Grocery stores offer upscale experiences

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By Andrea Thomson Viner, correspondent

It’s not the first thing you can see when you enter the Coralville store. But the bakery lures its share of customers to its cases — to its shelves of baked-on-the-premises breads, rows of desserts and myriad other baked goods.

Alongside the treats are New Pioneer Food Co-op’s other prepared foods, from appetizers to entrees and sides.

The Iowa City store expanded its natural and organic food market when it opened the Coralville location in 2001.

While the Coralville location houses New Pioneer’s prepared foods and a dine-in facility, the company didn’t add many new product lines, focusing instead on existing items by expanding on their core of locally grown produce.

New Pioneer provides resources for local growers’ expansions and organic certifications through the Iowa Valley Resource and Conservation Development Organization, Marketing Manager Jenifer Angerer said. It also plans to develop a grant program to extend the local growing season through hoop greenhouses, creating more core products to stock store shelves.

And it’s added grass-fed Iowa beef to their meat department, General Manager Matt Hartz said.

The “sheer number of local growers” demonstrates the success of these efforts, Angerer added. The company buys from 125 local growers and “purchased over $1.4 million in locally raised and produced foods” in 2010, Hartz added.

The Edgewood Road Hy-Vee store in Cedar Rapids, which employs up to 400 people, has an expanded health market to draw those customers. At 2,500 square feet and — according to Hy-Vee, boasting some 9,000 different products — “it’s one of the largest in the company,” said Eric Kraciun, manager of store operations.

But “it’s an experience” that customers want, such as that provided by the expertise of a trained chef, Kraciun added. So the Edgewood Road Hy-Vee hired Chef Joshua Delperdang, who started in early June.

Chef Delperdang offers live cooking demonstrations in the store. He’ll also offer merchandising expertise to make the display cases more “upscale” and “eye-appealing,” said Kim Jaber, manager of perishables.

He wants to “give customers an idea to go home with,” rather than just giving samples of products, Delperdang said.

Chef Delperdang, who trained at four-star Cafe Annie restaurant in Houston and has worked at Winifred’s and Vino’s in Cedar Rapids, has a following with “our foodies,” Kraciun said.

Delperdang has taught in the Hy-Vee Cooking and Lifestyle School since the store opened in 2006.

He will continue to teach classes and may expand into catering for customers who want a “Take Home Chef-type” experience, according to Jaber, and hopes to create his own upscale catering menu and in-home cooking classes.

Why hire a chef at a grocery store?

“It’s a point of separation,” Kraciun noted. “We’re not a traditional grocery store.”

New Pioneer also has added classes at its Coralville location. The courses “might be (customers’) first introduction to natural and organic food,” so they are “the best outreach,” Angerer said.

Class members shop the co-op for course ingredients and often return as customers and members, she added.

New Pioneer also has benefitted from the mainstreaming of the organic and natural food industry: “As people get more and more aware of the benefits of organic, natural food, they’re more interested in it,” Angerer said.

The Hy-Vee store has tapped this interest with 500 different varieties of organic produce. Another health-related line of business includes the services of dietitian Christy Frese, who consults with customers, provides corporate wellness programs and teaches classes.

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