Grocers brew new sideline

Coffee: Safeway and Giant add coffee bars to serve shoppers at some area supermarkets.

March 15, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A grocery store used to be a place to shop. Now grocers want their stores to be a place to stay.

With salad bars, hot food and deli foods to go already staples of grocery offerings, chains locally and nationally are going a step further into restaurant territory by opening coffee bars in their stores, complete with pastries, sandwiches and a cozy place to sit and chat.

The retailers say they are following a growing national trend of gourmet coffee shops that's too huge to ignore, and at the same time finding a new way to attract visitors and keep them a little longer.

"Supermarkets are becoming a destination, not just a place to purchase groceries," said Todd A. Hultquist, spokesman for the Food Market Institute, a trade association for the supermarket industry.

"Stores are finding success for their [prepared] food, so it only makes sense for them to add seating," he said. "It's providing a needed service to the community, or a reason for the customer to come to the store besides to purchase food."

Safeway Inc. and Giant Food Inc. offer self-service Starbucks coffee in several of their stores throughout the region, but the new coffee bars add more than the aroma of fresh brew.

The Starbucks shop in the Safeway in Canton opened last year with a full complement of coffees and pastries.

Giant is following suit this year, opening its first Rituals Coffee Bar in the River Hill Shopping Center in Clarksville. A second is expected to open next month in Bailey's Crossroads, Va.

"People are still looking for one-stop shopping," said Barry F. Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant. "Having a coffee bar or a soda bar gives customers an extra incentive to visit with us and also allows them to shop in a comfortable atmosphere."

The bar in the River Hill store sits along a wall at the entrance, near the produce section. Customers are greeted by a tempting display of tarts, Danishes and other pastries in a display case, and shelves surrounding the counter beckon with stylish coffeepots, sugar and creamer sets, and wine-shaped bottles of flavoring syrup.

Three tables with chairs are clustered in an alcove beside the bar, accented with plants. Behind the alcove, the store offers coffee by the pound.

According to FMI's Hultquist, major grocery chains began incorporating coffee bars and similar seated atmospheres in the past five years, with varying degrees of success. Smaller, more specialized stores found the move profitable early on, and with the popularity of gourmet coffee bars across the country, larger chains became the next neighborhood outlet for java lovers.

"To us it just made sense," said Debra M. Lambert, public affairs director for Safeway, who said the Starbucks stores have done well companywide.

"It was something that we thought our customers would enjoy."

Well-established trend

There's no doubt that Americans have developed a taste for the aromatic and caffeinated drink. According to the National Coffee Association, the trend toward gourmet coffeehouses has skyrocketed in the past decade.

In 1991, there were only about 450 gourmet coffeehouses - venues in which coffee was the main menu item - but the group estimated there were 8,500 nationwide by the end of last year. The trend is expected to continue, according to Gary Goldstein, a National Coffee Association spokesman.

"Coffee has transformed from a staple beverage to a gourmet beverage" because of the proliferation of the coffeehouses, Goldstein said. "The whole coffee concept runs opposite the fast-food concept. The coffeehouse is designed to give you more personal space; you've got reading material, background music, and all for $1.50."

It was this explosive growth and interest in specialty coffee that compelled grocers to start their cafe ventures. Adding products and services to the sales floor helps build brand loyalty, Hultquist said, but retailers know there's also money to be made.

"The retailers as large as Giant should take advantage of that market trend," Scher said.

"It's nice if you want a cup of coffee for it to be convenient. It adds to the ambience of a retail business," he said. "In food retailing, one has to be innovative in rolling out new products to the customer, and that's what we're doing here."

U.S. Foodservice coffee

Instead of relying on well-known, name-brand coffee at its new coffee bars, Giant will serve up the dark brew and prepared foods of its sister company, U.S. Foodservice, one of the nation's largest food service suppliers.

Giant Food's Dutch parent company, Royal Ahold NV, bought the Columbia-based supply company last year, and consumers can soon expect to see more U.S. Foodservice products on Giant's shelves, Scher said.

Shoppers at the River Hill grocery store, where a cafe opened yesterday, seemed supportive of the coffee bar concept.

"If you're in a hurry, and you want to sit down, I think it'd be a good idea," said Susan Joseph of West Friendship.

"It sounds like a good idea. I thought it was odd in this area that there wasn't a coffee place," said Jason Fischbein of Clarksville, who was at the store shopping for produce.

He said that the bar would make grabbing a coffee during morning shopping convenient, but that he probably wouldn't stretch out the trip to enjoy the view.

"I wouldn't sit down, but I would grab one on my way through," he said.

Susan Brenton of Clarksville offered a mixed review.

"I don't know who would come to the grocery store to sit around and have coffee," she said. "I guess you could drink while you shop."

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