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Changes help Harmons compete

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An espresso bar with fresh brews from Park City Coffee Roasters. Twenty-five flavors of Italian gelato. Bread baked with organic flour. A carving station with roasts.

Professional chefs and sous chefs whipping up gourmet, fresh and organic foods — not for a European-style market but for a new Harmons in Draper. The store, at 125 E. 13800 South, will be open to the public at 6 a.m. today.

The 70,000-square-foot venue is the 13th store for the 75-year-old company based in West Valley City, said Bob Harmon, co-owner and a company vice president.

The concepts in the store are the result of research by Harmons management, including visits to grocery stores in Manhattan, Chicago and California.

"The nature of this is you must be competitive to go forward," Harmon said. "We're bringing a choice and an offering to the public."

Harmons management has added some speciality items to its stores in recent years. The Draper store "is one where we were able to bring a lot of those to one location," Harmon said.

These days, customers are demanding organic and gourmet food. Whole Foods recently bought Wild Oats stores and is expanding in Utah, with a new store at Trolley Square expected to open in 2009. Sunflower Farmers Markets, also an organic- and natural-foods supermarket chain, is scheduled to open stores this summer in Murray and Orem.

"I think it's just more awareness and education," Harmon said. "I think the consumer is becoming more aware of the product, how it's produced and how it's handled by the retailer. I think they're making that choice, and there's more availability of the product."

The Harmons store in Draper will have about 300 new jobs with an annual payroll estimated at $3.5 million.

David Livingston, a grocery-industry analyst for the past 26 years, says the Harmons business strategy is smart.

"They're trying to differentiate themselves against the other conventional operators," said Livingston, of Pewaukee, Wisc.

High-end and organic markets such as Whole Foods are expanding and taking more customers from what Livingston calls the "plain vanilla" grocery stores such as Albertsons and Smith's Marketplace.

"A lot of stores like Albertsons and Smith's have been upgrading over the years," Livingston said. "They're raising the bar of what plain vanilla is."

On the other end of the spectrum, Wal-Mart stores, with ultra-low prices, are also taking customers from traditional grocery stores.

The grocery market is shaped like an hourglass, Livingston said. "The middle-of-the-road, conventional stores — those are shrinking."

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com