ELIZABETH, N.J. -- Building on its experience with rotisserie chicken dinners, Wakefern Food Corp. here is set to roll out an expanded version of its Chef's Express deli program with greater emphasis on meal replacement, said a source close to the project.
Chef's Express is the member-owned cooperative's brand name for hot meal replacement centers, where ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat rotisserie chicken and a variety of other prepared foods are offered.
The product options vary from unit to unit among the ShopRite store group, said the source. Wakefern is the wholesale merchandiser for ShopRite stores in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Some stores are already trumpeting their expanded Chef's Express. The ShopRite circular for the week of Sept. 29 to Oct. 5 delivered to homes in the Princeton area promoted rotisserie pork loin, chicken Francese, cheese stuffed baked potatoes, baked ziti with ricotta and mozzarella, wok-prepared sesame or sweet and sour chicken, and pork fried rice. All items were promoted under the "Chef's Express, exclusively at ShopRite" banner.
Meanwhile, the weekly circular distributed by ShopRite of Pearl River, N.Y., for the week of Sept. 22 to 29 didn't mention Chef's Express, but did promote ham dinners with pineapple, sweet potatoes and apple cobbler; roast beef dinners with gravy, potato puffs, green beans and baby carrots; and turkey dinners with gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and peas and carrots. All were advertised served hot or cold.
Circular promotional coupons for the meals read "Good at any ShopRite," although two other ShopRites SN called that week said they only carried frozen ham and turkey breast meals.
The Pearl River store also has carved a 6-foot meals section from a long self-service cooler stocked primarily with raw and cooked poultry. A self-service hot case with rotisserie chickens is nearby.
When SN visited the store at 7:30 p.m. on a week night, the large stepped shelf held only one meat loaf family dinner, advertised in the circular for $9.99 and packed in a plastic ShopRite bag. There were also five pasta dinners, five ham dinners and assorted prepackaged side dishes made by Country Chef, a Bronx, N.Y., manufacturer.
While pedestal signs in the case told how much food customers get in a rotisserie chicken or meat loaf family meal, there were no chicken meals and no visible signs promoting the program. A dangler in front of the case promoted Tyson's cooked chicken parts, and a hand-written sign on thin poster board placed above the case read "Deli Quick Pick Up."
Officials at Wakefern declined to speak about their plans for Chef's Express. The company is expected to reveal details about the expanded department shortly.
ShopRite's three-year success at marketing Perdue-branded marinated rotisserie chicken may have contributed to plans to expand meal replacement departments.
The program until recently offered Perdue rotisserie chicken and turkey as its central component. Some stores with Chef's Express also sold ready-to-eat roasted pork loin, Danish baby back ribs and meat loaf, along with branded Perdue chicken and turkey, and a variety of side dishes.
Each item is available ready to eat, and cooked and chilled. Side dishes, sold separately, can include mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, whipped sweet potatoes, stuffing, green beans almondine, macaroni and cheese, zucchini marinara, Greek pasta salad, baked beans, corn and garden vegetables.
While rotisserie chicken programs at a number of ShopRite stores predated the Perdue program, the Wakefern-promoted menu has been a first for the company, and a great success, said company spokeswoman Laura McCafferty.
"Since we've been working with Perdue, sales have increased by 10 times," she said. The number of participating stores increased in that time as well, from five to 125 of the 187 ShopRite stores that Wakefern services.
Perdue supplies whole chickens to the department five ways: skin-less, traditional (plain), or marinated, either in barbecue sauce, in Italian seasonings, or in ShopRite's branded lemon-pepper Chef's Express Classic. Turkey breast and chicken breast also come marinated, and participating stores carry all seven of the items in Chef's Express.
The premarinated poultry are delivered to stores spit-ready. Perdue developed the marinade recipes, different from those marinating raw chicken sold in meat departments, said Rob Breslau, Perdue director of deli sales.
Stores order poultry from Wakefern, and Perdue promises daily product delivery. Before Perdue, Wakefern had a mixed experience with another supplier, McCafferty said.
"Perdue's sizing is really consistent and the quality of the chickens is consistent as well," she said. "It's our belief they're the best available for this kind of thing."