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Upscale 'supers' tout lily root gooseberries and fancy price tags

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 1984



Washington

Gourmet supermarkets are springing up like chanterelle mushrooms after a rain. They amount to enormous food boutiques, pampering customers with Tiffany stained-glass windows over the checkout counters, salad bars, black-tie premieres, and skylights. They offer fresh New Zealand strawberries, French butter from Normandy, rattlesnake filets, Norwegian salmon, $15-a-pound cheeses, buffalo steaks, and French bread (baked on the premises). Camelburgers, anyone? That, too, at $11.99 a pound, frozen.

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''I can't contain myself!'' says Louise Lonski of Adelphi Park, Md., as she paws happily through the fresh produce at the new Giant gourmet supermarket in Rockville. Mrs. Lonski decides to go for the chanterelles, golden mushrooms that look appropriately gilded, at $14.99 a pound.

She was searching for celery root for one of the French, German, or Indonesian dishes she loves to prepare, but they were temporarily out of it. On the other hand, she could browse through a garden of gourmet delights: white radishes looking like long, ivory mouse tails; haricots verts or French green beans; lily root gooseberries; fresh herbs; and those ruby New Zealand strawberries, $4.99 a pint.

''Cooking is a hobby of mine. . . . I'm going over there to the meat section to get some buffalo meat for next week,'' says Martha Bennett of Clarksville, Md. She's just stopped off at the supermarket's salad bar on her way back to work.

''They have fresh game, fresh baked goods made right here, a fresh pasta section, fresh seafood. We've already tried the squid, and we're going to try the rattlesnake,'' Mrs. Bennett says. The store also offers standard supermarket items, plus a flower shop, pharmacy, pasta shop, savings and loan branch, and reading center.

Everyone may not be as adventurous as Mrs. -Bennett, but there are enough shoppers out there interested in experimenting with gourmet food to generate sweet profits.

''It's taking off around the country in the number of products offered and the number of people buying,'' says Timothy Hammonds, a senior vice-president at the Food Marketing Institute, whose members represent half the grocery businesses in the United States.

The phenomenon is so new that specific industry studies are nonexistent. Chicago economics consultant Bill Bishop, an expert in tracking retail food profits, says, ''It's a trend that's excited buyers, although there are only a handful of the stores now, maybe 250 stores that fit into the gourmet supermarket category out of 29,000 supermarkets in the US.''

Mr. Bishop, head of the Chicago economics consulting firm Willard Bishop Company, estimates those supermarkets generate sales of between $250 billion and the stores, are already generating $2 billion to $3 billion a year in sales themselves. And a higher percentage of their sales is profit.

If the experience of Grand Union is any indication, ''trading up,'' as the idea is known in food circles, may be the wave of the future. Gary Perino, public-relations manager of the Grand Union chain, says GU opened an experimental gourmet supermarket called Food Market in 1979 and found it so profitable that it has converted 100 of its 600 stores to the new prototype.

''It's not unusual for sales to double when we've installed this concept,'' he says, adding that under a current five-year development plan, Grand Union will be converting the bulk of its stores to this format. (The Eastern chain, which operates as Grand Union in 15 states, also goes by the names Big Star in the South and Weingarten's in Texas and Louisiana.)