New Kroger by TCU tries to stand out in crowded market

Kroger today brings to Texas a somewhat up-market concept born in Michigan that emphasizes prepared foods, along with five varieties of tortillas baked in-house, fresh sushi, 125 cheeses, and bigger selections of beer (400 varieties) and wine (1,000) than usually found in larger supermarkets.

The 48,743-square-foot store in Fort Worth near Texas Christian University -- one of 129 around the country, but the first in the state -- is more compact than Kroger's usual supermarkets. To make room, Kroger's Fresh Fare format shrank the "center" store featuring canned foods, housewares, health products and greeting cards.

But spokeswoman Kristal Howard said it will employ more people -- about 230 workers, compared with 160 to 170 at the chain's typical 75,000-square-foot "signature" store -- while carrying about 35 percent fewer items.

Extra hands are needed for the more labor-intensive 20-foot "chef shoppe" counter that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner items and to keep the more limited shelf space restocked.

With the takeout meal and deli counters closest to the entrance, the store appears designed for shoppers who need to conveniently pick up hot food and check out quickly. With those consumers in mind, selections of seafood, gourmet pastry and premium deli items are expanded, said Gary Huddleston, a Kroger spokesman.

Every Boar's Head luncheon meat except head cheese -- a jellied meat product made from pig tongue and ham -- is offered, including its line of "all natural" nitrite- and nitrate-free items.

With an Albertsons, Fiesta and a Tom Thumb nearby, the new Kroger will likely heighten the rivalry for the shopper's dollar. That's against a backdrop of heightened price competition since deep-discounter Aldi moved into the Metroplex this year and Walmart reduced prices on some items.

Fresh Fare is aimed at TCU students and the relatively affluent neighborhoods nearby. But it could also draw value shoppers since, like other Kroger outlets, it offers double and triple coupons, and a senior discount -- 10 percent off for shoppers 60 and older using the store loyalty card on Wednesdays.

And its takeaway food ($3.99-a-pound chipotle mac-n-cheese; $6.99 grilled salmon), organic lines, and breadth of wine and beer offerings might give the chain something more to lure away Central Market and Whole Foods customers. (Like Central Market, Fresh Fare allows shoppers to make up their own six packs from an array of craft beer longnecks.)

The location fills a local market gap for Kroger, whose nearest store is five miles away. Its stores try to serve a 3.5-mile radius, said store manager Leigh Honeycutt.

Kroger grabbed a former Albertsons building at the busy West Berry-University Drive intersection after its rival moved deep into the nearby Westcliff neighborhood.

Albertsons apparently didn't expect the property to fall into the hands of another supermarket chain when it sold it to a Richardson developer. But the buyer abandoned plans to transform it into a retail and residential project just off the TCU campus, and Kroger picked it up.

The purchase price was not disclosed, but the Tarrant Appraisal District valued the property at $1,825,983 last year.

"We took an Albertsons shell and just completely replaced everything inside the store and changed the facade, too," Huddleston said. Building a new store can cost over $10 million, but he declined to say how much the extensive makeover cost.

Improvements include energy-saving lighting in some refrigerated cases -- the LED lights spark on when a shoppers walk by, then turn off after they move away. There's no filling station, but it boasts a pharmacy, floral department, Redbox video rental unit and free Wi-Fi in a small dining area that will house a Starbucks later this summer, Howard said.

Kroger is playing up its proximity to TCU, carrying over Albertsons' selection of university logo items, including Horned Frog flip-flops. And employees are decked out in TCU purple, the hue of a special edition Kroger Plus Shopper's Card.

Honeycutt said the store will be "intensely" merchandised, with staff expected to carefully listen to customer feedback to tweak selection. She said Kroger division President Bill Breetz suggested the store already might be overstocked and too "tight" for the space, "but we need to be," she said.

Honeycutt said: "It's the first Fresh Fare here, and we want to be an example that will be used for Texas."

Other Kroger plans for Fort Worth include the county's first 120,000-square-foot "marketplace" format store for the Alliance area in January, and a 70,000-square-foot "signature" store near Alta Vista for 2012, Huddleston said.

BARRY SHLACHTER, 817-390-7718