The natural and organic foods category is one of the fastest growing food categories in the United States, and SuperValu moved another step last month toward bringing organic foods closer to mainstream consumers. The Minneapolis-based company opened its new Sunflower Market concept in Broad Ripple, a neighborhood north of Indianapolis. Touted as a value-priced natural and organic foods retail outlet, the 12,000-sq.-ft. store emphasizes its produce department and offers a different take on in-store baking through an exclusive partnership with French Meadow Baking Company.
SuperValu operates more than 1,500 retail grocery locations, including its no-frills Save-A-Lot stores, and it is the primary distributor for about 2,200 independent retail locations. SuperValu also recently announced that it agreed to purchase Albertson’s Inc., making SuperValu the second-largest supermarket company and in-store bakery operator in the United States. SuperValu’s move into the inherently pricier natural and organic foods concept is a new direction for the 135-year-old company and a potentially massive one.
SuperValu’s corporate management says the time is right for another chain to compete against the likes of Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats and Trader Joe’s, and Sunflower Market’s stated mission is to make natural foods more affordable. While 66 percent of Americans seek organic products that offer nutritional, appetizing solutions for themselves and their families, the cost of organic foods is the most common obstacle for consumers, according to SuperValu’s consumer research.
Maintaining a strictly natural/organic line in supermarket in-store bakeries can prove challenging, particularly for a chain of stores. Most large supermarket chains source organic bakery products through their own central bakeries or through regional bakeries that specialize in natural and organic bakery foods. Seeking a partner in its potential growth as a chain of stores, Sunflower Market turned to Minneapolis-based French Meadow Baking Company to develop a branded in-store bakery and café.
Set in the middle of the store, Sunflower Market’s bakery operates as an in-store bakery department, café and coffee bar. It offers a broad selection of bakery products made with “natural”, “organic” or “vegan” ingredients. Most products are supplied by French Meadow and are labeled and merchandised under the French Meadow Bakery Cafe brand.
| French Meadow’s Lynn Gordon helped train Sunflower Market’s |
bakery managers and staff.
The product line is not a typical in-store product line because it is tailored to the natural/organic consumer. The top-selling Minnesota Wild Rice Cake, for example, is made with wild rice, maple syrup, bran and currants. Baby Cosmic Vanilla Cupcakes feature pink icing that achieves its color from beats. Tarts are made using “real butter” crust–no shortenings, preservatives or artificial sweeteners, says Lynn Gordon, president of French Meadow Bakery.
Although most bakery products are supplied by one company, the products do not have a uniform, cookie-cutter appearance. The specialized products require more hands-on production at French Meadow Bakery, and Gordon wants to keep it that way.
“We don’t worry that each piece isn’t identical,” Gordon says. “It’s more about functional, practical, delicious products. It has to say, ‘eat me.’”
The bakery is positioned as an island in the center of the store with service showcases and self-service bread racks wrapping around the open production area where products are baked and sandwiches, salads and other café offerings are prepared. Artisan breads, cookies and scones are produced using par-baked doughs and frozen batters. The remainder of the bakery products are thaw-and-sell.
Ellen Skells, bakery café specialist for Sunflower Markets, heads the bakery café operations, including preparing for the store’s grand opening.
Even with par-baked doughs, environment and equipment differences can effect the outcome of the product. Skells and Gordon tested every product for optimal bake times, temperatures and steam.
The café area offers a few tables and chairs for customers to eat on location, but the bakery’s packaging and merchandising encourage grab-and-go sales in keeping with a grocery store sales environment rather than a restaurant or foodservice operation.
| Customers can prepare bakery products to their liking using a work station provided next to the bagels and other bread products. |
While breads and café offerings are the primary draw in Sunflower Market’s French Meadow Bakery Cafe, sweet products, such as cakes, cheesecakes, brownies/bars and muffins contribute color and “temptation” to showcases. Cakes are available from single-serve portions up to 6-in. three-layer rounds.
“Customers prefer smaller portions in desserts today,” Gordon says. The smaller items allow customers to purchase more than one variety. Cakes and other sweet products maintain Sunflower Market’s natural standards as well.
A month old, Sunflower Market’s bakery café concept is only in its infancy, but represents another example of a branded in-store bakery. SuperValu announced that a second Sunflower Market is scheduled to open in Columbus, Ohio between May and July this year. It plans several more sites, initially in the Midwest, with a goal of more than 50 stores nationally within five years.
“We’re hoping that this is a national chain some day,” says Jeff Noddle, C.E.O. of SuperValu. “That’s what’s at stake here.”
Sunflower Market at a glance
Parent company: SuperValu
Sunflower Market location: Indianapolis
Grand opening: Jan 21, 2006
Web site: sunflowermarket.com
Primary competitors: Whole Foods Market, Marsh Supermarkets, Kroger
Management: Jeff Noddle, C.E.O., SuperValu; John Sturm, director, SuperValu’s Sunflower Markets; Lynn Gordon, president, French Meadow Bakery; Tim White, Sunflower Market store
director; Ellen Skells, Sunflower Market bakery café specialist
Bakery brand: French Meadow Bakery Cafe
Number of stores/in-store bakeries: 1/1
Production methods: breads– par-baked; cookies and scones–frozen dough; brownies, bars, cakes and other sweetgoods– thaw-and-sell
Plans: Another Sunflower Market is scheduled to open this spring in Columbus, Ohio; SuperValu sees
potential for as many as 50 Sunflower Markets by 2011
Distributor: United Natural Foods