Will It Play In Peoria

“But will it play on Broadway?” This was the question that used to be asked of a play having an out-of-town tryout before heading for New York. It was another way of asking if the quality of the production was up to the tough standards necessary to meet the intense competition in the big city. Intrinsic in the phrase was the notion that it was easier for a play to do well in hinterlands, where the options were fewer, and thus the competition less profound.

The industry experiment with HMR, though, may be posing the opposite question: Will it play out of town? I just walked through a beautiful new Food Emporium on 86th and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. It is a big store for New York City, combining the sites of a former Sloan’s supermarket, Rickel Home Center, a liquor store and a dry cleaner. Still, it would be dwarfed by any new suburban store. Food Emporium is A&P’s upscale division in the New York area, and this store is full of the latest HMR concepts.

Words such as “Chef-Prepared” and “Restaurant-Quality” are sprinkled liberally, on signage and promotional material throughout the store. The showcase chef is there daily teaching how to prepare items at home. There are additional chefs, described in the literature as being “…professionally trained in schools such as The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), The New York Restaurant School and Johnson and Wales University.” These chefs are busy preparing a complete HMR menu from soups declared to be “from scratch” to “Roasted Whole Leg of Lamb Boulangere”.

The store is new, and at peak hours it is packed. Things that wouldn’t play well in New York City are left out – there is no pizza program, for example, because there must be a dozen pizzerias within walking distance of the store. The general HMR program is very impressive, however, although the emphasis on the chefs, as with EatZis and similar concepts, is a little bit of sizzle in the hope of selling the steak. The problem with all the chef-based concepts is that at peak hours, the chefs can’t possibly keep up with demand. As such, customers are drawn into the store in anticipation of buying freshly made food wind up buying pre-priced and packaged meals in microwaveable containers. The quality of these meals is fine, but it is not the same as a freshly cooked meal.

The Food Emporium does an excellent job of using its HMR offer to sell the rest of the store’s perishable offerings. It is emphasized that the side dishes and vegetable entrees are prepared “with our own fresh, fancy produce” and that the seafood comes “fresh from The Seafood Cone,” which is the Food Emporium’s seafood counter. The same is true for the way the meat and poultry are promoted.

It is hard to know, of course, what the long-term success will be. I’ve seen enough stores on opening day and then a year later to realize that one can’t make many judgments until one sees a concept withstand the test of time. All too often, stores are designed from the outside in, rather than the inside out. By that, I mean that retail executives latch on to hot concepts they learn about in trade magazines, at trade shows, and from competitors, put these concepts into stores and then watch them fail. Often much more research and reflection would have been useful in determining if both the chain’s particular customers valued these concepts and if the chain’s employee culture and management systems could properly implement and maintain such concepts.

Still, this store looks like a winner. Great location, top concept, fine execution. You can be sure New York area retailers, and out-of-towners, will be visiting. But, will it play in Peoria?

Much of our industry discussions on HMR have a surreal quality to them because they are not prefaced with discussions of minimum volumes. The Food Emporium mentioned above may do well in part, because of things management is doing correctly. But most of all if it works, it is because it is in the middle of one of the richest and most population-dense areas of the planet. Don’t get me wrong, merchandising and execution are still crucial. This Food Emporium is smart enough to know that, in an area filled singles who work crazy hours; it needs to have and has created a “Complete Entrees For One” program.

But there is a flaw in the basic logic of most HMR programs. Why go to a supermarket for “restaurant quality” meals? Why not go to a restaurant? The answer is variety. Italian restaurants serve Italian food; Chinese restaurants serve food in the Chinese style. Supermarkets carry a wide range of different items and preparation styles. This is the competitive edge for supermarkets. The “Meals-To-Go” menu at the Food Emporium includes almost 200 items, not counting traditional deli offerings and a promise to prepare “any cut of meat.” Sure every item isn’t available every day – itself a potential problem leading to disappointed consumers – but still, the emphasis on variety is substantial, and variety without volume leads inevitably to poor quality food.

This is the quandary – a great rotisserie chicken program requires variety – but one better sell an awful lot of chickens to avoid both out-of-stocks and old chickens turning off customers.

The industry has advanced enough that as we walk the MealSolutions show, it is sensible now to ask not only what is the hot new idea – but how has it been playing in real life settings. After all, with capital and a hot designer, we all know how to build beautiful stores with all the cutting edge ideas. The challenge is to make money doing it.