Tapping a gusher

In the heart of Oklahoma oil country, Uptown Grocery Co. hits it big with outstanding perishables along with organic and conventional groceries merchandised in an architecturally striking environment.

Just off West Covell Road in Edmond, Okla. an oil derrick bobs its head up and down, pumping black gold from underground. But the real treasure is 50 yards to the east. That is where Uptown Grocery Co. has sprouted on the prairie, bringing shoppers in this upscale Oklahoma City suburb high quality gourmet prepared foods, top-notch produce, prime aged beef, dock-fresh seafood, made-from-scratch bakery, floral, organic and conventional groceries, along with the latest in dietary supplements. These items are all housed in an “industrial chic” environment where everything, including the temperature, is geared to shopper comfort.

See more photos of Uptown Grocery Co here.

“With Uptown Grocery Co. we try to make things a visual experience,” says Hank Binkowski, president of Uptown Grocery Co. and its parent firm, Oklahoma City-based Buy For Le$$, an operator of 13 conventional stores in the Oklahoma City area.

That visual experience first appears out on West Covell Road where drivers spy what at first glance appears to be a three-story circa 1902 red brick warehouse, complete with concrete adornments, small pane windows and a hand-painted black and white sign. Fact is it was constructed from the ground up in 2011.

“I really wanted something that looked like it had always been there and kind of has a nice ambiance where you feel like in 20 years this will still be retro cool,” says Susan Binkowski, Hank’s wife, a principal in Buy For Le$$ and owner of Esperanza Real Estate Investments in Oklahoma City, which designed much of the store.

The Binkowskis built the store at the urging of friends who asked them to open a store in Edmond, she says. “It was one of the areas in the metro that we hadn’t gone into,” Susan Binkowski says. “It was when we started planning that we came to the realization that this was not a Buy For Le$$. We sort of stretched that name as far as it would go and this was completely different. Hank and his team worked through 23 floor plans. Engineering was ready to kill him.”

The store’s façade is modeled after an old factory she saw in downtown Oklahoma City. And although the store is set in the middle of a suburban community—across the street from Cheyenne Middle School and Mitch Park and cater-cornered to a Lowe’s—a large red neon sign on the back of the building purposely evokes old urban warehouse districts and makes the store visible from a key intersection two blocks away.

“We are trying to give history to a brand new location,” Susan Binkowski says. “And we’re trying to give history to us too! We’re local. We’ve had a lot of corporations that have come into Oklahoma, whether Whole Foods or Sunflower, and just absolutely poach [sales]. We’re saying that we’re homegrown, local people.”

Uptown Grocery Co. embraces the environment by offering only paper bags at the checkout and only electric hand dryers in the restrooms. LED lighting is heavily used and almost all frozen and refrigerated cases have doors. Natural light floods the prepared foods area, courtesy of three stories of small pane windows. “Not only is the store very energy efficient but it is actually a nice temperature in here,” Susan Binkowski says. “We have really set the temperature in the store to be very comfortable for a woman. You come in here and you don’t freeze.”

Shoppers come in via one of two entrances—the main entrance opens upon floral and grocery while the increasingly popular north side entrance opens into the fresh foods area where a third register had to be added to handle the unexpected amount of take-out business. The L-shaped parking lot wraps around two sides of the building. “We were very intentional about not doing a huge sea of parking in front,” Susan Binkowski says.

Those entering the main door pick up a shopping cart in a vestibule decorated with a black-and-white mural of early 1900s downtown Oklahoma City. “We tried to do things a little more creative and more different here,” Hank Binkowski says.

Like a scene out of The Wizard of Oz, the doors open from that black-and-white mural into a sea of color, causing shoppers to question if they aren’t in Kansas—or in this case Oklahoma—anymore. For Uptown Grocery Co. offers up a palette of color-coded departments paired with an enticing variety of fresh and prepared foods for every palate, along with gifts and gourmet groceries that is unlike any store in the Oklahoma City metro area.

First up is the circular Floral Fusion floral department, set off by shiny lime green tile which shoppers see as they head though the main doors. “We try to make things a visual experience and try to make it something that you will never see in any other stores that you go into,” Hank Binkowski says.

“We made it circular because it is kind of the hub,” Susan Binkowski adds. “It is bridging the grocery side of the store with prepared foods.”

“Our produce/floral director worked at Kroger for 39 years and he once was in charge of floral at Kroger,” says Hank Binkowski. “He lends a lot of influence and we have things that you won’t find in a lot of other stores.”

The circular area also includes a private office for event planning for floral arrangements and catering. In Edmond, Uptown Grocery Co. has already become the go-to place for wedding and other special event cakes. “We do a lot of cake orders and catering,” Hank Binkowski says. “Our event planners will sit with the customer and go over their exact needs.”

To the left of floral is The Great Grains Bakery—decorated in a Glacier Blue tile that glitters like frosting—specializing in artisan baguettes, signature brownies, cakes and breads dusted with a flour coating in the shape of the Uptown Grocery Co. logo. “Our bread is made fresh every day and is as fresh as you can get in this market,” says Dewayne Porter, store director. “About 95% of what is over here we make daily. We do very little thaw-and-serve.”

Livin’ on the wedge
Across from the bakery, set off by white and silver tile, is The Wedgery – Livin’ on the Wedge, Uptown’s renowned cheese department. “Our cheese has really made us famous around here,” says Hank Binkowski, who notes The Wedgery stocks close to 300 varieties. “We have the best variety of cheese, better than Whole Foods, better than anybody in town. We are very, very proud of that.”

Included in the island department is Sushi at the Grille, where shoppers can choose from almost three dozen varieties of sushi rolls. “We have five sushi makers that work there,” Hank Binkowski says.

Many shoppers take their sushi and other items purchased at The Gourmet Grille sandwich and salad bar and prepared foods station and head over to the 90-seat Café dining area. “We keep adding tables,” Porter says. “Since we opened I’ve added six tables. It seems like there is always a waiting line to sit down.”

The Gourmet Grille’s most popular items are also available pre-packaged in the “Grab + Go” case, including chilled sandwiches, salads and entrées.

SRO salad bar
“Anything in our hot line or salad case you can get in the ‘Grab + Go’ case,” Porter says. “So if you like a particular salad and you don’t want to wait you can just grab it there. It is just a secondary display. With the hot line and salad bar at lunch it is standing room only every day from 12:00 until 1:30.”

That may be because customers are having a hard time deciding what type of salad to pick. There is cranberry, chunky, walnut, artichoke and Sonoma. And that’s just in chicken salad. “We make all of our salads fresh daily and have over 120 kinds,” says Porter. “All of our salads are handmade here. They are not out of containers.”

“Our Sonoma Chicken Salad is made with poppy seeds, grapes and pecans and is our No. 1 seller,” says Isiah “Ike” Hill, deli service manager. “We have a couple that is having the Sonoma salad at their wedding, but they don’t want grapes in it so we will customize it for them.”

Hot entrees are also popular. “We have pasta, fish, taco bar, burger bar and your normal fried foods,” Porter says. “At our carving station we have turkey, ham, pork and brisket every day.”

The carving station leads into the service salads, then  into fresh salsa—featuring seven homemade varieties—followed by prepared entrees, including pre-cooked rib eye, T-bone, New York strip and top sirloin steaks, grilled lamb chops and stuffed pork chops. “We’re a grocery store with restaurant-style quality at grocery store prices,” Porter notes.

The deli case is filled with shaved ham and turkey; other meats, such as bologna, are available sliced to order and not on display.

Across from the deli is produce, highlighted with lime green bins and tiles and a suspended wooden crate on a hoist stenciled “Buy Local, Edmond, Oklahoma.” More than 100 organic items are available, including the locally popular Peach Crest Farms.

Over 200 varieties of bulk food are available, merchandised in see-through plastic tubs. “We package it for people ahead of time, rather than having them foraging through bins and dropping things on the floor,” Hank Binkowski says.

Service seafood is along the back wall. Product is flown in from the West Coast at least twice a week, and everything can be cooked to order. “I think Whole Foods probably has a little bit bigger department,” Hank Binkowski admits, “but we are a little bit more unique in what we are doing. We are packaging some of it up ahead of time. You won’t see kabobs like ours around. Not to knock Sunflower, but almost all of their seafood is frozen and thawed out. Not a lot of people [in this market] do clams. We have split lobster tails and King crab legs.”

The adjacent service meat case features eight varieties of store-made sausage, along with natural pork, beef, lamb, turkey and chicken. “Our prime aged beef is aged for a full 28 days, whereas a lot of people do it for 21 or even 14,” says Hank Binkowski. “We are the only ones doing dry aged hamburger too.”

Service meat leads into self-serve meat and dairy, housed on the grocery side of the store. A barrel roof design over the checkouts and back wall of the grocery aisles is reminiscent of Grand Unions and Safeways in the 1950s. “That is the feel we were going for,” says Susan Binkowski. “It is almost like an airplane hangar design.”

Product assortment is pretty evenly split between conventional and natural/organic, with items neatly stocked on compact shelves. In canned vegetables, for example, the shelf set is 10 rows high. “We added shelf space,” says Porter. “There is no air space. There is so much variety in this store that we pushed as much into an aisle as possible, so we have to do a good job of staying organized.”

Since more consumers are trying to take charge of their bodies Uptown Grocery Co. has a Your Wellness department where vitamins and supplements are merchandised. It is housed up front, beyond the registers, in an area originally slated to be a bank branch.
“Our customers want access to this type of nutritional supplement at a good price,” says Susan Binkowski. “Since we developed it the department has just gone crazy for us.”

The meeting place
Crowded during the week, Uptown Grocery Co. is packed on weekends. “On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we have a person come in and play a piano, like in Nordstrom,” Hank Binkowski says. “He plays upbeat stuff and it gets people toe tapping and creates a joyful mood.”

“On weekends we’ll always have entertainment, whether it is a clown, human statue or balloons,” Porter says.

“One of the big things we’re trying to create in this store is community,” Hank Binkowski says. “People just come in and congregate. Their neighbors are over there, their friends are over there. They are stopping and milling. They are really not in a mission to get out of the grocery store.”

With all of Uptown Grocery Co.’s great food and architectural wonderment it sure is easy to see why.

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