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Chandeliers and cabbage: elegant shopping at Byerly's

By Phyllis HanesFood editor of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1981



People in Minneapolis can go to the supermarket expecting to buy a porcelain sculpture for $15,000 or to choose a pot of mustard from 47 varieties -- if they shop at a place called Byerly's.

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They will also shop in comfort at this unique market, with carpeting covering the extra-wide aisless and chandeliers with soft lighting. They can also use the services of a post office, bank, pharmacy, or florist shop or even take a cooking lesson.

Well-dressed customers roam around, choosing exotic foods if they like, such as ground buffalo meat, killer-bee honey, live lobsters and live fish, frog's legs and Spanish octopus, cactus leaves and taro root.

There are all the ordinary supermarket things, too. Vegetables and fruits are arranged beautifully in spotless counters and bins, but the variety in every department is staggering.

There are fresh winter melons, oyster plant, and water chestnuts alongside the ordinary squash, potatoes, and cucumbers.

Fresh pineapple, pomegranate, cherimoya, and carob pods are displayed with Golden Delicious apples and everyday bananas and oranges.

A French pastry chef works in a glass booth creating masterpieces of dough and pastry. A home economist is available for advice. All bakery products, chilies, soups, and many other foods are cooked fresh on the premises.

Some people say they like to shop at Byerly's because there's plenty of room, and not a lot of carts bumping into each other. But most people like the place because the shopping is fun, interesting, and less of a chore.

The store has 92,400 square feet, compared with 30,000 square feet in the average supermarket.

Byerly's also houses a 190-seat restaurant, a bakery, a cooking school, and a very expensive gift shop. You can walk into the gift shop and select a crystal dish for $10 or a limited- edition porcelain sculpture for $15,000. The store boasts one of the country's largest displays of porcelain art, along with tabletop accessories, crystal, and fine jewelry.

The store specializes in offering a large variety of quality foods and impeccable service in an attractive, relaxing setting, according to the owner. Don Byerly, the founder and owner, opened the first of five Byerly's stores with his late father in Golden Valley, Minn., 12 years ago.

"The thing we noticed then," he said, "was that most stores were built for the convenience of the owners and managers, not the customers.

"Our idea is to give the customer what she wants: good variety, good food and good service, reasonable prices, a pleasant atmosphere, and a low-key approach to promotion."

Because Mr. Byerly has a pet peeve about waiting in line, shoppers rarely have to wait more than a few minutes at a checkout counter. If the store gets crowded, extra lanes are opened up. Packages are whisked by conveyer belt to boys at the loading platform, who stash them away in your car.

The decor at Byerly's also reflects Mr. Byerly's taste, according to reports from local customers. He likes fancy offices, fancy jewelry, and fancy cars, they say, and he drives a custom-made Cadillac Seville. He was, however, very conservatively dressed when I talked to him at the Edina store.

Most shoppers figure they pay more for some things at Byerly's, especially for things like meat and produce, but Mr. Byerly says, "We don't pretend to be the cheapest, but we are the best." He also says that the store's canned goods and packaged groceries are comparable to those in most area supermarkets.

Byerly's not only sells food but tells how to prepare it. Each store has a college-educated home economist to give out recipes and advice. A store will even plan a dinner party for customers who want to entertain at home.

The store also offers a schedule of ethnic, dietary, and basic cooking classes in a beautifully organized cooking-school kitchen.

Set up as a service to customers, not as a profitmaker, the school's classes range from $5 to $10 for written copies of the recipes and samples of dishes prepared.

One wonders how the store can make a profit with such lavish services. One answer is that there's no advertising, except for special holidays or a new-store opening.

Another reason is that Byerly's entices the customer to buy high-margin items that other supermarkets don't offer. The stores' customers spend about $19 on an average trip. The average, nationwide, is just $12.