Saved by the Belle

With higher quality perishables, competitive grocery pricing and improved services, the newly rechristened Belle Foods tolls an exciting shopping experience for customers in its Deep South marketing area. 

Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

That enticing smell of slow-burning hickory explains the booming business at the service deli counter of Belle Foods flagship store in Hoover, Ala. Customers line up for the smoked ribs, chicken, pork and brisket, served with sides of fried okra, collards, field belleext2peas and snaps, mashed potatoes or warm peach cobbler. Business is brisk even though there are a half-dozen barbecue joints within a two-mile radius and Belle is directly across from the Riverchase Galleria mall with its extensive food court and myriad of out parcel restaurants.

Within an hour the stainless steel pan of ribs needs to be replenished.

“Smell the smoked meats?” asks Bill White, Belle Foods’ president, chief executive officer and owner. “That is a new deal we are trying in a couple of our stores. We have a smokehouse, but it is ventless. It is a real neat machine that can cook two or three different kinds of meats at the same time and they all come out perfect.”

Expanded hot deli offerings are just one of the changes that have been implemented at Belle Foods. Lots more are to come. The new banner debuted in this Birmingham suburb in August at what was one of the flagship stores of the old Bruno’s chain. Last July 1, C&S Whole Grocers sold its Southern Family Markets chain, the successor to the legendary Bruno’s, to White and his son Jeff, who is the chief administrative officer.

The Whites largely financed the acquisition by entering into a sale/leaseback arrangement for nine stores with STORE Capital, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based real estate investment trust (REIT).

Newly appointed to the NGA board, Bill White is an industry veteran, having held executive positions at several key retailers, including Richfood, King Soopers, Balls Food Stores and most recently Big Y, where he was vice president and CFO.

Covering a 4,200-square-mile operating area spanning Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, Belle Foods operates 57 stores under the Bruno’s, Food World and Piggly Wiggly banners. Since July, eight have been remodeled and converted to the Belle Foods banner, with the goal to rebrand the entire chain over the course of the next few years.

“Our biggest challenge to rebranding all of the stores is that we operate different types of stores that have evolved over the years,” says Paul McLaughlin, advertising and public relations coordinator. “They weren’t cookie cutter stores like Food Lion, or built to spec, like Publix. We have stores that used to be Delchamps, Bruno’s, Food World and other banners.”

White envisions the restoration of the quality and service that Bruno’s was noted for when it was a family-owned and operated chain. That changed after a 1991 plane crash killed the chairman and several executive officers. The chain was sold to a succession of owners who stripped it of its best assets and raised prices to shore up the bottom line, he says.

“What we’ve tried to do is improve the quality of the produce and all the perishables to kind of match what Bruno’s was known for,” White says. “We think there is a lot of opportunity to grow back in Birmingham. Our new name and what we’ve done has really resonated with people in terms of bringing back a family business under family ownership.”

Belle is beautiful
One of the biggest changes involved doing away with the Vincent’s name, which Bruno’s used in its deli/bakery department. “We’re not keeping that,” White says. “We’re trying to get away from the Bruno’s name. It has been too tarnished; but we’ve been doing a lot of similar stuff. We have many of the same recipes for our salads. We have a lot of gourmet cakes,” he says pointing out a case filled with mouth-watering fruit trifle and fruit-topped layer cakes coated in slivered almonds and local pecans. “Anything that is above and beyond what our competitors have and is our signature item we call ‘Belle’s Choice,’” White says.

To give the chain a fresh start White wanted to re-brand all the stores under one new name. “Our criterion was one syllable, five letters or less, something that you can remember fairly easily,” he says. “We came up with this. Belle means ‘beautiful,’ so it stuck.”

One of the first things the new management team did was upgrade the produce, increasing size, variety and Brix count. “We had a signature grape for the fall and the holidays that was this big,” White says, closing his thumb and index finger into a circle about the size of a ping-pong ball. “We sold more dollars of those grapes than we sold bananas during that time period. That is how good they were.”

In the Deep South, greens are an even bigger mainstay than bananas. That is why Belle’s Big Bunch Greens program has been such a success. Belle sells large bunches of kale, mustard, turnip and collard greens for $2.88—a price that is “the best price in town!” Many of them are grown by Glyen and Portia Holmes, members of the New North Florida Cooperative, based in Marianna, Fla. They sell so fast that new shipments come in every two days.

“We’re trying to carry more local products to set us apart,” White says. “We just had 150 farmers from across our footprint in our auditorium a few weeks ago who want to be a part of our initiative. We hooked up with Winrock International, which is part of the Rockefeller Foundation. One of their goals is to put the farmer with the retailer because often the farmer doesn’t have an outlet to sell their crop. They are a great partner trying to put us all together.”

Those farmers will surely move more product now that Belle Foods has implemented its 20% Off Full Case Produce Discount Program.

“We’re targeting the small restaurants around town,” White says. “They can come in and get a case from us at 20% off, which is cheaper than when they are buying it from a foodservice distributor. The Dairy Queen might come in and buy a case of bananas, for example.”

Meat by the piece
Improvements can also be seen in the meat department. “We’ve added more value-added meat items and seafood than they had before,” White says. “When they were trying to sell the company they were worried about shrink all the time. We’re taking a more long-term view of the business, which these stores haven’t had in a long, long time.”

In a novel twist, many items are sold by the piece. Marinated chicken leg quarters are $1.00 each, for example, while stuffed chicken breasts are $3.00 each and bacon wrapped pork tenderloins are 2/$3.00. “A lot of meat prices are misleading because many consumers, in their head, can’t naturally associate a pound,” McLaughlin says.

But they can associate a bargain. That is why Belle Foods has been building its morning business with its Daybreak Deals program. Every morning from eight to  ten shoppers receive half price on special items from every department in the store that are nearing expiration or marked for clearance.

“When you are here during those hours you will see reduced items marked with a sign,” McLaughlin says. “Back in the day, Bruno’s would do something similar where they’d have a certain cut of steak on sale at 6 p.m. on Friday, but you wouldn’t know what it was until you were in the store.”

The yellow sunburst Daybreak Deals signs really stand out against Belle Foods bright purple and green color scheme.

The new Simply Healthy tags are also attracting attention. The color-coded tags highlight gluten-free (burnt orange), heart-healthy (red), all-natural (green), carb smart (purple) and sugar aware (pink) products. Up to four attributes, including Belle Ringer featured specials and Belle Buys reduced prices, can be found on a tag. “The customers really like it,” White says.

Then they will really flip for the Simply Found shelf tag program.

“Simply Found is an easy way to find what you are looking for,” White says. “We have simplified the store directory by dividing each aisle into two aisle numbers and then subdivided those further into A, B, C, D, E, F and G. “So if you look on the directory for cake mix it will say ‘18 A’ and you will save time. Our long-term goal is that when you fill out your shopping list online, when you print it it will automatically print it out in the order of the shopping pattern for that particular store.”

In a bid to become more competitive, Belle Foods has been sharpening the pricing of its center store items.

“We’re trying to do a better job promoting dollar stuff, and we are putting in dollar walls and full aisles of dollar merchandise in our larger stores,” White says. “We have some shopping centers where there is a Family Dollar or Fred’s right next to us. We find people come into our stores and buy their meat and potatoes and then go right over there to buy their household stuff.”

This spring Belle Foods is launching a loyalty card. Rather than concentrating on discounts, it will be data oriented and offer shoppers a wallet concept, similar to the Shop Your Way Rewards program at Sears and Kmart. “On the off chance that when you get home and our product is bad, you just call us up and we’ll credit your wallet,” White says. “You don’t even have to bring it back. The next time they come into the store the credit will show up. We’re trying to do things to differentiate us from the competition.”

Belle Jr.  
A perfect example of that is Belle Jr., Belle Foods’ supervised in-store child play area for children ages 3 to 10 that is filled with computer games, Legos, blackboards, board games and other activities. White says it is the first of its kind in the Southeast. To ensure safety, both parents and children receive matching numbered wrist bracelets and parents receive a vibrating pager, similar to those used in restaurants, so they can be contacted if the child has an accident or has to go to the bathroom. In addition, television monitors are placed throughout the store so parents can see what is going on.

In Hoover, Belle Jr. is housed in a corner at the front of the store in a space formerly occupied by the pharmacy. Belle no longer operates pharmacy departments in its stores and wants to convert many of the spaces into Belle Jr.

“The parents love it—and the kids; the kids are the best advertisement we have,” says Osaremen Alebiosu, Belle Jr. manager in Hoover. “Parents tell us that when they are out of something the kids will say ‘we are out of peanut butter. We need to go to Belle Foods.’ It is not ‘we need to go to the store,’ but ‘we need to go to BELLE FOODS,’” she says.

It has been said people set life-long shopping patterns pretty early in life. Sounds like Hoover’s next generation of shoppers already have their minds made up.

Caroline’s Cart
A bright spot in the lives of many special needs individuals is a visit to the grocery store. However, the frustration of dealing with finding parking spaces and then assisting the individual while pushing a shopping cart is too much of a burden for many parents and caregivers.

Belle Foods has eliminated that problem with the introduction of Caroline’s Cart—a specialized shopping cart custom designed specifically for special needs customers. Caroline’s Cart was invented by Drew Ann Long, a stay-at-home mom and customer at Belle Foods Alabaster, Ala. store who named it after her 13-year-old special needs daughter who was born with Rett Syndrome.

“She got frustrated trying to go to the grocery store with her so she developed this cart,” says Bill White, president, CEO and owner of the Birmingham, Ala.-based chain.
The extra-heavy-duty cart has a large plastic seat in front of the basket that can hold a 300-pound man along with handles that raise and lower similar to the safety bar on an amusement park ride.

“We are the first store in the country to have it and we have gotten a lot of publicity on it,” White says. “We have at least one of these carts in each store,” that has been remodeled.
Belle Foods also has a dedicated parking space near the entrance for Caroline’s Cart customers that is sponsored by Pepsi and Frito-Lay.

“Drew Ann was frustrated about how difficult it was to park and leave her child in the car while she went to get a buggy and come back out,” says Paul McLaughlin, advertising and public relations coordinator. “So we have a special parking spot. When the customer gets here they park in the spot, call the store and we have an associate bring the Caroline’s Cart out to them.”  

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