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    Celebrating Choice

    New concept weaves traditional grocery retail with culinary wonders of the world.

    By Joan Driggs, EnsembleIQ
    Neil Golub distributes his vision, printed on small cards, to interested parties

    The public transition of Price Chopper?s Latham, N.Y., store to Market Bistro by Price Chopper required nearly a year and a half of performance art, during which loyal shoppers witnessed the emergence of foodservice concepts that amazed and enticed; they shopped around remodeling that resulted in a rolling cascade of wonders not seen in a typical grocery retail environment.

    Shoppers not only enjoyed the ride, but they?re also finding more reasons to return for what now constitutes ?business as usual.? The theater of the upfront belies the years of research and scouting to find the perfect mix of offerings; the myriad renderings of physical space, particularly with the equipment needed to deliver; the thousands of recipes developed and tweaked; and the specialized training for optimal execution.

    ?A lot of loyal customers witnessed the transformation right alongside us, across the 16 months that it took to complete,? says Neil Golub, chairman of Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper and the leader of the initiative.

    Golub?s vision for Market Bistro (see page 25) has been many years in the making, which speaks to the degree to which he?s not only in tune with the needs of today?s consumers, but also how ahead of the curve he is in delivering against those needs.

    The key differentiator for Market Bistro is Bistro Blvd., 15 food stations representing America?s favorite foods, including soups, sub sandwiches, burritos, chicken, burgers, fish and seafood, pizza, New York-style deli foods, entrées and meal components, Italian dishes, and sushi. Bistro Blvd. boasts a full-service restaurant, Chef?s Grill, as well as ample seating for immediate consumption from the various concepts. Also included in the area is a kitchen for cooking classes or events. As the market?s focal point, Bistro Blvd. is located at the front of the store, a soft left from the entrance.

    As impressive as Bistro Blvd. is, the traditional grocery store was by no means an afterthought. The company did an impressive job of injecting excitement into what should be a familiar experience for consumers. While there are some surprises, they add to the shopping experience without detracting from the consumer mission.

    Creating Something Different

    Everything about the store, including the location and business model, is part of the company?s plan to differentiate itself as a strong regional player in the Northeast. ?Regionals have to find their place,? Golub says, ?and the middle isn?t satisfactory. We set out to create something different.?

    Market Bistro sits along New Loudon Road in Latham, part of New York?s Capital District, near Albany. Market Bistro is the fourth revision of the location, but this latest includes an additional 10,000 square feet of space, for a total of 90,000 square feet. It is by far the most dramatic of the chain?s 130 stores across New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

    ?In our geography, Price Chopper has always had premier fresh offerings such as seafood, artisan breads and bagels. We?ve got great service meat departments and high-quality produce,? says Golub. ?But we wanted to take it to a new level, and to be in the same conversation with the very best merchandisers in the fresh food arena.?

    To that point, the focus for Market Bistro is foodservice. According to Chicago-based food research and consulting firm Technomic, it?s the right place to be: Its data indicate that retail foodservice is growing at twice the rate of traditional foodservice. On the plus side, fresh prepared foods at retail are considered by shoppers to be healthier, more local in nature and a better value.

    While there are a few grocery chains ? independents tend to do better in this arena ? that are successful with fresh prepared offerings, it remains a tough nut for many to crack. Labor and shrink, along with presentation, are major issues, particularly where hot or cold food bars are key vehicles. Most fresh-prepared offerings are extensions of the traditional in-store deli, and are usually located toward the back of the store. It?s rare for stores to have checkouts exclusive to this area, which means they?re usually less grab-and-go destinations than grab-and-wait. And seating? Not likely.

    Market Bistro tackles these issues ? and more ? head-on, in an approach that, if only observationally, is a winner (the privately held company wouldn?t disclose financials).

    A World of Inspiration

    To be considered ?in the same conversation? with best-in-class fresh food purveyors, Golub spent considerable time observing and learning from concepts he admires. His goal was to design Market Bistro ? and in particular Bistro Blvd. ? to be the best representation of the foods Americans love and the concepts most strongly associated with them. ?The inspiration for Market Bistro comes from a host of singularly spectacular food havens, like Fanueil Hall in Boston; Zabar?s, Murray?s Cheese and Eataly in New York; Marché in Toronto; Foodlife in Chicago; Pike?s Market in Seattle; Beale Street in Memphis. We tapped into the big look and feel of the city markets and eateries of the 1940s and ?50s, and, of course, the many great supermarkets across North America. Lots of people have great ideas. We wanted to mimic the best of them.?

    Golub is the recognized visionary for Market Bistro, but he works with a dedicated team of individuals, from culinarians and engineers to design and operations experts. His key partner is Lewis Shaye, VP of culinary innovation. Golub and Shaye were introduced several years ago by a mutual industry colleague. In hindsight, serendipity also played a role: Shaye is the son of Golub?s father?s accountant. Further, the two share a fondness for Joe?s Deli, where Shaye worked as a young man, and which provides the inspiration ? as well as some of the key recipes ? for Ben & Bill?s New York Deli, a cornerstone of Bistro Blvd.

    Shaye came from Marriott?s foodservice division, where he ran Disney?s Imagineering foodservice accounts. In addition to scattered system commissaries, Shaye also worked with the East Coast-based Papa Gino?s pizza chain, D?Angelo sub shops, Pollo Tropical chicken restaurants and the Taco Cabana chain. ?Those experiences dovetailed beautifully for the work we?re doing? at Market Bistro, says Shaye.

    Together, Golub and Shaye toured extensively, gathering inspiration from interesting concepts around the country and the world. From these observations, Bistro Blvd. began to take shape. One conundrum was too many great ideas. ?We would sit at the design table with our in-house architect, Steve Duffy, trying to figure out how to squeeze everything into a little more space,? recalls Golub. It took 50 iterations to settle on the central-island concept for seating and the overall feel for Bistro Blvd.

    From a closed department store adjacent to Price Chopper, the company was able to acquire an additional 10,000 square feet. Structurally, however, the additional space made for an interrupted flow from existing to new space. The design team used structural beams and converted them to ?tree trunks? that not only nicely separate the seating area from the pedestrian area of Bistro Blvd., but also support acoustical ?branches and leaves? that enhance the visual and audio experience of the entire area.

    Among many regional trade partners tapped for the project, Price Chopper used the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute?s Lighting Research Center, housed in the School of Architecture in nearby Troy, N.Y. Not just in Bistro Blvd., but throughout the store, lighting is used theatrically to ensure that food and other offerings take center stage. Three hundred speakers across three zones help engage shoppers according to location, including soft music in the Bistro Blvd. area, Italian music in the Italian deli area, and a mix for the traditional grocery area.

    A large separate seating area is situated in the middle of Bistro Blvd., surrounded by branded concepts on one side, including Back Bay Fish Fry, Custom Burgers, The Plump Hen (featuring Smokehouse items as well), Out of this World Burritos, Veggies and Greens and Lots of Things, Subtown, Ladle & Spoon Soup Station, Scoops & Smiles, and Starbucks. On the other side is Stone Fired Pizza, Ben & Bill?s, and Chef?s Meals. Chef?s Kitchen, a full-service restaurant, anchors the area at one end, while a sushi station backs the seating area. Beyond that, the Italian deli, complete with a station offering infused oils and vinegars, and an olive bar, rounds out the Bistro Blvd. experience.

    A Stroll Down the Boulevard

    The concept menus also received the same painstaking attention. From November 2012 to April 2014, more than 2,000 recipes were tested, many of which included subrecipes for such items as marinades or dressings. ?We have a culinary team that is creating, tasting and tweaking recipes all the time,? says Golub.

    For every sandwich, there?s bread specially designed to go with it. If Market Bistro doesn?t make its own breads, it works with a trade partner to get exactly what it wants. ?The preciseness and attention to detail here were critical to ensuring that the final product is remarkable,? says Golub.

    For example, Market Bistro?s burger rolls are egg-based, like challah, with a soft crust. ?We had dozens of tastings and months of trial and error,? recounts Golub. ?We?re not food experts in the sense of what you see on the Food Network, but we?re good at taking America?s favorite foods ? call them comfort foods if you want ? and reproducing them in remarkable ways that capitalize on taste and freshness.

    ?It?s vital that everything is authentic, from the fresh oven-roasted turkey to the house-smoked bacon to the custom-baked rye bread,? he adds.

    Another example: The store?s Scoops & Smiles concept features a house-made hot fudge crafted daily from Ghirardelli chocolate. Fresh cream is whipped on site for sundae topping, and fresh strawberries are included in the recipe for strawberry milkshakes. ?You can taste the fresh strawberries, and you can feel the achenes [the seeds on a strawberry] in your mouth,? rhapsodizes Shaye.

    With the exception of Starbucks, all concepts are unique to Price Chopper, and in fact are named by Golub. ?Every concept has unique elements that set us apart,? he affirms. ?We decided to bring together America?s favorite foods and deliver them in a way that?s simply better than typical fast-food places.?

    ?Bistro Blvd. is a huge restaurant competing against other restaurants in the quick-casual channel, such as Panera and Chipotle,? says Shaye. ?Our check average will be slightly less, but everything is of exceptional quality and quantity.?

    Every recipe undergoes a ?FACT check? ? for flavor, appearance, color and texture. ?We dismantle and look at each attribute? of every menu item, explains Golub. ?We aim for gold standards in everything we do.? A key takeaway, Golub and Shaye agree, is that there?s always something of note to be seen in the details. It might be that a single ingredient becomes the hero of the dish, or that an obvious, simple thing might set a dish apart. The store?s lobster roll, for example, is made from claw, knuckle and tail meat, considered the best part of the lobster, and ?kissed? with mayo. ?You want to develop the right flavor profile,? notes Golub. ?It doesn?t always mean there are a lot of ingredients.?

    The grocery store also serves as a supplier for the ?lab? mentality encouraged among the culinary staff. The company?s professionally trained chefs employ fresh ingredients found throughout the grocery store for recipes they?re continually developing. Further, items that become winners at a Bistro Blvd. location might find their way to other Price Chopper outlets.

    ?This supermarket is a virtual playground for the foodservice guys,? says Golub. ?They can create everything in-house because they?ve got an abundance of ingredients right at their fingertips ? immediate access to the freshest meat, seafood, produce, bakery and pasta. Our ability to capitalize on this accessibility is what allows us to deliver on fresh better than most casual quick-serve restaurants.?

    To accommodate the many items made in-house, the company made significant investments in foodservice equipment, including a stone-fired pizza oven and a smoker. ?We wanted to differentiate food and equipment,? says Shaye. ?We were very strategic about placement, because we have little room to spare, and it affords us operational efficiencies. ? This project has us acting and thinking like a restaurant, because, in truth, we?re competing against restaurants.?

    The company?s pizza is a great case in point. ?We?re mindful of theater,? says Golub, but at the same time, the company looked at the many ways there are of making pizza. Price Chopper settled on stone-fired pizza and makes its dough in-house, allowing it to age properly; the dough recipe took more than a month to develop.

    But not everything is made on the premises. The company thought long and hard about where it could excel at producing exclusive items and where it made sense to have a supplier deliver against exacting demands. The key, according to Golub, is knowing and being able to communicate exactly what?s wanted. ?Our mushroom barley and matzo ball soups are exceptional, and both are exclusive to Ben & Bill?s, because we formulated the recipes with a manufacturer,? he says. ?We came out with an outstanding soup, because we were able to articulate exactly what we were looking for and knew it when we looked at it and tasted it.?

    Menu offerings found throughout Bistro Blvd. serve as the ultimate merchandiser for many of Market Bistro?s signature items. Entrées featured at Chef?s Grill might be sold at the Italian Deli as raw or unfinished products. Rolls from Subtown or bread from Ben & Bill?s will be available at the Artisan Breads in-store bakery. The tri-tip, featured on the Chef?s Grill menu, can also be purchased from the Butcher Shop and prepared at home. ?It?s a pinball effect,? says Golub. ?It?s the nexus of the supermarket intersecting with the restaurant industry.?

    Traditional Grocery Reimagined

    As eye-popping ? and mouthwatering ? as Bistro Blvd. is, the company didn?t curb its creative bent for the more traditional portion of the grocery store. Even center store aisles are given unique, appropriate personalities at Market Bistro.

    The baby aisle, for example, is merchandised with large blocks, and a mobile of ducks, diapers, pacifiers and clouds not only draws shoppers? attention, but the same décor also works as shelf decoration.

    The pet aisle is organized by animal, food type, and even toys and treats. A cat-themed end cap display features a cat condo, while a dog-themed end aisle display ? at the opposite end of the aisle ? features a doghouse.

    Oversized lollipops and colorful bulk candy towers draw consumers to the candy aisle. The cereal aisle features photos of huge spoons. An end aisle display in the coffee section features baskets of Price Chopper store-brand mix-and-match K-cups; the company eschewed a bean grinder given the popularity of K-cups. Oversized baskets are used as visual merchandisers for end aisle displays of crackers and other snacks.

    One side of an aisle is dedicated to packaged and refrigerated beer, including a huge assortment of mix-and-match beers. A growler station, located near packaged beer and adjacent to the cheese shop, has a system that keeps beer fresh for up to 30 days.

    A health-and-wellness section is adjacent to the store?s in-store pharmacy. The pharmacy includes a health station that features not only a self-serve booth, but also a fully furnished checkup room manned by a board-certified family nurse practitioner.

    The perimeter of the store is also given grand treatment. A whirligig, fabricated by Argyle, N.Y.-based Adirondack Studios, is the centerpiece of the dairy section. Other elements include a neon milk jug and an oversized neon ?milk? sign.

    Hydroponic tomatoes, provided by Florence-based Vermont Hydroponic, grow in the produce department. ?We challenge our trade partners,? says Shaye. ?The process to grow tomatoes in our store took our supplier three years to perfect.?

    Market Bistro?s in-store bakery features authentic New York-style bagels; signature square doughnuts are also made on-site. The store features myriad artisinal breads such as raisin fennel or toasted sesame (with seeds baked throughout the loaf). Classically trained pastry chefs create standard favorites, including fruit pies, as well as specialty items such as hazelnut praline truffles, or whimsical character cupcakes topped with buttercream frosting.

    The cheese shop at Market Bistro rivals any specialty cheese shop. The seafood features an extensive array of fresh seafood. As an added value, blanched, chopped vegetables are displayed with seafood and seasonings for quick grab-and-go one-dish meal kits. Frozen seafood is displayed in a long case, offset by a ?waterwall? of rippled glass, theatrically lit to resemble water.

    Even the checklanes at Market Bistro are an enhanced experience: Lighting is warmer and, together with a tiered canopy, creates an inviting space.

    The grocery store portion of Market Bistro manages to maintain the traditional flow that shoppers favor allowing them to navigate with ease while offering them enough theater to heighten the grocery shopping experience. Bistro Blvd., of course, is a show stopper that delights and satisfies shoppers with quality offerings for every daypart and every taste.

    According to Golub, the concept ?is the next generation of supermarket, providing an abundance of fresh meal solutions to our customers ? for those who love to cook and those who love to eat.?

    ?We?re good at taking America?s favorite foods and reproducing them in remarkable ways that capitalize on taste and freshness.?
    ?Neil Golub

    By Joan Driggs, EnsembleIQ
    • About Joan Driggs Joan Driggs is Managing Director ― Strategy, Member Development at the Path to Purchase Institute. She has more than 25 years of experience in trade journalism and market research. Joan enjoys connecting with CPG manufacturers and grocery retailers, and learning how they connect for the benefit of consumers. Her roots are in new product development and she continues to seek out the latest and greatest at grocery retail. To connect with Joan, email [email protected], or reach out on Twitter, @JoanPGrocer.

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