OMAHA, Neb. — No Frills Supermarkets is cooking up something exciting at its second No Frills Fresh location in Elkhorn, Neb. The store itself is the first newly constructed location the 18-unit company has built in over two decades, and it is home to an ambitious new prepared-food program, branded “Chef's Own.”
Long known for being a discounter with a focus on center store products, No Frills has been gradually expanding its perishable offerings for years — a process that was accelerated by the acquisition of five Omaha-area Albertsons locations in 2004.
But, the company's No Frills Fresh concept, launched in October 2009 with the opening of a redesigned location in Omaha, takes fresh foods one step further.
In these stores, expanded produce departments feature salad bars and organic sections, for example. They offer full-service floral departments with FTD delivery. Meat departments offer an expanded selection of items such as all-natural lamb, all-natural beef and organic chicken, and are staffed with butchers who cut everything on the premises, and create value-added products like fresh-made specialty beef patties, sausage and sausage patties, kebabs and stuffed meats.
“It's an evolution,” explained Bill Loneman, vice president of marketing for No Frills. “No Frills has progressed from being a pure value play, to continuing the strength of the value play and growing into fresh.”
Now, in Elkhorn, the company has made another leap, with Chef Robert K. Barr and his staff working in an on-site kitchen to produce the new Chef's Own line of salads, sides and entrees.
The new program is the brainchild of President and Chief Executive Officer Fred Witecy, a 38-year veteran of the grocery business who got his start with LaBonne's Markets in Connecticut, and worked in executive positions with wholesalers Bozzuto's and Nash Finch before coming to No Frills in 2004. A high-quality prepared-food program has been an aspiration since he became president of the company in 2007.
“I've always wanted to get out there; I've always wanted to show what we could do,” he said. With Chef's Own, “we've developed 50 homemade salads, and we've got whatever entree the chef feels like making tonight. We served Salmon en Croute the other night and it sold like wildfire.”
A venture into foodservice may seem risky for a company with such deep roots as a discounter. But, Witecy noted that each of the company's locations is tailored to the demographics it serves, running the gamut from extremely low-income to high-end white collar. And, prepared foods are a good fit for the community surrounding the new Elkhorn location.
“The market we're in right now with this new fresh store, the clientele there is more apt to buy those products because of time constraints, and they have the discretionary funds to be able to afford it,” Witecy said. “They have the money and they don't have the time or they don't want to be bothered with cooking.”
And, while developing the program, Witecy offered plenty of leeway to Barr — a former restaurant owner whose resume includes a stints as a chef for the San Antonio Spurs and as executive chef for the Union Pacific Corp.
“We didn't set any parameters for him,” Witecy said. “We do review everything he makes. We had everyone in our offices sample everything he produced, and went through a selection process [to determine] where we were going start.
“He understood what I was trying to accomplish,” Witecy added.
So Barr kept cooking, and knowing that the new program would have to adhere to the new concept's motto of “affordably fresh,” Witecy kept crunching the numbers.
“I personally reviewed all costs and retails to make sure we were giving an appropriate value,” he said. “If I thought [a menu item] wouldn't be a value for the consumer, because the cost of goods was too high, it was deleted. … We're not a Whole Foods, where we're making prepared foods and quadrupling the cost. We're working to set a very fair margin on the products we develop.”
Since the store opened on June 23, the Chef's Own brand has presented shoppers with a selection of 50 fresh-made salads, such as Naples Style Tortellini Salad and Midwest Roasted Corn & Parmesan Pasta Salad. And, the entree menu will vary based on the decisions of Barr and his staff.
“That's the beauty of having a chef,” Witecy said. “When you get into prepared entrees, whether it's ready to take home cold, or what he's cooking up hot, there's no limits to that. It's whatever he wants to create.”
Of course, this huge selection of new products may eventually give way to a more streamlined menu, but the willingness to showcase all of these options in the early stages of the launch will almost certainly help ensure better insight into customer preferences.
“As time goes on, we'll probably be selecting — especially on the cold side, the food-to-go side — what the top 20 to 40 items are, and consistently produce those,” Witecy said. “We're really experimenting right now with what the public wants. That will develop over time.”
Foodservice poses a set of challenges that is unique and separate from other forms of fresh food retail, Witecy acknowledged. But, he said that company officials are well aware of the task they have set before themselves, and that they are committed to seeing this new program through.
“When your staff has never seen something like this before, there is a tremendous fear factor,” he said. “Will this concept actually work? Will we find the right chef to help us put it together? If you can't back it properly or support it properly; if you don't have the right person developing it with you, you're doomed to fail.
“The other challenge is that when you start something, you have to give it enough time to take hold and flourish. Too many people will try something new for a few months and say, ‘I'm not making money, so I'm going to strip this back.’ And you'll fail doing that, too. So, we have a full-blown commitment.”
So far, customer response has been very positive, Loneman and Witecy agreed. The deli/prepared-food department already has double the customer penetration of the company's other stores. And, both executives said they have been spending a lot of time at the new store, and that they've been hearing rave reviews from customers — in person, on the phone and online.
And, if the company stays true to its roots and maintains its goal of “affordably fresh” — making top-quality prepared foods at very, very reasonable prices — success will hopefully follow.
“Once you try it, and you see the price points that we're hitting for food made fresh daily…” Loneman said.
Witecy finished the thought, saying, “you couldn't cook it at home that cheap.”