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Q&A with Terry Sharkey, vice president, foodservice, deli, seafood , Wakefern Food Corp., Keasbey, N.J.

The end of World War II was a difficult time for smaller, independent grocers. When price controls lifted and food rationing ended, people were flocking to the larger self-service supermarkets that could provide a wider selection of food at more affordable prices.

As a result, in 1946 a Del Monte Foods sales rep organized eight independent grocers in Newark, N.J. to form a cooperative buying group. With an investment of $1,000 each, the seven grocers formalized the cooperative and created Wakefern Food Corp. By joining forces, these businessmen were able to purchase larger quantities of items at lower prices and, subsequently, compete with the larger supermarkets that were becoming part of the retail landscape.

Wakefern Food Corp. has now grown into one of the largest retailer-owned cooperatives in the United States. Its 47 members own and operate more than 230 supermarkets under the ShopRite banner in the Northeast that serve more than five million customers each week, according to company data. Stores are located in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

In 1996, Wakefern launched its PriceRite stores, which increased its service area to include Rhode Island and Massachusetts. There are now 45 PriceRite stores in five states.

Along with its member companies, Wakefern serves as the merchandising and distribution arm of both its ShopRite and PriceRite locations. The company's operations include a milk processing and distribution facility and a seafood processing plant.

In 2009, Arlington, Va.-based NCB, which provides financial services and loans to U.S. cooperatives and their members, nonprofits and other member-owned organizations, named Wakefern the fifth largest co-op in the country, with $8.4 billion in revenue.

Over the years, ShopRite has increased its focus on prepared foods. While each store has unique offerings, most include a salad bar; freshly-prepared hot foods; an array of Asian specialties for dining in or taking out; a fresh-made sushi bar; an olive bar; coffee bar; brick-oven pizza; and a grill for made-to-order sandwiches, burgers and grilled chicken.

FE&S spoke with Terry Sharkey, who heads Wakefern's foodservice operations, to find out more about the company's prepared food initiative.

FE&S : How have you set your foodservice operation apart from your competitors?

TS: Customer service has always been a point of differentiation for ShopRite, especially when it comes to our foodservice departments. Convenience and value, without compromising quality are top priorities for serving our customers. Our foodservice operations have the ability to meet the unique needs of customers, whether they are looking for on-the-go dinner for two or catering for a gala event.

FE&S: How have you adjusted your foodservice operations due to the current economic climate?

TS: Continuing to offer customers the products they have come to expect at retail, such as rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, meatloaf, soup and other comfort foods, at a reasonable price is a top priority in this economy. This, coupled with the convenience factor, as customers can dine in at most ShopRite stores or bring meals home to their families for a quick, convenient meal solution, provides options for our budget-conscious customers.

FE&S: What are the biggest challenges in supermarket foodservice and how do you overcome them?

TS: Offering new and exciting meal options at low prices is always top of mind when addressing the needs of our customers. Our foodservice departments strive to continuously provide customers with quality and variety, while keeping prices at affordable levels.

FE&S: Please describe your foodservice offerings, including private label and branded foodservice.

TS: In addition to our Black Bear line of deli products, we offer customers three ShopRite private label branded prepared food options, including Chef's Express, ShopRite Kitchen and Avenue Bean. Chef's Express products are produced on site in each individual store, with the products reflecting the unique and diverse tastes of that particular town or region. The ShopRite Kitchen brand is reserved for items packaged at a central location, which is shipped to each store under strict company guidelines. Avenue Bean reflects ShopRite's freestanding cafés, which provide self-service of freshly brewed teas, coffees and specialty beverages.

FE&S: What are the key pieces of foodservice equipment in your operation?

TS: The combi oven, rotisseries and fryers are used in the kitchens. Combi ovens are efficient and flexible and considerably reduce the time of traditional cooking methods.

FE&S: Describe your production process.

TS: Our core programs are prepared at store level to ensure quality and freshness. Commercial packaged items are used to support our grab-and-go convenience selections.

FE&S: What equipment innovations have had the biggest impact on supermarket foodservice?

TS: Our new generation rotisserie ovens are more energy efficient and have reduced cooking times considerably. These ovens also feature a self-cleaning option, which gives us the ability to cook product throughout the day and night. This has been key in keeping up with customer demand.

FE&S: Has your foodservice operation undergone any major changes in recent years?

TS: As consumer demand for alternative meal solutions rises, we have increased our offerings to include more nontraditional prepared food products. These include grilling stations, sushi and Asian bars, coffee bars and made-to-order sub sandwiches.

FE&S: Discuss how the economic climate has had a positive impact on the supermarket foodservice segment.

TS: Our customers want to stretch their food dollars by looking for alternatives to dining out. By offering them a wide selection of quality prepared food products, coupled with convenience and value, the foodservice segment has augmented the shopping experience.

Supermarket Foodservice

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