It’s not unusual that Matt Drost heads to the Forest Avenue Hannaford store for food.

But what he gets there isn’t the usual bag of groceries to take home. Instead, its freshly stir-fried vegetables and meat, noodle bowls or hot wings – lunch takeout for Drost, who works at the nearby offices for Avesta, the housing agency.

“It’s really neat,” Drost said of the store’s expanded takeout area, which also offers fresh sandwiches, quesadillas, hamburgers, pizza, burritos, sushi and salads, among other items.

The expanded section, which also includes a small seating area and coffee bar, opened Dec. 12 as part of a pilot program, said Eric Blom, a Hannaford spokesman. It is also being tried at a handful of Hannaford stores in New Hampshire and New York, and the company’s North Berwick store just began offering an expanded takeout pizza menu, he said.

“It’s something we’re exploring to bring our food expertise to customers in another way,” Blom said.

The early results are positive, he said, but it’s much too early in the process to determine if the concept will be rolled out in other stores. The Portland location was chosen, in part, because the store is the largest in the chain and had room to carve out substantial floor space devoted to takeout food. Smaller stores might not have much space to expand the takeout selections they offer, Blom said.

Hannaford is one of the larger chains to offer takeout food or a place for customers to eat in-store, but it isn’t the first. Whole Foods has an extensive prepared-food section and its Portland store has a small restaurant space, and the larger Market Basket stores – including its Biddeford location – have cafes where shoppers can sit, eat and ponder their shopping lists.

Supermarkets are looking for new things to draw in customers because it’s an industry with notoriously razor-thin profit margins.

Sales at traditional grocery stores, adjusted for inflation, shrunk or barely grew during the recession, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And traditional supermarkets are losing customers to new entrants in the category, including Wal-Mart and Target stores, while food stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are skimming off top-end customers.

The USDA said the share of the grocery market captured by nontraditional food stores grew from 13.7 percent in 2000 to 21.5 percent in 2011. During that same period, sales at retail supercenters and club stores doubled and, in the past few years, even dollar stores and drugstores have expanded their food offerings to try to carve out a piece of the market.

Many supermarket chains have decided that offering prepared food for takeout offers a way to win back some of those customers. The USDA said selling prepared and made-to-order food in supermarkets has grown at about 4 percent annually this decade, compared with about 2 percent annually for other grocery products.

Blom said Hannaford sees the expanded offerings as a way to help grocery shopping fit better into busy lifestyles. A parent who stops in a Hannaford store after work is likely to welcome the opportunity to take home a ready-to-eat meal as well as a few days’ worth of groceries, he said.

Many of the customers at the Forest Avenue store said the takeout offerings have quickly become favorites. Heather Howell and Sadiq Majeed, for instance, eagerly picked out spicy hot wings and put them into takeout containers for lunch.

The Portland residents said they don’t shop at the Hannaford location for groceries, but they like to get some meals there.

“It’s pretty good, and different,” Howell said.

Natasha Worrey, a line cook in the prepared-foods section, said the stir-fry bar is popular with customers and she’s happy that most of the food is cooked with fresh ingredients stocked by the store. For instance, the hamburgers are made with ground beef from the meat department, rather than frozen patties.

Kathleen Stokes of Portland and Carol Schreck of Cape Elizabeth said the coffee bar was a welcome sight when a recent planned walk around Back Cove was scrapped by bad weather.

“I’m a Coffee By Design kind of person, but this is just more convenient today,” Stokes said.

But at least one customer wasn’t happy.

Prudence Jones of Portland considered, but ultimately rejected, taking home a roasted chicken.

“I don’t deal with prepared foods often,” Jones said, adding, “I don’t like change in general.”


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