Super Rite expects 'theater of food' to get rave reviews

September 19, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

It's called Project X, and it just might change the way America shops for groceries.

The project, taking shape in three locations in the Baltimore area, has a real name, but executives of Harrisburg-based Super Rite Corp. won't disclose it until Sept. 29.

But John Ryder, president of Super Rite's Basics grocery chain, has a good description. He calls Project X a "theater of food."

The new grocery store concept, which Super Rite has been devising in strict secrecy for two years, will make its debut early next month in Perry Hall and at Perring Plaza in Baltimore County. A third store will open in Eastpoint before the end of the year. A fourth is in the works, but Mr. Ryder is being cagey about that location.

The project is being developed under the auspices of the Randallstown-based Basics chain, but there's nothing basic about it, including its eventual name.

Based on a preview tour yesterday, it's clear that what Super Rite is attempting is a radical reinvention of the grocery store. Project X also represents a bold challenge to Giant Food Inc., the dominant player in the Baltimore-Washington market.

Retail industry analysts and trade publication writers have yet to see or comment on the merits of Project X. But it appears formidable.

The new Super Rite concept boasts such innovations as franchised fast food outlets integrated into the store itself, food preparation areas in full view of the shopper and a computerized delicatessen order system.

In the grocery aisles are refrigerated insets so that related products can be grouped together.

Project X doesn't just look different; it sounds different. "The typical supermarket has what we call elevator music," said Mr. Ryder. "We want shopping to be the most exciting thing you do the whole day, so we created a theater."

Mr. Ryder is no stranger to hype, but his theatrical analogy is accurate. The store has enough spotlights to light a Broadway musical.

The difference is that the "stars" are fish, chickens, vegetables and other perishables. Each category has its own "stage," where dramatic lighting and custom-designed display tables show off the merchandise.

The store's traffic pattern leads the shopper through a series of "theaters" -- produce, then bakery, then poultry, meat and seafood. And after all that hunger-inducing theatrics comes an "intermission" -- a Taco Bell stand and a Hot Now hamburger franchise between the perishables and the grocery aisles.

"It's going into the 21st century, but it's also going back to the Lexington Market," said Geoffrey Glazer of Baltimore's Kann and Associates Inc., the chief designer for Project X. An effort was made to preserve the store's "human touch," he said.

Whether the concept sells as well as it looks won't be known until its doors open.

Will customers really want tacos midway through their shopping? Will consumers want to bring down the curtain on all this theater? Can Super Rite find sites quickly enough to grab market share?

What is apparent is that Super Rite's development team -- Mr. Ryder, Pete Vanderveen and John Lowery -- has created something beyond the typical grocery store.

"The average consumer hates to go grocery shopping," Mr. Ryder said. "She ain't going to hate going here."

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