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Retail and restaurants shrink offerings, space

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Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 04:09 PM
TAMPA -

The Sweet Tomatoes restaurant chain made its name offering all-you-can-eat buffet tables stocked with an endless supply of everything from pizza to salads.

Now the chain wants to try an approach more akin to Chipotle, making the meals for you and charging for individual items on top — all in a restaurant space the size of an average Subway sandwich shop.

The prototype is called Sweet Tomatoes Express, and it's one of many examples of a big chain starting to think smaller. Clearwater will be one of the first locations.

In a drive to be more efficient and nimble, companies including Walmart and The Gap are putting new development dollars into smaller buildings and smaller locations.

"This is about doing more with less," said Patrick Berman, a director in the retail division of commercial broker Cushman & Wakefield.

The formula includes lower rent, fewer employees and offering only the best-selling items.

This week, the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., opened its first Walmart Express store on the south side of Chicago, with fresh groceries, pharmacy and health and beauty aids.

It takes up just one-tenth the space of a typical Walmart Supercenter.

Walmart plans scores of Express stores across the nation, each the size of a typical grocery store. Even smaller versions are meant for college campuses and tight urban spots.

The Gap recently started moving some of its clothing stores into smaller spaces in malls, and its Old Navy division eventually will remodel the bulk of its stores into tighter footprints.

Office supply giant Staples decided several years ago to start changing its store formats, reducing the average size by 10 percent and launching Staples Express locations.

Berman said many retailers are focusing on regular best-sellers rather than stocking hundreds of things only a few people buy each month.

In addition, retail software has become more advanced so stores don't need huge inventories on-site. "If your software says you'll sell 55 pants in July and you're down 10 pairs, it can automatically order them day by day," Berman said.

"You don't need to keep 1,000 on hand just in case."

Also helping drive the trend is the Internet.

Many retail stores are becoming mere showrooms for shoppers who ultimately will buy online.

For chains operating mid-size restaurants, going small may help them survive an economic squeeze that has put many into bankruptcy.

The Clearwater location will be the third Sweet Tomatoes Express opened by parent company Garden Fresh.

The first were in Carlsbad, Calif., and Henderson, Nev.

If plans hold, the Clearwater site will open at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard near downtown in January or February.

Smaller sites are faster to build, the company said, and fit into spots as small as 1,500 square feet. That potentially means food courts, college campuses and airports.

Smaller sites also means a dramatic revamp of the menu.

Instead of maintaining dozens of items in a buffet-style restaurant, this model starts with a basic foundation of salad that the staff customizes with toppings.

Customers will walk down a runway and tell the staff what they would like on their salads.

Base and pre-made salads will be $6 and individual soups $3 to $8, with drinks priced separately. Customers can pay for extras such as grilled chicken, shrimp, steak, edamame, tofu, grapes, Craisins and avocado.

Foot traffic at U.S. restaurants is gathering at the very high end and low end, but less so in the middle.

Traffic at quick-service restaurants is up 1 percent from last year, according to market researcher NPD, one reason McDonald's continues to report positive earnings.

Fine dining restaurants and upscale hotel eateries saw foot traffic grow 3 percent.

An express version plays right into several trends, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst with NPD.

"Consumers are redefining what healthy means when they go out, and they're eating more healthy," Riggs said.

Baby boomers are looking for healthier options when they go out, and people like watching their meal made because they think it's fresher.


rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline
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