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Dorignac's beefs up meat sales to $7.5 million.

Twenty years ago, a progressive Grocer article saluted the outstanding sales performance of Dorignac's Food Center, an independent operation located in the New Orleans suburb of Metaire, La. At that time, store sales were averaging $100,000 a week in 15,000 square feet of selling area--a remarkable achievement for those days.

Today, Dorignac's appears virtually unchanged from the time of Progressive Grocer's earlier visit. The vintage '60s architecture and decor remain in pristine condition, and store layout and size are unaltered. But there has been a big change in the store's volume: Its original 11 checkouts now ring up $27 million annually.

Owner Joe Dorignac attributes much of his store's success to his closeness to the customers and his ability to supply them with the services and products that they want. "Our store is small but my customers know they can get whatever they want here," says Dorignac. "We've always emphasized variety. If they request something we don't have, we try to get it."

Dorignac has no trouble keeping in touch with his customers. When he's not in the aisles, he stations himself on a tall, white leather upholstered stool across from the busy checkout area. From the "office," as he calls it, he converses with customers, handles their questions and requests, talks with suppliers, and oversees the operation of the store. A telephone is coneniently located next to the stool so he can take all calls without leaving the area.

Keeping an eye on the checkouts is considered important by Dorignac since so much volume comes through comparatively few checkstands. "On busy weekends, we'll have 20 to 25 people in each line at the checkouts," says Dorignac. "But customers still get out faster here than at other supermarkets. We keep two baggers on every stand to keep it moving fast."

Regular shoppers drive to Dorignac's from all areas surrounding New Orleans and from as far away as Baton Rouge. While this popularity can be attributed to a combination of features, the "star" attraction has to be its meat department. And that's no accident. At age 17, Dorignac's first full-time job was as a meat cutter, and meats have been his "first love" ever since. "I used to go back and work in the meat department," he says. "And I still like to, but I don't have time."

Dorignac still keeps a close eye on the department's operation, but is backed up by a veteran crew, which is well indoctrinated with his operating philosophies. The department manager, Ray Lasseigne, has been in charge for nearly 20 years, and the rest of the 26 meat employees average 15 years of service at Dorignac's.

"When we opened, New Orleans was a veal town," says Lasseigne. "But we established our business by featuring Black Angus beef. U.S. Choice is the only grade that we handle. We're on a boxed beef program, buying most of it direct from Iowa Beef Processors. Right now we average about one to one-and-a-half trailer loads each week -- more when it's on sale. Beef accounts for about 50% of our total meat sales." Because of the shortage of backroom space in the store, a refrigerated warehouse is maintained across the road.

In the face of stiff competition from a Schwegmann that is 10 blocks away, a nearby Winn-Dixie, and a 24-hour A&P across the street, Dorignac's maintains an aggressive, low-price advertising policy. "We don't worry about anything that the competition does. We just do what we have to do--and we do it better than they do," says Lasseigne. Dorignac adds, "We don't check other stores' prices. We set the prices and others follow suit. All of our prices are very competitive. Grocery shopper surveys in the city always show that Dorignac's is ranked in the top two or three best values."

But when the quality and scarcity of the cut demands it, Dorignac's customers are willing to pay the price. Veal, which constitutes 10% to 12% of the meat department's total sales, is a good example. Among the varieties offered, "white veal" is growing in popularity even though some cuts are offered at $8.99 a pound. Most of the store's veal is ordered from Wisconsin in carcasses averaging 400 to 450 pounds.

The meat department offers shoppers an expanse of 112 linear feet of coffin and multi-deck self-service cases. But service is available at all times. Three meat cutters are stationed behind a 52-foot stretch of refrigerated display to fulfull any customer request for custom cuts or special service. The area is equipped with scales, two slicers, a meat saw and a meat grinder. A glass-front display case along the section's back wall exhibits subprimal cuts of meat ready to be cut into steaks or roasts at the shopper's command. Custom cuts are priced 10 cents per pound above the packaged price in the case.

"We feature quality along the entire case," says Lasseigne. "There's never any cut in the quality when meats are on special, like at some stores. We offer the widest variety of anybody, and our cases are always fully stocked from the time we open until the store closes. Most stores don't like a lot of leftovers at night and rewraps in the morning, so they let their cases run down. But we have two people who do nothing but stock the cases, rotate product, check packages and make sure the shelves are full all day, everyday."

Lasseigne notes that consumer attitudes toward meat have changed since he first assumed management of the meat department two decades ago. "There are a lot more small families and a greater demand for smaller cuts. The concern about diets and about cholesterol levels has affected the image of red meats, too. People are buying leaner meats and more boneless meats. We trim the fat on all cuts of meat. They cost a little more but customers are learning that iths cheaper than paying for parts that they can't eat anyway. Our boneless beef stew meat is a good example. All excess fat, skin and gristle are removed so that it's all edible."

The trimming and boning assignments are in experienced hands at Dorignac's. The two mmeat departmetn veterans with this assignment have specialized in this activity here for more than 15 years.

Dorignac's used to promote the sale of sides and quarters of beef, but Lasseigne says there is less consumer interest in those larger quantities today. "We still offer that service, and buy U.S. Choice beef locally for those orders." The store does feature whole beef loins, averaging 45 pounds, in some of its weekly ads. During the week of Progressive Grocer's visit, loins were advertised at $1.79 a pound.

Beef tongue and oxtails are stocked in the meat display cases but that's about as close as any products come to the offal category. Most of Dorignac's clientele is in the upper and middle-income brackets, with preferences for less exotic parts of the animal.

Dorignac's claim to offering a wide variety is substantiated by the daily selection of beef, lamb, veal and pork cuts--including such New Orleans specialties as pickled meats, a marinated product used to season vegetables, and other dishes. The self-service smoked meat section offers over 14 different sliced bacons and a variety of packaged luncheon meats, which Dorignac refers to as the best of any store. "If they can't find it here, they can get it at our deli counter," he says.

The 30-foot deli, part of the meat operation, is located next to the custom-service area of the meat display. Small signs on the work area's back wall list the names and prices of 28 different cold cuts and 30 varieties of cheese available from the counter.

The department is equipped with a small backroom kitchen that makes most of the deli's salads and hot foods from scratch. The kitchen also prepares the daily entree for a fast foods snack corner located at the front of the store. Among the deli's specialties, prepared by chef Tony Terranova, are stuffed crab, gumbo Creole, Italian olive salad, and lasagne. The deli also proofs and bakes a French bread from refrigerated dough. This has become a best-seller, at 79 cents a loaf.

The heart of Dorignac's meat operation is its well-equipped cutting room. Each of three saws is designated for cutting specific types of meat: one for beef only; one for veal; and the third for pork and poultry. All chickens are purchased whole and cut on the saw. Whenever more than one type of meat is cut on the same saw, the equipment is thoroughly cleaned before being used to cut the other variety. The department also includes a sausage machine, used for the production of store-made products which have become favorites with Dorignac's customers.

The meat department employs 26 full-timers including three assigned to the deli counter. Meat sales contribute 28% of the store's total. In dollars and cents, that's over $7.5 million a year in retail meat sales from 112 linear feet of meat display cases and 30 linear feet of deli display. No wonder Dorignac claims that his meat department's sales-per-linear-foot perfromance is the best in the country.

Meats are prominently promoted twice a week in newspaper ads appearing in the Monday and Thursday editions of New Orleans newspapers. Dorignac's, a member of an affiliated group of independents called the Bell Super Markets, shares the ad with four other stores. The store is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with shorter hours on Sunday. However, Lasseigne says that opening hours are flexible. "If customers come to the front door before we're open and want to shop, we let 'em in!"

Dorignac prefers not to comment on the store's profitability. But it is obvious that the rewards of his hard work and dedication to giving New Orleanians an extraordinary place to shop, have been considerable. Among his possessions is a 1,100-acre ranch near New Orleans on which he raises a herd of 800 Black Angus cattle (400 are registered) and at least 150 thoroughbred racing horses. One of his horses, which won a $100,000 purse, was sold last fall for $750,000. Until recently, Dorignac was a major stockholder in New orleans' major race track.

Even with all these material evidences of success, Dorignac's heart is still in his store on Metaire's Veterans Boulevard and in finding ways that can make it even better. "We need more room to make it easier for customers to shop and to enlarge departments," he says. "We're planning to extend the building 50 feet along one side in the next few months. All the aisles are going to be widened by 18 inches. We're going to add three more checkouts and put in scanners.

"There's not enough room to handle the variety of cheese we should have, so we're going to put in a cheese shop. Up front, we're going to install an on-premises bakery. I want it to be like Balducci's in New York City with all kinds of breads--and with that aroma. The deli's also going to be enlarged, and we'll be adding a fresh seafood section.

"When I was at FMI last year, I saw these black refrigerated cases with gold trim. So, I'm replacing all of our cases with them. They looked great at FMI and I hope they look as good here. The decor is going to remain the same, but I'm changing the front of the store. I think that the addition will increase our sales at least $100,000 a week."
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Author:Dyer, Lee W.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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