Monday, August 24, 2009

‘Hook-up on aisle 9’

Last Friday, Milwaukee’s lovelorn were invited to hunt for Mr. or Ms. Right at a singles event featuring salsa dancing, party games, and an enticing array of Mexican nibbles. The mixer would’ve been just another night on the prowl if it weren’t such strong proof that supermarkets are encroaching on restaurants’ unique social role. Because this mating ritual was held not in an eatery’s dining room, bar or function room, but inside a Roundy’s grocery store.

The event, held from 10 p.m. to midnight, was the fourth On the Market at the Market night convened by Roundy’s, a $4-billion operator of five retail food chains in all. The company has yet to say how many people turned out on Friday, but the prior three each drew about 500 people, according to headquarters.

The attractions Friday included such ice-breaking activities as Turkey Bowling (you use a frozen turkey instead of a bowling ball), Oreo stacking, and a Pin the Tail on the Donkey tournament. The refreshments included quesadillas, chorizo-stuffed peppers, guacamole, shrimp and other appetizer-type fare.

But the real pull was undoubtedly the chance of meeting someone, and that’s what should have restaurants particularly concerned. Supermarkets have tried for years to position themselves as a dinner option on par with a night out. Consumers could either buy prepared meals and eat at home, or, in any number of experimenting groceries, try the on-premise restaurant.

Yet it had been tough sell. Supermarket food just didn’t seem to be of the same quality. And how romantic would it be to dine 20 yards from where you buy your laundry detergent and mouse traps? Not exactly the place to chill the bubbly and light the candles.

Research and chains’ sales results leave little doubt that the perceptions of supermarket’s take-home meals have changed.

Now Roundy’s special event suggests the latter mindset may be cracking, too. One singles series hardly constitutes proof. But that’s not the sum of the evidence. Hit any Whole Foods’ dine-in areas at lunch or dinner and you’re likely to wait for a seat.

Meanwhile, regional chains like Wegmans in upstate New York are packing their onsite dining rooms. Ditto for Sheetz, the Atlantic Seaboard c-store chain that has been outfitting its shops with tables and seating.

The restaurant industry has been too preoccupied with day-to-day survival to focus on looming threats. But at some point it’ll have to recognize that its relationship vis-à-vis supermarkets may be changing dramatically for the worse.

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