The golden egg

A top-to-bottom remodel at Hen House Markets’ flagship store is something to crow about.

By Richard Turcsik

With its Starbucks Café, Rice Garden Chinese food, Hissho Sushi, fresh-fried chicken, local produce, jet-fresh seafood, service meats and those famous, mouth-watering Tippin’s pies, it’s easy to see why shoppers flock to Hen House Markets’ flagship store in Lenexa, Kan. It’s also easy to see why the store closes at 11 p.m.—if it didn’t the customers would be roosting there all night.

Traffic’s been on an upswing since a literal floor-to-ceiling remake of the store, originally opened in 1990 and last remodeled in 1997, was completed in October. “This remodel had no expansions to it, but we replaced a lot of our equipment and put in what we are calling our New Generation Décor Package for the Hen House Markets,” says Dave Gryszowka, vice president of operations for Kansas City, Kan.-based Balls Food Stores, which operates 12 upscale Hen House and 17 conventional Balls Price Chopper stores in the Kansas City area.

That includes a stylized chicken and egg logo and a shift from a teal to chartreuse color scheme. “It’s quite a deal to change the font because when you change the font it changes everything—name tags, packaging, bags, labels and scales. There were tons and tons of things we had to go through,” Gryszowka says.

Done while the store remained open, the remodel proved to be a Herculean task, taking two years to complete. On the plus side, “Because we really are a neighborhood market, our customers liked coming in and seeing what we had done the night before,” says Pam Mitchell, Lenexa store director.

To lighten up the store, the open ceiling was painted chartreuse over its original teal. “They sprayed the ceiling at night and it had to be done in sections,” Mitchell says. Likewise, floor tiles were replaced with 16” x 16” luxury vinyl tiles, which are more striking that the traditional 12-inch squares. “When we build stores from the ground up, we use polished concrete floors, but when you redo a store you don’t get the same effect,” Gryszowka says. “There are lots of imperfections and when you are doing a lot of grinding you get down to the aggregate, which didn’t bother us, but there were trenches from when departments were changed in the first remodel.”

Shoppers entering Hen House are greeted by the Hen House Flower Shop, an FTD florist. “Just look at the plants. You know you have a good department when everything looks like a million bucks,” Gryszowka says. “These plants almost look fake, they’re so nice. But you go into some stores and you think they’re running a plant hospital.”

Pop of color

Helping those flowers pop is the Baero lighting fixtures above the department. “One of the big changes in this remodel is with some of the lighting,” Gryszowka says. “We teamed with Baero out of St. Louis and have just really been pleased with them and their color rendition.”

To the right of floral is the Rice Garden Chinese take-out, followed by a Starbucks concession.

“We are a Starbucks licensee,” Gryszowka says. “It’s definitely a draw, especially in the morning.” Starbucks leads into Hen House’s prepared foods area featuring made-to-order sandwiches, in-house smoked meats, rotisserie chickens and its famous fried chicken.

“We’ve done many cuttings on our fried chicken, against the Colonel, Hy-Vee, anybody in town, and we just kick their butts every time,” Gryszowka says. “Our fried chicken is made with fresh chicken—never frozen—that is marinated in buttermilk. We got our own secret breading and we’ll match it against anybody.”

He can make the same claim for the architecturally striking salad bar across the aisle. Business is so brisk—it accounts for 2% of total store sales—that it even has a dedicated register during the peak lunch period. Because the store doesn’t have a large café seating area, portable tables and chairs are set up near the department during lunch hour. “It’s not unusual to turn those tables three times during lunch,” Mitchell says.

Utensils help identify the origins of the items on the salad bar—green tongs for locally grown items, white for organic and black for conventional products. “We call the salad bar our battleship,” Gryszowka says. “When we opened this store it was the first big salad bar we had in our company and it was doing as much business as many of our competitors’ entire produce departments.”

What’s for dinner?

Another program for Hen House management to crow about is “What’s For Dinner Tonight?” Shoppers can literally pick up a bag with a complete dinner for four for a set price. On Sunday, for example, they can get beef tips, vegetables, garden salad and gourmet rolls for $14.95; Monday is chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese, country gravy, garden salad and biscuits for $11.99.

“You just come in and grab it, take it up and pay for it. It goes over very well at this store,” Mitchell says, adding the menu might be tweaked three times a year.

“The confidence of our customers is built around this,” Gryszowka adds. “I mean the customers don’t even look in the bag. They just grab it and go.”

The refrigerated “What’s For Dinner Tonight?” case also includes soups, entrées and pot pies prepared in Hen House’s central commissary, one of two the chain operates. The other makes Tippin’s pies.

Hen House changed sushi suppliers as part of its remodel. Today the department is run by Hissho Sushi. “We like to think we have the best sushi chef in Kansas City,” Gryszowka says.

Judging from the vibrant colors filling the salad bowls in the deli case, Hen House has the best salad chefs in town too. About 90% of the salads are made in-house.

“Our deli is kind of spread out,” Gryszowka notes. “We start up in that front corner, then have the hot, the grab-and-go and then we get into the service deli case. That’s all flanked by the fruits and vegetables in the center.”

Produce occupies some 5,000 square feet and specializes in local product. As part of the remodel, the produce prep station and its large ice tables were replaced with multi-tiered shelving, part of the industry shift to factory prepared pre-cuts. “We designed the department with that dog-leg case in the back so it is not all open because we want to lead you to this corner so you walk into seafood,” Gryszowka says.

Hen House’s seafood department is a sight for the eyes—and the ears too. A fishing boat mural serves as the backdrop for a department straight off of Fisherman’s Wharf, complete with wooden crate workstations, sea shanty architecture and the sound of cawing seagulls in the background. Fish is merchandised on non-refrigerated stainless steel tables surrounded by a high-wall snow bank of ice which associates make daily by packing molds.

“I wanted to create a department like the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House in Disney World where you think you are in an actual tree,” Gryszowka says.

Hen House’s meat department is a Magic Kingdom unto itself. About 90% service, it features some 24 feet of namesake poultry, artfully arranged in symmetrical rows. “There’s craftsmanship here,” Gryszowka says. “We’re not just throwing everything into a case.”

In red meat, Hen House exclusively stocks Hereford beef. Further down, is the Balls Smokehouse, a self-serve coffin case filled with hams, smoked brisket, ribs, sausage, hot dogs and corned beef all prepared to Balls’ proprietary recipes.

One item that no Hen House customer ever forgets is the signature Tippin’s pie. Tippin’s was a family restaurant chain that operated in the Midwest and Texas and Hen House carried its pies exclusively for years. When the restaurant chain went under, Balls Food Stores bought its commissary, which included the pie bakery.

“We hired several of their key people and have been able to make that thing work,” Gryszowka says. He drops a $10.99 peach pie into a visitor’s hands. “Feel the weight of this. We sell these pies to retailers around the country. Dierbergs in St. Louis buys them, AJ’s in Phoenix.” he says.

Hen House’s remodel opened up a space in the middle of the center store area for seasonal merchandise. “This is a big benefit because otherwise you wouldn’t even be able to walk up to the front end because it would be so crowded with those types of things,” Gryszowka says.

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