Food Retail

Super Again

Food retailers use environmental graphics as a key ingredient in "re-freshing" their stores.

As recently as 25 years ago, supermarket design was typically handled in house with an eye on cost efficiency. The recipe was largely the same from coast to coast: uninspiring institutional lighting over rows of beige gondola fixturing on equally colorless linoleum floors. These days—with the stakes much higher as customers stray from neighborhood food stores in search of better value, shorter lines, or specialty items—it’s rare to find a national or local chain that doesn’t consult with designers and architects.

Many retail watchers credit Wal-mart for the change. Competitors have learned it’s best not to try besting the low-price leader on price. Instead, they’ve opted to promote service, selection, private labels, and higher-margin, freshly prepared items. Of course, through design, they hope to elevate the overall shopping environment from bland and predictable to fresh and engaging. Others have created new niches unserved by the Bentonville behemoth, looking to increase their market share in the more than $450 billion food retailing industry.

Kidfresh: goodness to go

Necessity is the mother of invention, but it took a dad to launch Kidfresh, a new concept featuring freshly prepared meals to-go for infants to 10 year olds. In January 2007, Matt Cohen opened this kid-friendly food store with healthy fare that children would like and harried moms and dads would love. The former management consultant conceived Kidfresh while packing school lunchboxes for his own two kids.

Conscious of the lack of healthy alternatives for children, he envisioned a lifestyle brand centered around all-natural, age-specific meals and snacks developed with a nutritionist. (Cohen partnered with co-founder Gilles Deloux, a former Dannon food-marketing executive and Samira Samii Mahboubian, a former marketing executive at Ralph Lauren Childrenswear.) His 1,200-sq.-ft. store on Manhattan’s Upper East side is colorful, bright, and entertaining thanks to a tiny kid’s-only doorway and mini shopping carts. There’s also an open kitchen (dubbed the “Kidchen”) where kids can watch preservative-free and mostly organic foods being prepared. There are teddy bear-shaped roast turkey and cheese sandwiches (crusts removed, of course), star-shaped pancakes, broccoli trees, carrot wheels, and fresh fruit kabobs that are fun for kids and get a passing nutritional grade with parents.

Cohen’s business plan called for a memorable identity to launch his brand, which will include multiple New York locations and an outpost at JFK (now open). He hired Addis Creson (Berkeley, Calif.) to create a kit of assets that could be used in the store as well as on packaging and promotions. “The challenge,” Cohen explains, “was to find a (design) language that worked for both the mom and the child.” Another challenge, notes design principal John Creson, “was staying away from stereotypical icons of fresh and natural.”

That meant no kraft paper or nostalgic references to farms. In fact, the Kidfresh look and feel is colorful, modern, and appetizing right from its logo, a modified version of lower case Century Gothic paired with a stylized apple and leaves on a white field. It’s found on everything from the front door to the recycled packaging, shopping bags, produce, and sandwich stickers to the in-store cafe. Six colors including two shades of green, red, yellow, orange, and purple form the Kidfresh palette and its unique color-coding system that identifies foods for Kidfresh’s core groups: Baby (0 to 1 year), Minis (1 to 2 years), Juniors (3 to 5 years), and Kids (6 to10 years). The brand’s personality comes through on circular vinyl “bubble messages” found throughout the store with copy claiming "No Junk…No Kidding!" and "No Artificial Preservatives, Colors or Flavors Beyond this Point."


Location:  New York 

Client:  Mathias Cohen

Identity:  Addis Creson

Design Team:  John Creson (executive creative director), Magdalena Hladka (designer), Stephanie Rose (client services)

Signage Design:  Landers Miller

Fabrication and Installation:  Fusion Imaging

Photos: Steven Addis, Addison Creson


Mi Tienda: wooing and wowing Latinos

In 2007, H-E-B, the San Antonio, Texas-based supermarket chain, opened its first Mi Tienda (Spanish for “my store”) unit in Houston. At 63,000-sq.-ft., the store is about half to one-third the size of H-E-B’s other 300 stores throughout Texas and Mexico.

Aimed squarely at the city’s burgeoning Hispanic population, Mi Tienda is located in the Pasadena neighborhood, where Latinos make up 70 percent of the population living within three miles of the store. Retailers such as H-E-B are wooing the Hispanic demographic with good reason. As a group, Hispanics shop three times more often than typical customers and that translates into higher weekly spending.

To move its inventory of piñatas, pan dulces, pupusas, and other authentic ingredients and products not found in typical grocery stores, the store is designed to recall an old Mexican village. Gwen Newland, H-E-B director of design, says this growing customer segment is more deeply rooted in traditions, culture, and buying habits than any other customer group. Wowing them with references to old Mexico was a visual strategy to make them feel welcome. Beyond aesthetics, Newland notes, “We tried to pull all of the items they shop for together in one store. They’re used to shopping several specialty stores to find the right cut of meat or going to the butcher who knows how to cut meat just the way their mother did.”

With the village theme, the store easily divides into service counters and specialty areas for an independently owned, operated—and colorful—street-of-shops effect. “It’s as if each store had its own history,” explains Susanne Harrington, creative director with fd2s (Austin). “There are signs painted over found materials with an eclectic and knowingly naïve sense of typography and color.” Saturated reds, golds, and oranges contrast with handmade tile accents and rough-hewn timbers used to define departments. Major service areas include fresh seafood (Pescaderia), meat (Carniceria), and cheese (Cremeria), in addition to a Tortilleria offering freshly made tortillas.

“The hardest part of the project,” Harrington says, “was figuring out how to efficiently introduce the variety and imprecision of handcrafted signs into something we wanted to be digital.” Computers tend toward orderliness, Harrington continues. “We were after a certain kind of disorder.”


Location:  Houston

Client:  H-E-B

Design:  fd2s

Design Team:  Herman Dyal (principal in charge), Susanne Harrington (creative director and designer), Robin Baker (designer), Itze Pavón (designer), Gwendolyn Rice (project coordinator), Wayne Johnson and Tim Hicks (production team), Sara Sparrow (design intern)

Fabrication and Installation:  The Store Decor Co.

Photos:  David Omer


Harris Teeter: food as art

For the past 20 years, the city of Charlotte, N.C., has been experiencing a revitalization of its center city and downtown neighborhoods. Residential growth fueled retail growth, but the city was lacking a full-service supermarket. Enter Harris Teeter, the Matthews, N.C.-based local favorite operating 166 stores in the South, which committed to serve the area’s empty nesters and young professionals with a pedestrian-friendly store. Located in the city’s historic Fourth Ward, the 18,000-sq.-ft. store occupies the base of a high-rise condo.

“The design theory for this or any other Harris Teeter store is to make the shopping experience reflective of the home and work environment that our customers are accustomed to," says Al Lentz, Harris Teeter’s vice president of store development. "We wanted a store that blended the flavor of everything else you would find in Uptown Charlotte."

That backdrop includes art and craft museums, upscale restaurants, theaters, and hotel and building lobbies that combine for a high standard of environments. “Harris Teeter has a long history of (store) design,” explains Daniel Montano, studio principal for Little (Charlotte), which designed the new concept. “They understood the overall design needed to add, not subtract, from the downtown experience.”

Keying on the museum theme (there are three within walking distance), Montano says, “Harris Teeter wanted the store to be a continuation of that, so we gave it a bit of a modern museum flair that’s atypical for a grocery store.” The overall palette is muted and modern with accents of pale green, orange, reds, and browns. But it’s also an urban store so there are raw materials such as unpainted Masonite, galvanized metal, and stainless steel.

The design was heightened by creating a two-story wine library with a metal spiral staircase and by shrouding existing floor-to-ceiling structural columns with stretch fabric enclosures that serve as light diffusers. But not everything is subtle. The “milk” sign beckons boldly, distinguishing the dairy department with large internally lit letters and a red neon dot.


Location:  Charlotte, N.C.

Client:  Harris Teeter

Design:  Little

Design Team:  Daniel Montano (studio principal), Tim Morrison (studio principal, supermarkets), Rajeev Bhave (director), Paige Brice (interior designer), Ron Kirkpatrick (project manager)

Signage Installation and Fabrication:  Plastex Fabricators of Charlotte

Suppliers:  Madix (fixturing), Azrock (flooring)

Photos:  Tim Buchman and Jeffrey Clare


Whole Foods Market: clean and green

The first Whole Foods Market opened in 1980 in Austin, when three locals decided the natural foods industry was ready for a supermarket format. Since then, the chain has been making news with its “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Plant” philosophy. The original Whole Foods opened with a staff of 19 and 10,000 sq. ft. At the time, there were fewer than half a dozen natural food supermarkets in the U.S.

Arguably, Whole Foods is now the leading retailer of natural and organic foods, with more than 265 stores in North America and the United Kingdom. And Whole Foods is big on detail. Classical music plays as customers walk past bountiful displays of fresh produce lit art-gallery style. Fresh bakery departments contribute familiar and enticing aromas of baking bread. Same for the hot nut section, where fans gently waft the smell of roasting nuts into aisles.

Compared with fast-track retailers such as Starbucks, who repeat as much as 85 percent of a store décor package in its kit of parts, Whole Foods takes the opposite approach. This increases overall build-out time and budget, but allows Whole Foods to customize around local tastes or traditions. For example, New Yorkers are keen to support locally owned and operated retail, particularly when it comes to food. So the new 71,000-sq.-ft. Whole Foods store at Bowery and Houston is home to an 84-ft. mural depicting the history of the Lower East Side. Whole Foods commissioned a local artist to complete the work. The store also features environmentally conscious design and energy-efficient lighting.

For its new 50,000-sq.-ft. Houston-area store that opened in December 2007, design and architecture gained status in tandem with green initiatives. A large leaf-shaped feature on the roof serves as a rainwater collection system for back-up irrigation. The leaf-shaped clerestory roof provides natural light throughout the day, reducing demand for artificial lighting. A landscaped plaza invites visitors and fitness fans walking the surrounding trails to rest or visit with friends.

Environmentally friendly building materials continue to play a major role. Some countertops are made of Vetrazzo, created from recycled glass soda, olive oil, wine, and water bottles. Bamboo, aluminum, low VOC paint, Marmoleum (a biodegradable and natural linoleum product), and Kirei Board (an engineered panel product made from Sorghum stalks) contribute to Whole Foods’ extremely tactile—and natural—environments.

--By Janet Groeber, segdDESIGN No. 19, 2008

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