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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 4, 2010

Harried home chefs get an assist

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Foodland sells a wide range of ready-to-cook entrees. They require just minutes to prepare and are packaged with popu-lar side ingredients and garnishes so you don’t have to buy those separately and have them languishing in your fridge.

Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Foodland sells ready-to-cook “seafood kits.” The dishes take minutes to prepare and include veggies, lemon and sauce.

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With Hawai'i consumers short on time and searching for value, locally based Foodland Super Market Ltd. expanded the types of heat-and-eat foods, revved up the deli variety and created a popular new product — poke bowls.

Foodland corporate chef Keoni Chang said consumers are trying to stretch their dollars while they eat more fresh, local food. And they can't or don't want to spend hours in the kitchen.

"People don't have time," Chang said, but they won't settle for fast food. Folks who watch high-octane chefs on the Food Network for fun have come to expect a higher quality of food on their own plates.

That means the old standby salad bar with wilting Iceberg lettuce, three-bean salad and some grated deli cheese has been replaced with fresh greens, spinach, ripe tomatoes and other made-to-order choices — 27 toppings at the Market City Foodland.

And that's where poke bowls come in. Shoppers can buy a bowl full of rice topped with a choice of 30 types of poke. It costs $4.99 for one type of poke, and $6.99 for two choices.

Chang said sales of the already-popular chopped items — many types of 'ahi and other fish, shrimp, even pipikaula, or Hawaiian-style beef jerky — soared dramatically since the bowls were introduced in July. While he said he couldn't provide the percentage increase, he said, "we know that we sell a ton of poke."

For most customers, the bowls mean good fresh food, fast, at cheaper-than- plate-lunch prices .

Foodland spokeswoman Sheryl Toda said the bowls start selling from 6 a.m. "People buy it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack."

Brittney Ishibashi just moved back home to Hawai'i after living in California. She had sister Kristyn drive her directly from the airport to Foodland yesterday for a spicy 'ahi poke bowl, because it was the food she missed the most while she lived away.

Kristyn buys poke bowls at least once a week, sometimes for lunch, other times for dinner. "It's fresh, and for the price, you get a lot."

Chang said Foodland shoppers also show a preference for locally grown and produced items as long as they are not vastly more expensive.

That means customers will pay more for local eggs or Twin Bridges asparagus from Waialua, but they won't pay three times as much for Hawai'i produce. Customers seem to agree: "The more we can keep the money in our local economy, the better."

The 31-store Foodland chain faces competition from local chain Times, and KTA on the Big Island, as well as Mainland-based Safeway and newcomer Whole Foods. And also from less-traditional competitors, big-box stores like Costco and Target.

Chang said he and other Foodland executives make research trips to other markets across the Mainland.

"We've really expanded in grab-and-go," he said. "Before, it was a lot of fried chicken and macaroni salad," while now there's salmon, seared 'ahi, vegetables that include roasted beets, and cauliflower with curry and tumeric — basically triple the variety.

People who feel they can't afford to eat out as much will sometimes buy prepared food such as skewered, shrimp, stuffed flank steak and other high-end menu items at half of the cost of going to a restaurant, he said.

Toda points out that items like the seafood kits — normally $10.99, a dollar off now — provide the raw ingredients, sauce and even the recipe for fixing food at home.

Chang said the steamed moi is the most popular, which is a little surprising when it's competing with the more common salmon, shrimp and 'ōpakapaka.

He said the moi includes the fish, cabbage, baby bok choy, shredded fresh ginger, sauce with sesame oil, bean sprouts and cilantro. He said it steams in the microwave in six minutes, which makes it popular with people who thought of it as a restaurant food that required a fish steamer and ingredients that people might not have on hand.

"And they feel like they're cooking," Toda said.

Chang said the kits offer a good value because Foodland has taken care of the prep work. And purchasers can make the dish without buying extras that might turn to slime in the back of the fridge during a busy work week.

"Let's say you're going to do the salmon grill kit that includes bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini and sauce," he said. If you bought all of those items separately, Chang estimates, it would cost you $15 or more.

"The net savings in waste is dramatic," Chang said. And it's cost-effective for the Foodland chefs, who buy in bulk and put the other half of the onion in another kit.

"We're really trying to bring the restaurant world to the supermarket," he said. "We've made adjustments. At the end of the day, we want to provide high quality at a good value."

The company keeps adjusting. In 2001, it debuted "Foodland to Go," where customers could order their food, pull up to the store and have workers bring the bagged groceries out to the car.

Toda said the service fizzled. "Customers like to see what they're getting," she said. They want to see what looks good, what's on special and not just pick up the food.

Chang said some menu items take off while others don't. He raves about the chard with green beans and hazelnuts. "We all love it, and it just sits there."