Answering the question of what’s for dinner is a little easier now that two grocery stores have unveiled multimillion dollar makeovers that greatly expand their prepared food sections.
Rouses Market and Winn-Dixie, which are just a couple miles apart on U.S. 90, are celebrating their new looks with grand re-openings. But the changes are more than cosmetic.
Customers lined up for free gift cards handed out for the event last month at Winn-Dixie and found several varieties of hots soups, chilled salads, fresh sushi, ribs and new dinner plates.
“Sixty two percent of decisions in America of what’s for dinner tonight are made after 4 o’clock day of,” said Anthony Hucker, president and CEO of Southeastern Grocers, parent company of Winn-Dixie. Now when customers arrive looking for something for dinner, they have many more choices, he said.
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This weekend Rouses Market is celebrating its grand re-opening with product samplings and special sales.
“Obviously we want people to come in and see the store,” said Steve Black, president and chief operating officer at Rouses Markets. But customers can also save money with special deals as they stock up for this weekend’s football games and upcoming holiday baking.
Following in the footsteps of Walmart’s new pickup service, the management of both Winn-Dixie and Rouses say they are researching similar “click and collect” programs, where shoppers order their groceries online, let the staff do the shopping and pick up their orders at a convenient time.
Rouses is also in negotiations to provide delivery service. “We should see that in the next 3-6 months,” Black said.
And the Ocean Springs Rouses isn’t the only one getting a makeover, the Gulfport store is scheduled for one in 2018, he said.
All of these services and improvements are for the customer, with an emphasis on local, both executives said.
“We needed somebody to do this,” said Katherine Carpenter of Ocean Springs, who was busy shopping with her young sons. “It keeps me from having to cook so much.”
Chuck Clark, who grew up in Ocean Springs and now is director of the Rouses there, said he overheard a woman on her cellphone when she came in the door, looked around and said, “You ought to see Rouses.”
The company spent $3.5 million inside and out, installing new floors, new LED lighting, new shelving and energy-efficient cases. Donuts are made fresh every morning. Greeting cards were moved to the front of the store in the floral department, where new cases display seasonal plants and flowers and the florists complete special orders for weddings and other events.
“Everything’s so new,” Clark said, and customers and staff are learning the store layout together after 30 years of everything in the same spot.
Most impressive is the new section of prepared foods that takes up the entire corner of the store from the produce to the meat departments.
“People want wholesome prepared foods they can eat there or reheat and eat,” said Clint Adams, vice president of operations for Rouses. A café area near the front door is for those who want a coffee or to eat at the store.
The salad bar was updated and a new prepared pizza section features pizzas on wood-fired crust imported from Italy. The hot bar displays steaming blackened catfish, tamales and twice-baked potatoes, made with Rouse family and chef recipes and all taste-tested and approved by Rouses’ Chief Executive Officer Donnie Rouse.
“Every day we have a different menu,” Adams said, and it’s updated for lunch and dinner. Traditional meals are on Monday through Friday and he said, “That menu is available on our website.”
Rotisserie chicken is $5.99 every day. “We always try to have them during drive time,” he said, which are the busiest times of day for prepared food sales, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and again at 4-7 p.m. Rotisserie turkey also will be available in the coming weeks, he said.
Customers can choose from hot boiled seafood, fresh seafood, frozen Gulf seafood or sushi prepared in front of them. They can pick up cut-to-order steaks to toss on the grill and smokehouse-type meats, such as the fresh green onion sausage made at the store.
Adams started working for Rouses when the family had five stores — compared to the 54 stores operating now in three states, with six more on the way.
A big part of the makeover was giving the Ocean Springs store the look and feel of the other Rouses Markets, including the flagship store in downtown New Orleans.
And more changes are still to come. Customers will be able to grind coffee and nut butters themselves, he said, “Just like in our New Orleans stores.” Meal kits will all the ingredients and instructions also will be added soon.
Black, who has been in the food business for 40 years, said the Rouses’ focus in on providing local products and keeping up with the trends in the industry. For example, the stores offer local and best-selling craft beers and more natural, organic and gluten-free products, which he said is one of the big shifts in the grocery industry.
“You told us you wanted us to invest here in Ocean Springs,” said Hucker, as 500 people lined up for the grand re-opening of Winn-Dixie that has been part of the community for 53 years.
It’s been freshened up inside and out, with a new hot wing bar, grab-and-go sushi and improved meat, seafood and bakery departments.
What hasn’t changed, said Hucker, who was born overseas in Wales and started in the grocery business at age 12, is the company’s commitment to its local customers and its employees that have a combined 463 years of tenure.
“You can’t copy the people and the culture of our company,” he said.
He understands customers and their preferences are different in North Carolina, New Orleans and Ocean Springs, and even from North Miami to South Miami. He also knows the significance of buying local in South Mississippi.
“Our customers tell us they will reward us for investing in the local community,” he said.
The company also likes to invest in the local entrepreneurs, he said.
Jambalaya Girl gumbo and jambalaya mixes are sold there, as well as at Rouses and other, independent grocery stores across the Gulf Coast. “These are my family recipes I made into the box mix,” said owner Kristen Preau, a Southern Miss graduate.
Leslie Henderson with Lazy Magnolia, the oldest brewery in continuous operation in Mississippi, was handing out samples of her company’s Southern Pecan and Southern Sweet Potato brews during the grand opening and said Winn-Dixie is one of her largest customers.
“I just happened to try to get into Winn-Dixie at the right time,” said Nathan Sanford, owner of Grumpy Salsa. He was ready to go for Winn-Dixie’s 2014 Local Vendor Roadshow, with a label and a product UPC code already secured, and a unique product. His salsas are made from family recipes that start with tomatoes rather than puree, he said, have no added sugar and use datil peppers he gets straight from a Florida farm.
Store manager Mark Tiblier has been in the grocery business for 19 years and said the remodel of the Ocean Springs store is significant. “To me it’s an investment in the community. Keep local jobs and keep the community strong,” he said.
“There’s competition everywhere,” said Hucker, who tossed out statistics about the industry: Less than 2 percent of groceries are purchased online and of those less than 1 percent are edibles. The millennial shopper is very different from baby boomer, yet he said, “In trying to please all people you’re not pleasing anyone.”
Winn-Dixie appeals to different tastes by selling national brands and 3,000 private label products. That private brand launch has been a success, with the chain receiving national awards for its private label apple pie and Prestige ice cream that Hucker said were blind tasted and rated No. 1 in the country.