ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill. (FNS) -- Convenience-store operator White Hen Pantry has shuttered its prototype home-meal-replacement format here, apparently due to lack of interest among the consumers it was aiming to attract.
The operator's single Franny's Food Express, opened less than a year ago, was closed mid-March. Signage in the windows reads: "Our sincere thanks for your patronage. It's been a pleasure to serve you. Unfortunately, there just weren't enough great customers like you."
The single unit was opened last summer by the 400-unit C-store chain, which has a solid foothold in the Chicago area. Despite its behind-the-scenes affiliation with that well-known C-store name, however, the Franny's Food Express format maintained a separate identity, featuring different decor colors, a separate logo and a radical departure in merchandising practices, particularly with regard to fresh prepared foods.
Earlier in the year, White Hen Pantry officials had talked about expanding with other units in the Chicago area. (See SN, Feb. 2.) A source at the company, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that poor location was a factor in the prototype's closing but did not give further details or discuss whether subsequent Franny's outlets would open elsewhere.
In interviews with SN following the store's closing, analysts cited a number of potential reasons for its failure. Location, labor and promotion problems were most often mentioned as the probable paths leading to the unit's demise.
Franny's Food Express was positioned at the end of a strip mall on a busy corner, in this suburb known for its many office towers. The store is at an intersection where a north-south multilane road converges with another multilane road running on a diagonal, allowing for no 90-degree angles and making clear views of the operation and entrance into the strip mall difficult at best.
When SN visited the site recently, three other storefronts in the strip mall were also vacant, hinting that the location may be the leading factor hampering Franny's Food Express success.
"It's a busy corner, with no easy access into the parking lot," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, Dayton, Ohio. "It's very difficult to get into."
The pundits also suggested that Franny's suffered from the syndrome of a retail operator plunging into food service with its food-retailing baggage still in tow, then scrambling back out in the absence of quick positive results.
"You have to have a restaurant view and perspective," said Stephan Kouzomis, president of Entrepreneurial Consulting, Louisville, Ky. "A lot of the time when companies are in a specific business, like retail, they don't necessarily understand what it take to develop another type of business, like the restaurant business. They don't realize how long it takes to build it."
Franny's Food Express offered hot and cold ready-to-eat entrees and side dishes. The menu leaned toward traditional favorites, such as rotisserie chicken and pasta selections. Additionally, prepackaged entrees, single-serve beverages and produce items were offered. Upscale dry-grocery items such as oils and vinegars, along with C-store favorites like milk and coffee, helped the store reflect some of its C-store lineage. A seating area, comfortably accommodating 100, greeted customers as they entered the unit.
Currently the unit stands, void of product, with all equipment and fixtures in place, as if the staff just cleaned up one night and locked the door.
The burden of a weak location has also collapsed two versions of another meals/C-store hybrid, the Emily's Market format. Originated under convenience-store chain Circle-K Corp. and passed on to a group of entrepreneurs called The Meal Market, Emily's has foundered twice in the Phoenix, Ariz., area. In both instances the principals named a problematic location as a prime factor in the store's undoing.