.
"Our olive bar there is very popular. There's none quite as large as it in the city. We felt our customers deserve a little more service so they can ask about the different varieties and get exactly what they want," Evans said.
She also noted that making the olive bar a service bar, instead of self-service, "reinforces sanitation."
With the huge selection available at Central Market's self-service olive bar, it's a big project to keep it maintained, neat and clean, Evans said. Making it a service bar is expected to make maintenance easier.
When asked if the olive bar at the first Central Market will be turned into a service operation, Evans said there are no plans to do so.
Industry experts said that a less-directed traffic pattern will probably be welcomed by customers at the second edition of Central Market. When the original store opened four years ago, the only negative comments SN heard about the format pertained to its forced traffic pattern.
"There's a wall between produce and the rest of the store. You have to snake your way through the way they direct you," said one observer, referring to the original Central Market.
"And we have a large contingent of vegetarians and vegans in Austin," Evans said. They, in particular, don't want to have to traverse the meat and seafood department to get to other parts of the store, she explained.
A consultant who works with supermarkets said he thinks loosening up the traffic pattern will be a positive change at the new Central Market.
"I don't think customers like to be forced into a pattern. They don't mind following a path, but they sure like to have the option to duck out of the path if they want to," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio, consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
"They [H-E-B] picked a location that won't hurt them at the first Central Market. It's far enough away, but close enough that some [people in the area] may have visited the first one on occasion. It's a good move. I continue to believe H-E-B is one of the really leading-edge retailers," Solganik said.
The site for the second Central Market in south Austin, 15 miles across town from the first, was chosen partially because the company wanted to create a unique draw in that area of town, Evans noted.
"We have a complement of two stores in that area now, and we will be adding more there. We really needed a store in that area as a destination. It's a decision that's been on the table for some time. The question was whether this store would be a new, interesting H-E-B format [different from the Central Market format] or whether it would be another Central Market," Evans said.
"There is a feeling that this is what the community wanted," she added. She said that four year's worth of letters from H-E-B's customers has helped lead the company in this direction.
"We get letters all the time, and people tell us what they want. We don't have to do surveys," she said.
Construction on the store is under way now. It involves a complete renovation of a former retail store that's situated in a rapidly growing, middle-class area of the city.
"There's a lot new growth near where the store will be," Evans said. "It's near a thoroughfare and there's a lot of retail nearby, too."
Houston-based Randalls Food Markets; Whole Foods here; and Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, all have a strong presence in this city, and they have well-developed prepared-food programs, a local industry source pointed out. But none of those chains has a store in the immediate vicinity of the new Central Market.
The new Central Market, with a total of 70,000-square-feet will be slightly smaller than the first one, which has 70,000 square feet of selling space, with additional footage devoted to office space and back room. The store will not have an H-E-B pharmacy and nonfood store adjacent to it as the original Central Market does, Evans said.
It will be only the second full-blown, all-food Central Market, but it will be the third to carry the Central Market name.
The company has just completed the transformation of its San Antonio flagship store into a cross between a Central Market format and a conventional H-E-B supermarket, and the store has been dubbed Broadway Central Market.
Asked why the company has turned its flagship store into a hybrid that will feature some of the elements of Central Market, Evans said, "It's an older store that was very much in need of a remodel and its in a very unique location."
There is no cafe at Broadway Central, but there will be increased emphasis on fresh foods and service, Evans said. A team of chefs will be very visible and the traffic pattern will be somewhat changed.