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New Yorkers love pioneer's new up-the-ramp deli-bakery.

According to the popular song "New York, New York," if you can make it in the Big Apple you can make it anywhere. That's a claim that a lot of Manhattan supermarket operators would be quick to agree with--especially if it refers to the challenge of operating a successful in-store deli/bakery in this metropolis.

Competition for these departments in New York City is tough and plentiful. It's difficult to walk a block without encountering one or more freestanding delis, bakeries or cheese shops. More than 650 delis are listed in the Manhattan Yellow Pages and that only scratches the surface. On top of that, New Yorkers are experienced and demanding deli customers. They usually know what they want and aren't bashful about telling you if they aren't satisfied.

But these challenges haven't discouraged supermarkets like The Food Emporium, Shopwell, Grand Union and Gristede from meeting the competition head-on and operating successful departments. The latest New York supermarket to join this group of achievers is the recently remodeled Pioneer Food Plaza on East 23rd Street in Manhattan.

Owned and operated by the Pimarts Company, which has six Pioneer stores in New York City, this East Side supermarket has been in business for 10 years. Nestled efficiently within the restrictive confines of an apartment house ground floor, the store's department lineup has included a service deli counter since its opening. But space limitations permitted only 12 feet of refrigerated counter display for the service deli and precluded any thoughts of an on-premise bakery. That all changed recently when plans were made for a complete remodeling of the store.

"A restaurant adjacent to the store went out of business and the space became available to us," says Irving Ram, Pimarts' president. "Only a non-support wall separated it from the store, so its removal was no problem." The only possible obstacle was a pronounced difference in floor levels. The former restaurant area's floor was 16 inches higher than the store's selling floor.

But designer Herb Ross, who was commissioned to create a new look for the store, saw this as an opportunity to create something totally unique for a supermarket. According totally unique for a supermarket. According to Ram, Ross's idea was to achieve a department store effect by making the new area an alcove devoted to perishables--fresh produce, an on-premise bakery and a service deli.

To connect the two store levels, a ramp was designed that complies with city regulations requiring that the rate of incline not be more than 1 inch per foot. With this moderate raking, it is easy for shoppers to traverse the ramp with shopping carts. As an added precaution, surfaces are covered with textured tile to provide secure footing. Decorative handrails are also provided as an additional safety measure. A colorful planter, filled with fresh greenery and seasonal flowering plants, divides the ramp into "up" and "down" aisles.

The new area is located at the end of the entrance aisle, focusing attention on it as soon as shoppers enter the store. The unexpected novelty of the ramp, plus the stage-set appearance of the service deli, bakery and produce departments on the elevated level, create an almost irresistible attraction that draws shoppers into the new space. To make doubly sure that they don't miss it, large bright red neon along the ramp's wall proclaims that produce, deli and bakery are all "Up."

The remodeling of the existing store's selling area took place during closing hours to minimize any inconvenience to shoppers. The new perishables addition was curtained off during construction with an unveiling only after all the work had been completed. This air of mystery about the addition helped pique shopper curiosity and expectations.

As soon as shoppers reach the top of the ramp, they are welcomed into the service deli by a 12-foot case of imported cheese. This represents a dramatic change from the store's original deli in which a limited number of these cheeses was displayed on a back shelf, accessible to customers only by request. Sharing the cheese case are store-made fresh pizza, and fresh pasta and sauces supplied by Pasta & Cheese, a weel-known pasta retailer in New York.

An adjoining 8-foot hot foods case and a 12-foot salad section display the talents of the deli's chef and illustrate the production capabilities of the store's kitchen. One of the benefits of acquiring a former restaurant, was that a fully equipped kitchen was included in the deal. While most of the facilities were retained, Pioneer has updated and added new equipment wherever necessary to bring it up to its standards.

Of course Pioneer recognized that even the best of equipment is only as good as the people that operate it. So the store made a careful search for a chef to run the kitchen, working with an employment agency specializing in food service personnel. That was especially important since the emphasis was going to be on scratch preparation of most of the deli's foods. The effort paid off with the hiring of Ernest Wilson, a man with a degree in hotel and restaurant management and with solid experience in food service with government agencies and with hotels and restaurants in the New York area.

Wilson's cooking repertoire is extensive, but he's an inveterate experimenter, always looking for ways to enliven the deli's menu. "When I'm working in my kitchen, my adrenaline runs high," says Wilson. "I'm encouraged here to try new things, find new ways of doing things. When I come up with something different, it's given a taste test by Mr. Ram and his staff. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. But I learn by doing." Wilson never overlooks any source for preparation ideas. "I even trade recipes with our customers," he says. "When they ask for my recipes, I'm always glad to supply them...except for my sauces. Thos are my secrets!"

the kitchen staff consists of two full-time employees and three part-timers. All started with little or no previous experience but Wilson welcomed the opportunity to train them. "The deli is a constant learning process for all of us," he says. "But you have to know the basics. I start new employees by teaching them the fundamentals of cooking--how to keep ingredients in balance, how to use spices, how to correct mistakes. Hygiene is another thing I emphasize for all areas of food preparation. Things like washing your hands after handling chicken so there's no chance of salmonella if you then handle any other fresh foods."

Wilson ensures that will never happen in his kitchen by strictly complying with the local regulations and by being a tough taskmaster in maintaining high standards of sanitation. "I check our case temperatures regularly to make sure that all areas are at the required levels," he says. "We date all containers of fresh salads as soon as they are prepared to keep tight control of freshness. I also keep a record of every roast, listing each roast's weight, the oven temperature, length of cooking time and the temperature of meat when taken from the oven. That's required by law, but I'd do it anyway as a reference in case we ever had any complaints." A temperature gauge is as much a part of Wilson's uniform as his toque blanche.

It's important that a deli match its menu to local tastes--an assignment that can be tricky in New York City where varying ethnic groups, nationalities, income levels and educational backgrounds all mix. Pioneer, of course, had a running start on this identification since it has been operating the store in this area for 10 years. But that information is kept up-to-date by Pioneer's deli listening to its customers. Wilson is frequently out in the aisle talking with customers, asking their opinions, advising them on foods, and discussing recipes.

From those conversations and his observations, Wilson has acquired a knowledge both of his customers' lifestyles and their tastes. "We have policemen in training at the Police Academy, students from the School of Visual Arts, professionals and workers from the hospitals (the New York University Medical Center, Bellevue and others are nearby), and a lot of senior citizens," he says. "They're all concerned about keeping healthy and in good shape. That's why we use little if any salt in our salads and no salt or preservatives of any kind in our roast chickens. Because of that, they're very popular--especially with the older customers. If they want to add a sauce to the chickens, we give them a choice of 10 varieties that are packaged separately. Once in a while, I get a comment that something wasn't salty enough. So, I just tell them to add their own salt."

The deli's hot-food case regularly displays roasted chickens, Southern fried chicken, roast beef, barbecued chickens and barbecued ribs. In addition, different side dishes and entrees are offered each day. During a recent visit, the special entrees included Italian sausage and pepper sandwiches, eggplant Parmesan, stuffed bell peppers, green beans amandine, wild rice and rice pilaf.

The adjacent 12-foot salad case offers an average of 20 to 30 varieties each day. Except for commercially prepared potato and macaroni salads, all are made from scratch in the deli kitchen. The deli is particularly proud of its homemade countrystyle potato salad and its chopped chicken liver. The latter is based on the family recipe of a member of the company's management staff.

Cold cuts and loaves of cheese, displayed in an 8-foot case, are all cut to order. Related-item merchandising along the front of the refrigerator includes wicker baskets displaying rice cakes and a serve-yourself floorstand container of dill pickles.

A popular feature is the deli's hot soup counter--a 4-foot section topped with three large, black soup pots. At least two different soups are featured daily. All soups are made from a Campbell's frozen base except for the kitchen's pride and joy--its homemade chili, which is featured twice a week. Wilson reports that while it's an authentic chili, he does not overload it with hot spices. "I let the customers add whatever extra spice they want," he says. With each order of chili the customer is given a side order of yellow rice.

A real "first" for the remodeled Pioneer is its on-premise bakery--a department that was impossible to fit in the original store layout. Located at the end of the deli department, this bake-off operation fits snugly, and successfully, into the back corner of the new alcove.

All bread products, Danish and sweet rolls are prepared from refrigerated doughs, proofed and baked in the behind-the-counter work space. Customers help themselves to variety breads and rolls from bulk displays in a double-tiered, 8-foot section of plastic boxes lining an adjacent wall. Plastic bags and tongs are provided for customer use.

All cakes and cookies, supplied by a local bakery in Queens, are displayed in 14 feet of display cases. Examples of decorated cakes are exhibited along the top of the cases together with an album of cake designs for weddings and other occasions. These orders are also fulfilled by the Queens bakery on a next-day basis.

Bakery personnel were trained in a two-week session conducted by the refrigerated dough supplier. The equipment manufacturer provided four days of training prior to the bakery's opening, instructing personnel on the operation of the proofer and oven.

Ram was reluctant to divulge operating percentages, but he describes the increase in sales for the deli and the bakery's contribution as "fabulous."

Yet Ram keeps looking for ways to increase sales. He says, "We really haven't gone after the luncheon business yet. These office workers don't have enough time to be waited on at the deli counter and then wait to pay at the checkouts. But we're working on that." To help speed up the process, the deli now publicizes a special telephone number. An order can be called in and the deli will have it ready for pickup when the customer arrives.

While Ram is a strong believer in the deli and in its contributions to store performance, he has some reservations too. "I believe that retailers should be selective and careful about installing a large deli. A lot of stores put them in just because it looks good for window dressing purposes. They don't realize that delis require a lot of attention. You have to have an area that's right for a deli/bakery. Even though I'm glad we put a large deli in here, I don't think that I'd put that kind of operation in any of my other stores."
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Title Annotation:Deli Bakery Digest
Author:Dyer, Lee M.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Feb 1, 1985
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