Donna's moving into new Metros; Two local chains tap into trend of eateries in markets; 'A new avenue of growth'; Food services


When fast-growing Metro Food Markets opens its newest Baltimore-area supermarket in Cockeysville next month, shoppers will find familiar touches: sushi and rotisserie chicken, a Provident Bank of Maryland and workers in trademark yellow hats.

But shoppers will also find workers clad in trendy black outfits serving up biscotti, cappuccino and roasted vegetables at Donna's Coffee Bar across from the deli.

The two Baltimore-area chains have teamed up to bring express versions of Donna's Coffee Bar and Cafe to new Metro supermarkets, a move designed to help each branch out by capitalizing on a growing trend of putting grocery stores and eateries under one roof.

"It's a superb move to bring in an experienced restaurateur that people in the community know and trust," said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Reach Marketing. "They're sharing consumer credibility and brand equity."

Donna's will open in the next two Metros, on York Road in Cockeysville and on Broad Street in Timonium, and likely in more new stores. The cafes will feature Donna's core items -- such as pasta, bread, soup, salad and sandwiches -- which consumers can take out or eat at stand-up tables.

Today, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's grocery chains offer in-store coffee bars, snack bars or juice bars, said Carole Throssell, a spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute in Washington. But that percentage has almost doubled from several years ago, she said.

"It is an emerging trend that we see," Throssell said. "It's a way for the stores to draw in more customers if they partner with a well-known name or a company that has a great product that consumers are going to recognize and come in the store for."

For Catonsville-based Metro, the inclusion of Donna's fits the chain's strategy of boosting sales of prepared foods, said John Ryder, president and chief operating officer of the 18-store chain. Prepared foods account for 20 percent of deli sales and are expected to grow to 50 percent within two years, Ryder said.

"We know the take-out business is growing," Ryder said. "I needed a partner. [Donna's] will help us take it to the next level."

Ryder, whose chain competes against Giant Food Inc. and Safeway Inc. in the Baltimore area, said the increase in prepared-foods sales persuaded him to add in-store cafes. He had tested selling Taco Bell and Pizza Hut carry-out food in two stores in 1997 but discontinued the arrangement after about a year.

By teaming with Metro, Donna's can branch into retail sales and sell packaged coffee and bread on grocery shelves, while also getting some prime locations, said Alan Hirsch, co-owner and operations officer of the chain he started in 1992 with Donna Crivello, co-owner and executive chef.

"We're entering a new avenue of growth," Hirsch said. "I don't think we know where this could lead. The possibilities are endless."

Ryder would not disclose financial terms of his arrangement with Donna's. Hirsch described it as a lease with partnership aspects and said Donna's would operate the cafe.

Donna's sprouted from a single coffee cafe in Mount Vernon to the largest coffee chain in the Baltimore area, with nine full-service cafes and three kiosks -- more units locally than Starbuck's. The chain found its niche merging popular specialty coffee drinks with cafe fare.

Donna's sold its two full-service restaurants, in Mount Vernon (now the Ruby Lounge) and at the Baltimore Museum of Art, in favor of focusing more on the cafe business -- about half of it in partnership with Bibelot, a locally owned mega-bookstore chain. Donna's now includes four cafes in Bibelot bookstores and others in Mount Vernon, Charles Village, the Gallery at Harborplace, University of Maryland Medical Systems and The Avenue at White Marsh.

Supermarkets offer a different point of access and allow the chain to expand faster and more easily, Hirsch said. "People have to go there every week," he said.

Donna's at Metro will be set apart visually, with darker colors, silver accent tiles and metal work, accent lighting and cork floors.

"It's going back to the original concept of Donna's, to the core menu items we started with seven years ago," Crivello said.

She envisions Metro shoppers picking up her bread and salad, for instance, as part of the evening's dinner, then grabbing a cappuccino on the way out. She said she has had many requests from customers wanting to buy her specialties such as marinara sauce or vinaigrette but has never had a way to sell those products.

Ryder said he hopes to include Donna's in supermarkets where the demographics make sense. He will open nine stores by the end of next year for Metro, which is owned by Minneapolis-based Supervalu Inc.

Other food service operators that have opened units in grocery stores include Subway Sandwiches & Salads, based in Milford, Conn.; Panda Express, of South Pasadena, Calif.; Wolfgang Puck Food Co., of Los Angeles; and Seattle-based Cinnabon, according to Nation's Restaurant News.

Additionally, Flickinger said, Royal Ahold NV, which owns Giant Food, has tested Pizzeria Uno in some chains, British food retailer J Sainsbury PLC is testing Starbuck's, Kroger Co. stores have Chick-fil-A and Albertson's Inc. is putting Krispy Kreme doughnut shops in some stores.

Dominick's Finer Food, a Chicago-area division of Safeway, operates its own sit-down cafes, serving chicken, beef and side dishes, buffet style. Food service chains typically lease space or make the operator a franchisee.

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