Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The rise of the super-supermarkets in the suburbs

Posted By on Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 10:07 AM

click to enlarge Price Chopper's chip-making machine
  • Price Chopper's chip-making machine

Once upon a time in the suburbs, Hen House stood out as the upmarket grocery. But now middle-market, value-oriented Price Chopper and Hy-Vee are getting in the game.

The remodeling of Price Chopper (7201 West 151st Street, Overland Park) and the construction of Hy-Vee (14955 West 151st Street, Olathe) represent suburban grocery stores designed to be something more than a supermarket. The Hy-Vee is an “experience” and a “destination,” according to Joe Burke, Hy-Vee’s manager of store operations. So we treated both stores that way for a day.

A chip is no longer just a chip at the remodeled Price Chopper at 151st Street and Metcalf. It is crafted, fed into a machine as a potato and, a minute later, returned glimmering with oil as a chip. A bag of barbecue, ranch or “naked” goes for $3.99, the customer-favorite sweet potato for $4.99. Only the chocolate-marshmallow flavor languishes on the shelves, forever alone.

The operator of this machine is officially known as the “chipmaster,” one of whom spoke to The Pitch anonymously.

Across from this engineering marvel is a popcorn station, where a retro-cinematic-looking machine takes kernels to their higher calling. There are buttered and caramel and the vibrant vermilion of cinnamon, plus the more exotic flavors of blueberry and chocolate. Requests have been made for events and children’s birthday parties, according to the chipmaster, who moonlights on this contraption.

The expanded produce section comprising the center of the store is an understandable distraction, but don’t think about leaving before visiting the new Asian station — “Because everyone has Chinese,” the chipmaster said — or the smokehouse station for all of the smoked meats. It just wouldn’t be the same.


A scant 24 hours after the new Hy-Vee opened its automatic doors April 8, there was controlled chaos around the international cheese bar. Turophiles marveled over manchego and gawked at the gouda.

Adjacent is a bulk-grains aisle and a stand-alone row of bulk candies (the Fresh Market is doing it, too) as long as a sailboat. Nearby: cutlery, nice plates, $50 dispenser carafes.

For bread lovers, a bakery with a prominent oven yields loaves that multiply and spill haphazardly, yet artistically, across the counters. Walk a few steps to complete the scene of biblical abundance with fish.

At the patisserie, strawberries and kiwis dance on circular stages of tarts topped with chocolate shells. Is the appeal enough to turn us into hedonists, ready to hand over a paycheck for pastries? Perhaps if Kansas Hy-Vees sold booze.

For that, there’s the Market Grille, an all-day, full-service restaurant with a fully licensed bar, according to Burke.

“The idea is, you come to the restaurant on Friday,” he says, “and then come back to grocery-shop Saturday.”

Forget the grocery totes and bring a weekender.

But are all these novel offerings distracting shoppers from a higher price tag? Hardly, argues Burke: “From a pricing standpoint, you’ll know if you’re not doing it right because people won’t be shopping in your store,” he says. “If they’re not returning and shopping a full cart, you’ll know you’re doing it wrong.”

Are these food temples set to become the new standard?

“The sky is the limit,” Burke says.


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