by Lorrie Griffith/editor–Southeast
Customers seem to be very pleased with Western Markets’ new store in the Lane Parke development in Mountain Brook Village in Birmingham, Alabama, Brett Hubbard, director of deli/bakery, tells The Shelby Report.
Shopper sentiment since the Oct. 13 opening “has been extremely positive, almost overwhelming—the response not only to the deli/bakery but the entire store. I think the layout and the décor and the offerings that we’ve added have really impressed most people, and everyone seems to be really excited about it.”
The new store, the seventh for Birmingham-based Western, is the retail anchor for Lane Parke, a “luxury village-style shopping center” that is adjacent to the Grand Bohemian Hotel and Lane Parke apartments in Mountain Brook Village.
Western is not new to Mountain Brook; the company opened a store in the Mountain Brook Shopping Center in 1959. Darwin Metcalf, president and COO, told local media that it was always the company’s desire to be part of the new development in Mountain Brook, which would replace Mountain Brook Shopping Center. And in a news release just prior to the Lane Parke store opening, Metcalf said, “We’re a small local chain, and this is a big deal to us.
“We think we built a store that the community is going to enjoy,” he added. “It’s a store that our employees are certainly proud of. Mountain Brook consumers want to shop in their neighborhood. They want to be close to home, and they don’t want to travel long distances to buy groceries or to go to the drug store or laundry. There’s loyalty in the Mountain Brook community—their commitment to supporting independent retailers. They get it. They understand that when you support an independent local retailer, those monies are reinvested in the community.”
The store is 28,300 s.f., with an additional 3,200 s.f. on the mezzanine level that customers can access via the spiral staircase just inside the front doors. Upstairs is Western’s first in-store dining area, where there is access to free Wi-Fi.
In the last five to 10 years, Hubbard, along with Metcalf and Hubbard’s father, company owner and CEO Ken Hubbard, have traveled the country to visit some of the best store operators to gather ideas for the store, which was a long time coming. Brett estimated that it’s been nearly a decade that the store has been under discussion for the location, which Western leases rather than owns. Finally, after several delays, Western began planning the store in earnest in 2015, about a year before the October 2016 opening.
“So we have been gathering these ideas over the years, and at the forefront of our thinking was the upscale neighborhood the store is in and what types of things they would want,” said Hubbard, who has a marketing degree from the University of Alabama. He worked for other companies before joining Western Markets after his dad purchased the company in the ’90s.
To meet neighborhood needs, the store features a gas-fired rotisserie; a wine shop with a temperature controlled wine room staffed by wine experts; an on-staff cheesemonger; and a growler station serving popular draft beer selections. Customers can purchase wine by the glass to have while shopping or dining-in.
Perimeter departments shine
The bakery department in the store is about double the size of the typical Western bakery, Hubbard says.
This additional space allows for a 12-foot case for pastries and goodies like homemade fudge, individual cupcakes and upscale desserts, he says.
For those looking for lighter choices, there is a bigger selection of dessert cups, yogurts and parfaits in the store, which have proven popular. Consumer trends also led to the addition of gluten-free products, especially in the bakery.
“We’ve got a new line of gluten-free cookies that have done pretty well and also a line of gluten-free bread that has done well,” he said.
To enhance the local feel Western strives for in all its stores as well as make its bakery a destination throughout the day, the grocer has partnered with a local coffee shop and a local bakery.
The in-store Western Coffee Shop serves coffee drinks made with local favorite O’Henry’s Coffee. Hubbard said that O’Henry’s has “been the best local coffee shop for probably 20 years.” It operates four coffee shops in the Birmingham area and recently added one in Tuscaloosa, about 45 minutes outside the city. (Western also sells O’Henry’s retail coffee line.)
The Heavenly Donut Co. delivers its doughnuts fresh daily to the Lane Parke store. The locally owned doughnut shop was voted No. 1 doughnut shop in Birmingham and No. 3 best doughnut shop in the entire state, Hubbard says. A branded case shows off the day’s selection of Heavenly’s cake and yeast doughnuts.
Two other offerings that have been very successful in the Lane Parke bakery department are muffins sold from a cart and warm chocolate chip cookies.
The fresh muffin cart is parked near the coffee shop, naturally.
“Every day, seven days a week, at 6 a.m. we bake fresh jumbo muffins that are put out on that cart,” Hubbard said. “We sell those in two-packs and in singles off the muffin cart. We put out about eight varieties of those every day.”
The cookie is “a 6-oz. double chocolate chip cookie that is just fantastic, and we only sell it warm,” Hubbard said. “From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., you can only buy that cookie hot. It melts in your mouth.”
In the deli, a 12-foot case for cold salads and ready-to-heat meals was added in the Lane Parke design. Western hired a local country club chef to fill the “Chef’s Case,” Hubbard says.
Hot bars always have been popular with Western customers, he adds, and the same is true at Lane Parke. The hot soup bar, the hot wing bar and the steam table that offers traditional southern meat-and-two/meat-and-three combos have been popular with customers, as has the salad bar, he says. Customers also can get a variety of sandwiches and wraps to eat in the store or take home.
The deli has year-round offerings as well as seasonal items. In December, the store was selling a lot of turkey and ham dinners that customers order online and pick up at any of Western’s stores.
“That has continued to grow every year, especially the online sales,” Hubbard said.
In the bakery, a hugely popular seasonal item is king cakes, which Western procures from a local bakery.
“We sell hundreds every February,” he said.
To communicate the store’s offerings to shoppers, the deli/bakery aisle, close to the store’s entrance, has been outfitted with digital signage.
“We have five digital monitors over several of the cases so we can change those out and display pictures and messages on there,” Hubbard said. “Those really add to the atmosphere.”
Hubbard says the dining area above the store is busiest during lunchtime and into the afternoon, with people taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi.
The store also offers the community use of a small conference room on the mezzanine level. The store uses the room for meetings, too, but it is available to reserve at no charge for small groups like bridge clubs, etc.
Local emphasized across the store
In addition to its perimeter partnerships with O’Henry’s and Heavenly Donuts, Western carries local products on just about every store aisle, in the Lane Parke store and all its others.
“We’re very open to partnering with local small businesses,” Hubbard said. “We have so many companies that we partner with when they’re very small and we’ve helped them along.”
But it also helps Western.
“It gives us opportunity to have such a wide range of local products that are new and aren’t in all in the other stores until they grow. We can put them in our store quickly without a lot of red tape and be able to offer those local products that everyone else can’t. It’s always been something we’ve been proud of and something that has really helped our business, too.”
“Local” also describes the store manager, Dale Smith, who is a 30-plus-year veteran of Western, which was founded in Birmingham in 1948.
Western Market at Lane Parke is open seven days a week, 6 a.m.-midnight.
*Editor’s note: This is part of the Alabama Market Profile, which appears in its entirety in the February 2017 print edition of The Shelby Report of the Southeast.