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STORE WARS // The New Supermarket

Muriel Cady quit cooking four-course meals after the last of her kids left home eight years ago. Now she browses supermarkets three times a week, searching for dinners that are ready to eat in 15 minutes or less. Often, that means dinner is takeout food from restaurants.

"It's cheaper than doing up meals in a big way," said the St. Petersburg resident, as she picked up a salad, Spanish rice and a grouper filet at Albertsons. "My husband and I are both on a diet, so this cuts down the second helpings."

Cady is a typical shopper these days. The baby boom is easing into childless middle age, making family dinners a rare occasion. And time-pressed career folks prefer fast and easy meals _ often purchased on the drive home _ that don't require much time in the kitchen.

The suppertime crunch means big changes at your neighborhood supermarket, as the grocery industry fights to carve out more of the market dubbed "stomach share." Chefs are slicing sushi next to the salad bar at Kash n' Karry. Even the "beef people" at Winn-Dixie are serving Spanish quiche. The stores are getting face lifts, too. Some are adding neon-bathed aisles decorated with cheese sculptures and hosting classes on quick meals, hoping to win consumers.

"In the future a lot of people aren't even going to know how to make a tuna fish sandwich, much less a tuna casserole," said Michael Sansolo, a group vice president of the Food Marketing Institute.

The supermarket industry's share of the dinner meal market has eroded from 40 percent in 1975 to 33 percent in 1995, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Neighborhood grocery stores' share dropped from 13 percent to 9 percent. At the same time, restaurants' share of the meal business has risen from 21 percent to 33 percent. And today only 12 percent of consumers pick supermarkets as the place to buy prepared food to be eaten at home, down from 17 percent in 1995, according to Food Marketing Institute surveys.

The bold moves raise the competitive stakes in an already fierce battle among Tampa Bay grocery chains. Winn-Dixie and Kash n' Karry are fighting to win market share recently lost to Publix and Albertsons. (See Business section for details.) All of the chains are revamping even their most profitable aisles to make more money from the trend to shop fast for food. The first aisle, once the province of produce, is now a "power aisle," a mouth-watering assault on the senses.

The concept is inspired by such progressive chains as Harris Teeter in North Carolina, Wegmans in upstate New York, Ukrop's in Virginia and even the restaurant chain Boston Market. It's aimed at peddling fresh, full meals to people on the go. At their best, power aisles go beyond fresh veggies, which are polished and piled high. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafts from the oven. Chicken and ribs sizzle in a heated case. Free samples give shoppers a chance to nibble.

Part of the concept is to have splashy in-store restaurants that dish out more than ham and cheese sandwiches. At Winn-Dixie's two new Pavilion stores in Pinellas Park and Holiday, chefs were hired from local restaurants to whip up 24 salads fresh every day. The menu also includes lasagna, quiche and Szechaun stir fry.

"We can feed a family of four for less than $10," said Winn-Dixie's Randy Cohen, a one-time chef at the Safety Harbor Spa, Agostino's and Eugene's. "I'd say 60 percent of what I prepare every day is sold after 7:30 p.m."

Kash n' Karry's version of the power aisle opened two months ago at N Florida and Fletcher avenues in Tampa. Bathed in neon shades of red, blue and yellow, the aisle is a flashy addition to the store. There are cheese wheels carved into the Kash n' Karry logo and a serving bowl full of cheese bits. There's a sort of center stage, complete with spotlights, to show off the work of six former restaurant chefs and pastry experts. The cutlery flashes as they chop and mince Thai peppers. The grill occasionally flares, creating a ball of fire.

Why would a chef want to work in a supermarket kitchen? Steady benefits, normal hours, less stress and paychecks that don't bounce, said Sean Goddard, a Kash n' Karry chef, who once worked at Tampa's swank Mise en Place.

"In my last job I showed up with a carload of food one day and discovered the key no longer worked," said Cohen.

Besides, there is room for creativity. The menu includes 250 recipes. Their mandate is to see which ones sell at a profit. That means they need to make fancier fare that commands a premium. The menu ranges from raspberry salmon to conch fritters and coconut-crusted chicken with cumin and marmalade sauce. Cases are laden with 40-spice hummus and $15 a pound brie. There's even a sushi bar.

The offerings are fashioned after research that shows people plan meals now around fruits and vegetables rather than meat. That trend prompted Kash n' Karry to put its produce department right in the middle of the power aisle.

The industry also learned that repackaging the same old stuff can boost a store's margins. Chopping melons, pineapple and strawberries makes the price comparable to sirloin. Bags of peeled miniature carrots sell for more than twice as much as the unpeeled ones. Lettuce that sells for 99 cents a head is chopped and tossed with croutons and a packet of dressing, doubling its price. One line that pioneered prepackaged salads, Fresh Express, has mushroomed into a $340-million business. The next addition will be adding a plate and plastic forks to each package.

Overall, the store's produce section has grown from 150 items to 400. Some of the new items are obscure, so Kash n' Karry hosts weekly classes on how to serve vegetables such as chayote squash, cactus leaves or anisazi beans. The stuff is pricey, too. Consider oroblanco, a sweet-tasting grapefruit. It goes for $2.25 each.

"Some of this stuff I never heard of before," said store produce manager Neil Barth. "I thought at first we'd have to throw a lot of it out before it went bad but so far it's all selling."

So is the rest of the power aisle. The section has boosted the store's overall sales by 38 percent. And it is a cost-effective boost, considering that more than half of the supermarket's sales come from just 25 percent of the store's total floor space. The big weekday rush comes at dinner time _ 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. On Sundays it's standing-room-only in the 48-seat restaurant where families, dressed in their Sunday best, can fill up on the $4.99 brunch.

"This is not a test," said Kash n' Karry CEO Ron Johnson, who plowed half of a $2-million remodeling budget into the power aisle. "We are committed to prepared foods and a top tier perishables selection that reinforces our image as the place for fresh foods." Kash n' Karry plans to include similar power aisles in eight more Tampa Bay area stores that will be remodeled in the next 12 months.

One problem has slowed some stores in the shift toward fresh food departments. The stuff ages fast. Chopped fruit attracts flies. Soup pots turn to mush. In poorly run power aisles, up to 30 percent of what's displayed gets tossed out.

One solution is to package food in smaller containers, rather than leaving an entire vat of melon out all day long. Chillers, which can drop the temperature of hot dishes by 80 degrees in just 30 minutes, stretch the shelf life of prepared foods, too.

Food Marketing Institute research shows Americans trust supermarket cleanliness and quality when it comes to fresh-made meals. But they are skeptical about the freshness of prepared foods. Most shoppers think food sits around too long, lacks truly fresh ingredients and tastes far from home-cooked.

So local grocers have adopted strategies to reverse public perceptions. They hand out more free samples. They train food handlers to wear latex gloves and to monitor sell-by dates. They've even torn down walls, so customers can see what's cooking in the kitchen.

"It's good theater and helps build customer confidence," said Cliff Smith, Kash n' Karry's senior vice president of merchandise.

The concerns about what customers really want has given some grocers reason to pause. Publix Super Markets Inc. developed a far more subdued version of the power aisle in 1991. But these days it has given up the restaurant component in most recent construction and remodelings. And only now is moving produce back into power aisle space.

The chain had mixed results from restaurants. Publix unplugged the wok and pizza ovens in its few cafes last year after poor sales. "We've learned it is very difficult for a supermarket to compete with restaurants because people expect a restaurant-quality meal," said Ed Crenshaw, Publix president. "We can do a good lunch business. But at dinner not enough people are looking for a supermarket atmosphere." Winn-Dixie is undaunted by its competitor's results and plans to open five more of its Pavilions around Tampa Bay in 1996.

Instead, Publix's answer to the industry's dinner-on-the-run challenge is an overhaul and major expansion of its deli side-dish line. Until now they have all been mass produced in a Lakeland factory, then dished out by hand in display cases at deli counters.

No more. With the arrival of Quick Takes this summer, all Publix deli salads will be sold in grab-and-go fashion in vacuum-sealed, prepackaged plastic containers. That is supposed to shorten deli lines. Customers will be able to read the list of ingredients. Besides, it should assuage those who worry about freshness.

Said Joe Yates, a food and nutrition technician at the Publix deli plant: "These salads have never been touched by human hands."

Weak links in the food chain

Grocers are trying to change public perceptions about their prepared meals. Research shows supermarket fare meets customer expectations when it comes to cleanliness, convenience, portion size and friendly, helpful service. But it falls short in the following areas:

% who rate % who say

this very this

or extremely describes

important their

grocery

Factor store

Food has not been sitting around a

long time 88% 30%

Food is prepared fresh 88% 40%

Food is delicious 87% 43%

High-quality ingredients are used 86% 30%

Consistent quality is achieved 80% 48%

You know what goes into the food 78% 22%

Food is as good as a home-cooked meal 75% 29%

Food presents a good value 83% 38%

Source: Food Marketing Institute

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