Gregg Frost walks through the kitchen area of the newly renovated Hen House Markets in Leawood, KS, and observes a healthy dose of Monday morning activity. Chefs chop and prepare produce, fire up ovens and grills, and load trays of food onto the retail floor. Just a few feet away, through the large, open windows that allow consumer views of the kitchen, employees make fresh to-order waffles.

Frost — who has been with Hen House since 1971 and now serves as the company’s vice president of operations —takes it all in while approaching the back corner of the kitchen, where a small room is used to clean dishes, pots and pans.

“You know, in my first store, years ago, I think our entire deli was about the size of this room,” Frost says before turning around. “And now look at us.”

Hen House — part of Balls Food Stores — has 11 locations in the Kansas City metro. The company prides itself on high-quality, on-trend retail foodservice, but its new crown jewel stands as an illustration of the industry as a whole — bigger, modern, expansive and ready to lead supermarkets into the future.

The completely remodeled (and slightly relocated) location reopened in August and Hen House gave instore a behind-the-scenes look at what makes the prepared foods section of the store so special.

Mapping it out

In 2015, Balls Foods — led by David Ball, the third-generation operator of the family company — wanted to create a new flagship store. The company already had the location, an upscale shopping area in the high-earning suburb of Leawood. They just needed to completely revamp the Hen House store that stood there.

So on Christmas Eve of that year, the store closed its doors. “The way we set  it up, it would have taken two years to do the remodel if we would have stayed open for the duration,” Frost says. “Instead, it only took about seven months.”

Hen House reopened its doors on Aug. 3, with customers walking through a relocated entrance into a store that bared no resemblance to its former life. From those first steps through the entrance, the emphasis on fresh is apparent. Fresh flowers — the first Hallmark Flowers display in the nation — greet the customers, who then move into the side of the store that accounts for the extra 20,000 square feet of new space.

A trip around the southern perimeter of the store is a seemingly never-ending line of fresh food options. Grilled foods, sandwiches, flatbread pizzas, sushi, waffles, made-to-order salads, a pie pantry and more each have their own station. The result is like a  high-end food court that entices consumers into making multiple trips per week for meals.

“We flipped everything, even where the entrance is,” Frost says. “We wanted to make it our flagship store, and the real idea was to put the focus on prepared foods, foods to go and something different.”

Company executives traveled extensively across the country to tour stores and collaborate with companies whose brands they admire. Trips to New York City, in particular, gave them ideas to work with and tours of Eataly, the Union Square Whole Foods and more were particularly inspiring. Above all, though, was Wegman’s.

“In our minds, we wanted to be more like a Wegman’s than any store we’ve been through so far,” Frost says. “We looked at what they’ve done and how we could use that and adapt it to our customer base. We said, ‘What can we do to be as good as (them), if not better?’

“We knew we could make a significant difference here. It’s hard to differentiate yourself with Bounty towels or Charmin. It’s still a good product, but they can buy that anywhere. What can we create that says ‘I have to go to Hen House’?”

The answer, of course, sits on the fresh, prepared side of the store, where Hen House combined new ideas with revamped classics to form what it hopes to be a blueprint for even more success.

On the grill

Once customers walk into the store and past a Starbucks location, the first thing that likely catches their eye — other than the figurative sea of fresh food in front of them — is an open station centered around a large Halton island griddle. Customers fill bowls with fresh ingredients — from the grill’s bar or from the nearby salad bar — before handing off the concoction to Hen House employees, who grill the food for immediate consumption or to-go convenience.

“It’s the first time we’ve done it in one of our stores,” Frost says of the Mongolian BBQ approach, noting that he’s seen other stores do the same thing, but without the customer interaction. “A store had a grill like this, but they had it way in the back and you could kind of look through a little window and watch them grilling your stuff. We thought ‘Why don’t we put it out front just like they do in a restaurant?’ Let’s make it something fun and engaging. We can let the customers get involved with their food.”

The meals, which are priced by the pound, have been a big draw since the store’s reopening, sometimes resulting in lines two or three deep around the grill. That’s where Hen House’s specially trained employees come in handy.

The meat manager of a nearby Hen House location once worked for a Mongolian BBQ chain, and Frost says the company wisely utilized his experience during the remodel. He helped select and train a staff of employees who are comfortable with interacting with customers.

“You have to have a creative person on the front line talking to customers,” Frost says. “You have to do more than just flip stuff on the grill. You don’t necessarily want somebody who worked at McDonald’s. Believe it or not, you want someone who was in theater or music in school. They enjoy engaging with people.”

More than just sushi

Sushi is now a staple in most supermarket foodservice offerings. While not the biggest sales driver, it’s widespread enough to be included in stores across the country. But Hen House wanted to do more than just delegate a small kiosk to the cuisine.

The result is a unique partnership with Hissho, a supplier of freshly prepared sushi and more. While Hissho’s sushi and rolls are available, what makes its Hen House location different is the addition of pho and bahn mi sandwiches. It’s the first supermarket to offer those items.

“They’ve done this on some college campuses back East and it went over really well,” Frost says. “So we said, ‘Hey, when we remodel the store, let’s do that too.’ So instead of just basic sushi, we’ve added a lot more, probably triple what they typically do in-store. And they do a tremendous job with their stuff.”

Hissho says its Pan-Asian hot bar program became an instant hit when it began opening at university locations. Instead of offering consumers the same menu items day after day, Hissho saw the opportunity to expand, hence the additions of pho, bahn mi, ramen and more.

“What happened is that we started opening sushi bars in some of these universities, and vice versa, many of our grocery locations are now requesting our Pan-Asian hot bars,” says Hissho CEO Philip Maung. “We’re now in a win-win situation, which is contributing to Hissho’s growth.”

Along the same lines as the revamped sushi counter, Hen House’s sandwich bar takes a supermarket staple and adds some modern twists. In addition to the traditional to-go and to-order sandwiches, the store now offers pitas and flatbread pizzas. “We took the concepts we had and kind of enhanced them,” Frost says. “We put them on steroids, so to speak.”

The same can be said of a new chopped salad station, which sits between the sandwich bar and Hissho counter. In the old space, the store likely would have made the salads in a portable station on the floor. “But we decided to make it part of the run and plan it out instead of putting it out and  then rolling it away at night,” he says. “We created a whole station where you can get your salad. It’s only made-to-order.”

In addition to the chopped Tuscan salad that Hen House has traditionally offered, consumers can choose from a handful of other options, many of which utilize ingredients found on the store’s large, traditional salad bar just a few feet away.

In answer to the challenge of luring in consumers more than once a week, Frost says everything is better or new. “After a while it’s easy to think, ‘I don’t want any more fried chicken. I don’t want another sandwich like I can get at Subway.’ That doesn’t mean we did away with that stuff. We still do a great job with rotisserie chickens, for example, and they’re always popular. We just took everything and made it better.”

Foodservice culture

If you continue walking around the perimeter, past the Hissho counter, you come to the traditional supermarket delicatessen counter. Behind the deli meats, cheeses, fried foods and more is a giant window that opens up into the main kitchen, a far cry from the old swinging doors and small, cloudy windows.

“We wanted that visibility,” Frost says. “You can see what’s going on. We’re not trying to hide anything.”

What’s going on is a number of experienced chefs preparing the day’s offerings. An almost jovial atmosphere is apparent, in stark contrast to many Monday morning workplaces. Frost says the culture is built on talented employees who enjoy working for the store.

“We employ a lot of certified chefs who have been professionally trained,” he says. “They love working here because of the environment. We don’t ask them to stay until 2 or 3 in the morning. They come in early and can leave at a reasonable time, and can have an actual life and family. It’s very appealing.”

It also helps that the experienced chefs are working with quality recipes and creations, many of which came from the mind of well-known Kansas City chef Peter Castillo, who Balls Foods hired as corporate executive chef in preparation for the remodel.

“We knew it was a supermarket. We’re not going to be a restaurant. So we tried to incorporate restaurant-quality food and customer service,” Frost says. “From the creation of the menu to the great people we have preparing the food, we feel like we offer the quality and experience you can get in a great restaurant.”

Employees chop fruits and vegetables from the store’s produce section for all recipes and for the salad bar. They work with Irinox blast chillers, ovens from Baxter and Rational to cook foods, and do so with the choreographed chaos you might see in a busy restaurant kitchen.

Next door, at the in-store bakery, a large MIWE condo-4E oven is on full display to consumers. Four racks bake fresh breads at alternating temperatures and times. “This is the second Hen House to put this oven in and it’s great,” Frost says. “We’re using thousands and thousands of dollars of new equipment. It’s light years from what used to be found in supermarkets.”

Off and running

In the two months since Hen House opened its new doors, the retail foodservice side of the store has seen substantial success.

“We weren’t sure what we could do with prepared foods, but we’re running at a good pace so far,” Frost says. “With the salad bar included, we’re running roughly 20 percent of the store’s total sales in this area alone. That doesn’t include produce or even the bakery. It’s just prepared foods, cheeses, hot foods and the grill.”

Frost says the store is monitoring menu items, is flexible enough to make changes when needed, and is already preparing for possible future state law changes. On the opposite end of the store, a large glass wall looks into Harry’s Liquors, an independently owned liquor store. That glass wall, Frost says, can easily be removed.

“We planned it this way,” he says. “If the laws ever change to allow supermarkets to sell liquor and wine (in Kansas), we can knock out that wall and people can go in and shop and pair it with foods. It will be very easy to create that more complete shopping experience.”
It’s a shopping experience that is finding success with Hen House’s relatively well-to-do shoppers. In an area of the Kansas City metro where shoppers more often say “I need that” as opposed to “Oh, it’s how much a pound?” the store is offering the right high-quality foods.

“We look at it as ‘What do our customers want to buy?’ If they want to buy it, we want to sell it,” Frost says. “We’d rather sell it than them go somewhere else to get it. We want to be the place everyone comes to when they want a high-quality meal with a lot of options. And so far, we’re doing that.”