smart & final;/18″/dt1st/jc2nd By JULIE SABLE Staff Reporter Vernon-based Smart & Final Inc. has been selling giant-sized discount groceries out of warehouse stores since 1871, catering to both restaurateurs and family consumers with big appetites. But its new store in North Hollywood, dubbed Smart & Final Plus, marks the beginning of something new for the 126-year-old chain a 30,000-square-foot laboratory where new products can be introduced and tested. If they sell, there’s a good chance they will be integrated into some or all of the chain’s other 173 outlets. Walking into the Laurel Canyon Boulevard store, it’s immediately apparent that one hasn’t entered an ordinary Smart & Final. For one thing, it boasts an on-site bakery and fresh meat section, common sights in regular supermarkets but unique in the Smart & Final chain. But not for long. Store manager Jeff Bloks said business in the bakery, expected to bring in just 2 percent of the store’s sales, has accounted for 4 percent. “It’s been so popular that we’re ready to roll this out in new stores in Bell and Santa Barbara,” Bloks said. Smart & Final chose North Hollywood as the location for its research and development store for several reasons, company officials said. For one thing, the store is surrounded by 4,000 businesses in a three-mile radius, and has a loyal customer base. “Normally we look for at least 2,000 businesses as they comprise a good portion of our customer base,” said Martin Lynch, Smart & Final’s executive vice president. “This was a prime area for us to be in, and so when it came time to relocate the small existing North Hollywood store, this location became ideal.” In addition, the North Hollywood location is 30,000 square feet twice the size of the typical Smart & Final outlet. In addition to the bakery, the Plus store is the only Smart & Final store to carry fresh meat, including beef, pork and chicken. The Smart & Final chain has always been distinctive in that it caters to both consumers and restaurants, and the Plus store is no exception. Restaurant owners looking for industrial ovens, the hardware for a salad bar, a neon sign to hang in a front window, or even chef hats and aprons, can find them within the expanded store. If you can’t find what you are looking for among the store’s 15,000 stocked items, a special order desk uses computer technology to connect shoppers to 10,000 additional items available from Smart & Final’s foodservice distribution warehouse. Unique to this store, the service is expected to become part of more stores in the chain in the future. For small, startup restaurants or those with small kitchen staffs, pre-cooked menu options such as five-pound bags of pre-cooked scrambled eggs, or strips of pre-cooked bacon in packs of 100 are included. “Many chain restaurants like McDonald’s provide food to their restaurants, so this gives smaller restaurants options to include in their menu planning,” Bloks said. The interior of the store differs from other warehouse stores by placing some shelves below eye level. In addition to the standard 8-foot-high shelves found at other Smart & Final’s there are 4-foot-high shelves in the center aisles making the store look more spacious. So far, the store’s clientele is split evenly between foodservice providers and families, Bloks said. Matt Mowry, the director of baseball for Sports Plus day camp in Northridge, shops at Smart & Final Plus every day during the summer. “I have to come for snacks, soda and ice every day and really like to shop here, as they are helpful and I can get in and out in a hurry,” Mowry said. “I’ve got a hungry and thirsty crowd of about 300 children back at the camp, so efficiency is important to me.” As consumer tastes and needs evolve, Smart & Final plans to keep testing new products. “If we try something and find that it doesn’t work, and we use a highly sophisticated tracking system to determine how quickly products move, we will take them off the shelves,” Lynch said. The Plus store is so new that no products have yet been identified as failures. Due to the popularity of the “fresh” products, the Plus store will add more fresh meat, produce and menu selections to its stock, according to Lynch. The North Hollywood store, because of the surrounding demographics, also stocks many ethnic foods including Italian pastas, sauces and seasonings; meats used in Mexican dishes like carne asada; foods with Mediterranean origins like grape leaves, and kosher foods.