Restaurant in grocery store reflects retail fusion

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Canton Township — J.B.’s Smokehouse serves the usual BBQ staples: ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket, smoked on the premises, along with tasty Southern-inspired sides, everything from rice ’n’ beans to ham hock and bacon collard greens.

J.B.’s executive chef Todd Buchanan said the restaurant’s housemade sauces and freshly prepared meals helped win over some customers’ initial skepticism.

What isn’t expected is J.B.’s Smokehouse, a full-service restaurant and bar with seating for 70, anchors an enclosed corner of a grocery store: the newest Busch’s Fresh Food Market.

With the restaurant, named after the grocery chain’s founder, Joe Busch, the Ann Arbor-based company has upped its game in the competitive Metro Detroit grocery market.

Not only does the Canton Township location boast the company’s first restaurant, but the 54,000-square-foot store also features a Starbucks (another first for Busch’s), a gelato stand, fresh juice bar, a cheese cave (complete with wheels of cheese, cut to order), a dry aging meat cabinet and an expanded selection of prepared foods, including Indian and Middle Eastern fare, a nod to the neighborhoods surrounding the store at Canton Center and Cherry Hill.

Additionally, the store stocks an expanded selection of wine — 1,300 bottles — and 90 feet of refrigerated cases of domestic, imported and Michigan and other craft beer.

“We wanted to build a store that takes us into the future, and not just another Busch’s,” said Marla Booth, a spokeswoman for the chain. “We wanted to take a different approach and open a restaurant. We’re super pleased. There’s been great feedback.”

Busch’s efforts come as the grocery industry in Michigan and across the country adapts to not only changing consumer habits but also an onslaught of competition from all facets of the retail sector.

Before opening the Busch’s store, a former Farmer Jack location, owner John Busch and CEO Mike Brooks traveled the country to explore the latest industry trends and to see how other grocers were adapting to ever-changing consumer habits.

The new store showcases many of their findings, including a greater selection of convenient and prepared foods and ethnic groceries, as well as online ordering with curbside pickup. The restaurant, however, is a bold step for a regional chain.

“I would say they’re at the forefront” said Laura Strange, a spokeswoman for the National Grocers Association.

“A lot of what is driving these changes in the industry is convenience. We have found that consumers are time-starved, so whenever they can go in a grocery store to shop and also pick up something prepared for dinner that night, that’s a huge convenience.”

Industry ‘cannibalization’

While grocery stores have long featured coffee bars, wine and beer bars, or cafe-style service, full-service restaurants are a fairly new phenomenon.

The Italian marketplace Eataly, with stores in Chicago, New York and Boston, houses a variety of restaurants. Closer to home, the recently opened Whole Foods in East Lansing includes the Green State Bar and Grill, with a rotating selection of Michigan craft and hard-to-find beers and a menu offering burgers, sandwiches and breakfast.

Traditional grocery stores were once the primary source of groceries and household products, with consumers shopping once a week or every other week.

Now, the choices are many, with big-box retailers and drug stores selling groceries as well as prepared foods. And then there are a multitude of specialty and ethnic grocers, discounters such as the Germany companies, Aldi and Lidl, expanding their American footprint. Prepared meal delivery companies, such as Blue Apron, and online deliveries from the likes of Wal-Mart and Amazon and also are competing for consumers.

“You’re seeing a cannibalization of the industry, thanks to all of these other ways to buy groceries,” said Dave Cheatham, president of Velocity Retail Group and an expert on specialty retailers and grocers. “All retail is changing. Everyone is looking for value. Grocery stores will continue to evolve.”

Also driving changes are millennials, the nation’s largest living generation, comprised of those in their 20s to early 30s, experts said.

“Millennials are looking at food differently — they’re not like your mother who went to the store once a week or every two weeks. They go more often,” Cheatham said. “They are focused on time and convenience. They want to get in and out of a store. They don’t want to walk through a football-sized store to shop.”

Kroger, the largest grocer in Michigan with 126 stores, has adapted to consumer trends, expanding its selection of fresh and prepared foods, including make-your-own pizza and build-your-own burrito bars in some stores, organic produce and foods and its brand inventory.

“We’ve all felt these changes coming,” said Rachel Hurst, public affairs manager for the Kroger Co. of Michigan. “We’ve asked ourselves, ‘How do we take what we do traditionally and yet change with (the times).’ We’re still helping people who want to come into the store and shop and the group that doesn’t want to be in the store.”

Launched last year, Kroger’s ClickList, which allows shoppers to order online and pick up curbside, has been a big hit.

“It’s been a huge success for us,” she said. “We’ve had great feedback. People call and thank us for saving them time.”

Shop, stay for dinner

Like other Michigan grocers, Busch’s and Kroger are carving new niches to appeal to more shoppers in a highly competitive business, where the profit margin is typically in the single digits, said Linda Gobler, president of the Michigan Grocers Association.

“We’re going to see a lot of changes in response to what consumers want,” she said. “They may go into a store to buy milk or coffee but stay for lunch or dinner. I think we’re going to see other iterations of what Busch’s has done.”

The store’s whole concept pleases Jen Schack, a registered nurse who lives in Canton Township and shops for her family at Busch’s and other local markets.

“Busch’s has done a great job with sourcing food and beverages locally in the restaurant and throughout the store,” said Schack, who has dined in and ordered carryout from J.B.’s.

With J.B.’s Smokehouse, Busch’s has come full circle. The company’s founder, Joe Busch, started out as a butcher and eventually opened a smokehouse. He opened the first Busch’s in 1975 and the company evolved into a chain of stores.

“It’s a throwback to our beginning and pays homage to Joe Busch. It’s very intentional,” said Booth, the spokeswoman.

The restaurant is set apart from the grocery with its rustic, urban decor — charred, stained-wood paneling, Michigan-made wood tables and metal chairs. There are entrances from the store and the outdoors, which also features patio that can seat another 80-90 patrons. Meats are cured in smokers stationed in front of the store.

Executive Chef Todd Buchanan, a Michigan native whose southern roots have helped accent J.B.’s fare, said some customers were skeptical of the restaurant but have been won over by the housemade sauces and freshly prepared meals.

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.