Coborn's takes 'focus on fresh' to next level with new store

St. Cloud, Minn.-based Coborn's designed its newest location, in Isanti, Minn., with the goal of giving customers an experience teeming with fresh offerings.

In the produce department of the Isanti store, which opened Aug. 17, that objective resulted in expanded organic and specialty options, a "Chop Shoppe" to which customers can bring produce items that will be prepared for them while they shop, and staff members trained to explain to customers what various produce items are and how they can be used.

"It's just been an opportunity for us to really showcase something different," said Tom Williams, director of produce and floral for Coborn's. "Not only the millennial guests, but as you're getting into Generation Z and you're looking at the (baby) boomers, everybody resonates with the fact of something that's fresh, that looks good and tastes great, and so we have that experience all through our store."

A week after the store opened, Williams indicated the response had been positive.

"It's been really cool," Williams said. "We actually had a guest come up to us with tears in her eyes. She just couldn't believe that we would put this nice of a store in their community."

The challenges a store can face when looking to expand its produce offerings include sourcing and education of customers, Williams said. The former is not a concern when a company already has solid partners that supply it, which Williams said Coborn's has. The latter can be overcome by a staff that engages customers about unfamiliar items, including through the use of in-store demos.

"What I find is that when you make it accessible and you highlight it and you tell people about it and you even let them taste it, they'll buy it," Williams said. "If you give them the opportunity to try it first and then be able to talk to them a little about it, it gets back to that experience. You're giving them a great experience ... Our intention is that every time that a guest comes into our store, they're going to get a chance to try something different."

Coborn's plans to bring elements from the new store to its other existing locations, remodels and new stores.

One store currently being remodeled in Sartell, Minn., will be getting its own Chop Shoppe. Other existing stores will have their organic and specialty offerings expanded, Williams said.

"Now obviously that's going to take time," Williams said, "but it's fun to look at how we can continue to focus on fresh."

While there is currently no timeline for making those changes, Williams said they will be beneficial moves when they are made.

"For me personally, I see this as a win," Williams said. "I don't think you could do it fast enough, to be quite honest with you, because these are concepts that are definitely a winner for us."

That is the case even though some of those concepts require a cost to implement or include, Williams said.

"It is more expensive to have new concepts than it is to do just a traditional store because you're looking at different fixtures, you're looking at different refrigeration equipment, and it requires a different level of training to be able to execute it the way that you need to execute it, but the return on the investment, I believe, makes it worthwhile to do it," Williams said.

The company also recently began offering its "To the Table" fresh meal kits via its delivery service, CobornsDelivers, and it expects to have those available in some of its stores this fall. There are eight meal options, and the options will change with the seasons.

"They were looking for a way to put together a healthier component kit so that a guest could have more of a restaurant-quality experience without having to go to the restaurant," Williams said. "There are other groups out there - Blue Apron and there's a few others - that do something similar. The difference would be that ours are in many instances almost ready; they don't require as much preparation as the Blue Apron, for instance.

"We have everything to put together that at the end of the day you have to put all the components together and heat it up, but you might not have to necessarily chop up all of the fresh herbs because those are already done for you," Williams said, "so we've kind of taken some of the concepts that are out there and Coborn-ized it to come up with this To the Table concept."

The meal kits serve two, and prices range from $16.99 to $28.99.

The current meal kit options include beef slider burgers with corn on the cob and deluxe potato salad; Certified Hereford beef top sirloin steak with grilling medley potatoes, asparagus and French baguette; chicken fajitas with pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole; grilled margherita pizzas; lemon pepper chicken with vegetable kabobs, pasta salad and rustic Italian bread; marinated salmon with long grain and wild rice blend, Brussels sprouts and olive oil/rosemary focaccia; pork chops with baked potatoes, baby carrots and asiago garlic bread; and teriyaki pork tenderloin with grilling medley potatoes, broccolini and French baguette.