We are out at PMA’s Foodservice Conference and the focus is on the glamorous world of TV chefs — with Cat Cora, the first female Iron Chef from the Food Network’s Iron Chef, and Tom Colicchio, head judge of Bravo TV’s Top Chef, appearing as headliners.
Yet with economy as it is today, the industry would do well to look for growth in more mundane corners — such as supermarket foodservice. Pundit sister publication DELI BUSINESS, the leader in this category, and in a series of columns both here, here and here, we’ve argued that a confluence of circumstances — high gas prices restricting travel, tough economic times leading to a value on economy and a post 9/11 cocooning instinct — has created an opportunity for supermarket foodservice to rapidly gain market share.
This opportunity comes after more than a decade of experimentation with home meal replacement, which led to a new appreciation for restaurant-quality food at retail. Now the gold ring of shifting consumer shopping habits away from restaurants and back toward supermarkets is within grasp.
BUT THE CHALLENGE IS STILL TO DO IT RIGHT.
We thought of this challenge as we dined at the new Publix Greenwise store that opened not far from Pundit headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida. We had run a piece about the first store in this concept, which had opened in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Later we visited the store several times but held off writing about it as we had some trouble getting our hands around the “soul” of the concept.
The new store in Boca Raton is actually a gut renovation — and we mean gut. Publix jack-hammered the concrete out of the floor, but they kept the four walls intact. The Boca store is significantly smaller than the Palm Beach Gardens store, which, among other things, features a large loft filled with tables for dining.
Despite it being smaller, we like the Boca Raton store much more than the Palm Beach Gardens store. Every time we’ve been in the Palm Beach Gardens store, the traffic felt light compared to the square footage, whereas the Boca Store is bursting with people and energy.
The store has stunning — and doubtless very expensive — design, and the produce department is genuinely beautiful offering an exceptional diversity of items that we rarely see. Right as we walked in there were interesting displays of Monster Fruit and tropical specialties rarely seen in such a prime location.
Greenwise is a brand, an aisle concept and a store. All Publix stores have a Greenwise section selling Greenwise branded grocery products and other organic and natural items. Now Publix, with these two initial Greenwise stores, is experimenting with its own “Whole Foods” fighter.
As with any high variety, high perishable, high service concept, it is too early to say how it will play out. It is much easier to build a beautiful store than to operate one. We’ve visited too many openings of stores filled with great fresh produce, wok stations, food bars, pizzerias, etc., and a year later the stores contain large displays of peanuts as they fill the gondolas of the now-abandoned specialty and service areas with some less perishable items.
This store, though, strikes us as important learning opportunities for others because of its focus on two very important areas — organic and retail foodservice. The organic offering strikes at the very heart of the debate over the appropriate way to market organics. It was common for the store to have a product, say, “fresh-cut cantaloupe,” presented in stacked bowls; then immediately next to the product, another row of bowls, completely identical in packaging and appearance, marked as “organic fresh-cut cantaloupe” — the only difference that was obvious was a far higher price on the organic.
We understand the logic. Publix wants to offer organic, but since this deeply conservative company doesn’t believe in its collective heart of hearts that organic is superior, it is loathe to market it as such. So it offers the organic product for those who already want it, but will do nothing to actually sell it.
Our sense is that this may not matter in a place such as Boca Raton. It is not only an affluent community but a spending community — lots of showy cars and houses… lots of people who just want to shop at the nicest, most upscale place around.
In this sense, the Greenwise concept is less about promoting organics than it is about tapping into evolving standards of “upscale” — if in the Eighties, upscale meant little packages of cookies from Europe, today upscale means organic, fresh, natural, local, etc., and so, at least in Boca Raton, the Greenwise concept doesn’t have to be fully committed to organics to be a success.
Whole Foods has had its greatest success in demographics with high educational levels. We wonder if the Greenwise concept, riding the wave of organic but never getting in to swim, will be enough.
One thing that could trip up Publix is execution on the complicated foodservice offer. The foodservice selection is extensive and Publix offers some in-store seating. There is evidence of a lot of thinking. In many stores the problem is that if you’ve just done shopping a supermarket, you typically have refrigerated and frozen items you need to get home so you will pass by the chance to have a meal or snack after you shop. But at Publix Greenwise, they will refrigerate and freeze the appropriate items for you while you enjoy a meal.p>
Yet we have eaten at Greenwise a dozen times since it opened and have found it to have a few too many shakeout problems. The menu is interesting and extensive, but the execution has been troubled.
Once we were in the middle of giving a person an order when another employee appeared to announce she had a phone order that had to be ready in 20 minutes, so both employees walked away and our order stood half done. During another visit, the sandwich being promoted was done with high end bread. After we waited almost 15 minutes being told it was being prepared, we were finally told they didn’t have that bread. As a substitute, they literally served the sandwich on two pieces of white bread from the bread aisle. On a few occasions, we found ourselves running out of time during a lunch hour as we stood behind indecisive customers.
We’ve been impressed with some of the ordering technology that companies such as Sheetz use and such as Safeway selected for its new “The Market by Vons” concept. These machines move the indecision away from scarce manpower and allow people to avoid a second line at checkout as the Safeway version allows one to pay with a credit card right in the foodservice area.
Still whatever the shakeout problems, Publix knows how to hire foodservice experts who should be able to do the kind of training and reorganization to make foodservice hum.
Such a beautiful store deserves the effort — and if the trade is ready to make the effort en masse, there is quite an opportunity to be seized.