Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hit & Miss: My love/hate relationship with the Kenwood Kroger Fresh Fare.

Aside from discussing food issues, I'll also be reviewing local chain restaurants. I don't mess with the independently owned or the trendy, because there are already a litany of people reviewing them. It's nice to know what the new Cuban place is like or where local Cincy celebs are hanging out, but most of us just want to know where the fastest, nicest, cleanest Wendy's is located.

I was thinking my first establishment would be the Newport Hooter's or the Montgomery Rd. Red Lobster, but I've had a number of experiences at the Kenwood Towne Center's Kroger Fresh Fare that warrant a review.

Kroger is one of the nation's largest grocer's with stores under the Kroger, King Sooper's, Ralph's, and Fred Meyer brands. In recent years, Kroger has updated the look of it's stores and added concepts like Kroger Marketplace, that adds homegoods and usually contains a jewelery store, and a Starbuck's. Fresh Fare gives Kroger a Whole Foods treatment, complete with Boar's Head meats, Murray's Cheeses, fresh seafood, fresh meat, sushi, a Starbucks, a large wine/beer section, sandwich/burrito making stations, pizza by the slice, and a hot food bar to package your own take home meal.

First, the good.

The wine selection is extensive, ranging from dry - sweet, cheap - expensive, humble - pretentious. The wine section even has regular tastings and is staffed by a sommelier. The beer section starts where the wine stops and is just as good. Tons of local and microbrews as well as the mainstream domestic and foreign beers. I like this section because I personally suggested that they carry Strongbow Cider, and a week later, it was stocked. That really makes a difference to know that an establishment listens and acts on customer suggestions.

Also, the customer service is pretty good there. I was at the checkout with pop that I thought was on sale. It turns out they had forgotten to change the prices on this particular brand. Did they let me have it at the cheaper price? No. They let me have it for free. They were also very good at correcting an error in ringing up peppers I bought without weighing them. The cashier made it seem like I had a pound each of Thai Chili, habanero, and jalapeno, when I didn't even have a half pound combined. I got reimbursed and they seemed to be genuinely sorry.

...and now the bad.
The food bar. This is the area where customers may get a plastic container and fill it with hot or cold food to take home or even to eat at the store in a cafe area. Great idea, Kroger, keep the customer in the store as long as possible. On one side is the cold bar, which has lettuce wedges, carrots, shredded cheese, alfalfa sprouts, edemame, and other crap I never eat. On the other side is the hot bar. Don't get me wrong, this is a great idea, but it's the execution where they fall flat. They have great food on here like Cincinnati style chili, chicken breasts covered in a balsamic reduction , macaroni & cheese, fries, some italian dishes, beans, corn, mashed potatoes, etc.

The main problem with this hot mess is that it's poorly kept. Not once have I gone in and seen glistening, steaming food in clean pans with clean stainless steel surfaces.
Instead, I see this:

...and this:
Dry chicken, spilled corn, clumpy macaroni, dried chili crust caked onto the side of the pan. Come on, Kroger, you're better than this. Also, they served spaghetti noodles with the chili so one could make there own 3 way. They problem with this is that you either dry out the noodles in the pan or you soak them till they're so soft that they can't hold their shape. Wet noodles make for horrific 3 ways. Wait a minute, did I just say that?

Anyway, nobody seemed too concerned with the state of things, and whats worse is the fact that nobody was embarrassed by it. I used to be a buffet attendant back when I started working for KFC..way back when they had buffets. Here is the proof:

Not only did I have the responsibility to keep the food full, but it had to look presentable. That means changing pans every 15-20 minutes, carefully stirring the corn or macaroni to keep it looking great. One of my bosses, franchise exec Keith Chambers, called it massaging the food. People walked in and that was their first impression of the restaurant. If I showed a lack of pride, they might assume we didn't care or were too busy and just turned around and left.

Hopefully, this isn't just about me trashing Kroger. Hopefully, something positive comes out of this review as well as the reviews I do in the future. I love grocery stores. I love walking around and seeing what they think is important and how the colors and sections are arranged. I hope Executives in the division that oversees this will see this and implement some changes. And Kroger execs...I'm happy to help.

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