CANASTOTA, N.Y. -- Over the years, Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes' Easy Street Eatery foodservice brand -- which encompasses pizza, hot and cold subs, wraps, melts, Stromboli, burgers, salads, bakery and more -- has gained a strong following in its market. But last year, company founder and President John MacDougall realized the chain's limited menu was limiting its opportunities.
"We built a nice pizza business and a great sub and sandwich business, but that's a fairly limited menu," MacDougall said. "And people are more time-constrained than they've ever been -- moms in particular. We talk a lot about the female shopper, and we can help the female shopper feed their family in a relatively quick fashion and with a good, quality product."
Enter Nice N Easy's new home meal replacement (HMR) concept. Last year, the 80-store upstate New York retailer brought on professional chefs to elevate its already-strong Easy Street Eatery by developing a home meal replacement line of microwaveable meals -- one entrée and two sides -- priced at $6.99.
"We really want to take our foodservice business up three notches. We want to be the best," MacDougall said.
Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer Wegmans has been doing home meal replacement for several years, and MacDougall isn't shy in admitting that Nice N Easy models a lot of what it does after Wegmans. "After hiring the chefs, I asked them to tell me if I was just dreaming, or if it was really possible to do," MacDougall recalled. "They said it was and that it would be relatively easy to do. So, they put together the program and we started testing some product."
To come up with the menu choices, the retailer relied heavily on its chefs to identify restaurant-style dishes that would work for this kind of concept, and also gave them the task of sourcing the items since it required going to different suppliers than the chain was using.
Nice N Easy's Executive Vice President of Food Services Jack Cushman, Ph.D., oversees the HMR concept, but it's really the chefs' program, according to MacDougall.
Soon, the HMR line will be found in a walk-around, open-air cooler in every Nice N Easy store that has Easy Street Eatery -- 20 out of its 36 corporately owned and operated stores. Easy Street Eatery is not currently offered at Nice N Easy's franchised locations.
The HMR meals are all made at the store level. One of the chefs has been given the total responsibility of taking the concept individually to each store and going through the training process with employees -- how it's put together, what products you need, how it's packaged, how it should look, etc. Then he spends a week overseeing the execution and doing sampling. He gets the employees involved in the sampling, so they hear what questions customers have.
"Getting the sampling done is the toughest part," MacDougall said.
The HMR meals are packaged to look like they would on the consumer's plate at home, and the line offers a lot of choices -- something he believes is crucial for the program's success.
"If you came in today, you would see something different than what you'd see tomorrow. Today, you might see stuffed peppers and chicken. Tomorrow, it might be lasagna and steak. There is something different in the case every day," he noted. "You have to change up the variety. If you're a mom, the kids don't want to eat spaghetti every day."
Since launching the concept, MacDougall said it's been a learning process -- and they're still learning. Nice N Easy's executives are monitoring the program closely, tracking the meals sold per store, so they can start to see a history and determine what's hitting the mark and what's not. For instance, salmon hasn't been selling very well, but stuffed peppers are "shooting up the chart."
"You have to know these things because if you don't watch yourself, you can get buried," he said. "You can think you're selling a lot, but you're actually just putting it out there."
While the dinner daypart has always proved to be a challenge for the convenience channel, Nice N Easy is seeing the most movement of its HMR in the dinner hours. However, in some of its stores that have a large customer base of professional drivers and contractors, that clientele is using the HMR products as a lunch option as well. The stores heat the meals for them.
The retailer, too, is just starting to experiment with HMR in the breakfast hours. One offering includes scrambled eggs, sausage and potatoes for $4.99. The morning HMR piece is in its infancy -- just about a month or so old -- so MacDougall said they're still coming up with ways to market the breakfast options separately from the dinner meals.
While the learning process is continuing, the chief executive is encouraged by the results so far.
"If you can expand your offering and take care of a need people have, and you can do it right, those factors are the drivers for what we're doing and why it's working like it is," he said.