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EQUIPMENT & DESIGN: Not run of the mill

Sitting in the cafe seats of Deborah Robinson's establishment, it's easy to think you're in a gourmet coffee shop, not a supermarket. College students abound, surfing the Internet via Wi-Fi access and sipping cappuccino to stay awake after late-night studying -- or partying -- as jazz riffs waft from a high-tech sound system.

But looking just past the adjacent deli that serves the cafe-goers, you see other shoppers making their way through aisles that display a wide variety of groceries, including natural and organic products, as well as homeopathic remedies, and you realize you are indeed in the middle of a supermarket, albeit a specialty one.

"We designed the store to fit both students and traditional grocery shoppers," says Robinson, co-owner of Blue Moon Grocery in Easthampton, Mass. "The deli is one-third of our business," she adds.

The 7,000-square-foot store joins an approach to equipment and design tailored to integrate a homey authenticity that matches its historical site with the practical concerns of running an efficient food retailing operation, and the judicious use of both high-tech and artistic touches to cater to an eclectic clientele.

Since the building includes both office and residential space, Robinson says she gets all kinds of customers shopping for all types of occasions. In addition to college kids, the store also serves attorneys from the law firm upstairs, students from the ballet school across the hall, and assorted artists and art students from the fourth floor.

Because of this, the store must carry something for everyone. "We offer prepared foods and meals to go," she explains. "We have a chef from a fine-dining restaurant, so our products are not typical supermarket deli products. We offer crab cakes and bread puddings, as well as food for vegetarians and vegans."

Fittingly her store reflects a town that's a combination of disparate elements, with an academic and creative atmosphere at its core. "The main industry is education," says Robinson. "The town is surrounded by colleges, including Mt. Holyoke, Smith College, and Hampshire College. Also, more than 200 artists live here. The city has a lot of old mills that these artists have turned into loft apartments."

The same goes for the historic mill building that Blue Moon Grocery occupies. Called Eastworks, the site is touted on its Web site as a growing community of businesses, artisans, and other professionals. Additionally, it's the former location of the Stanley Home Products factory.

Other retail tenants on the ground floor are the Laurel Mountain gift basket shop, Country Accents by NJB, Anita Eliason Designs, and Turn It Up CDs. While the tenants on the fourth floor provide a steady customer base (there are currently 32 units, with 14 more to be built), it's these retail shops, plus the Registry of Motor Vehicles satellite office upstairs, that draw new traffic to the area.

The eclectic mix of customers at the site led to Blue Moon Grocery's distinctive design. "There are at least 800 to 1,000 people in the building every day, and most of them make their way into the store at some point while they're here," says Robinson.

"Catering to such a diverse group was part of our business model, and was one of the drivers behind the design of the store and emphasis on the cafe. An attorney may drop by in the afternoon through our indoor entrance to pick up a quick grab-and-go lunch, and then may return on the weekend through the street entrance to fill a shopping cart for the week's dinners."

Charm and challenge

So Robinson wanted to create a homey yet efficient store, one that was comfortable for both the lounging student and the harried working mother of three.

However, the site's infrastructure posed a challenge. "Our section of the building wasn't really developed," recalls Robinson. "A lot of the infrastructure wasn't there, like the mechanicals and the plumbing. We had to run thousands of feet of pipe. For our refrigeration we had to run several thousand feet of pipe down to the basement, down the hall, and then back up outside to a rooftop."

To handle the job, Robinson employed three architects: one primary architect for the store and two others to address the specific challenges posed by the building.

One of these challenges ended up becoming part of the solution. "There were numerous weight-bearing beams throughout the space that couldn't be moved," says Robinson, "but I wanted to go as natural as possible. It's an open architecture, so we left the steel beams showing. By leaving them uncovered and just painting them, [we] added to the store's character."

For the fixtures and flooring Robinson also went natural. "I had carpenters hand-make produce tables from cherry wood," she says. "The space was very big and cold, so we felt that natural wood would warm it up a bit. We also have a number of plants around the store to give the space a sense of life."

Robinson also restored the original wood floors. "They were almost black," she says. "They had been in the building for decades. We buffed them out and brought them back to their beautiful chestnut color."

The store design includes the basics -- six aisles of regular shelving for grocery and HBC -- but there's also a 30-foot aisle of vitamins, herbs, and homeopathic remedies that's supervised by a naturopathic physician, to keep shoppers from being overwhelmed by the wide selection. The deli features a grab-and-go case and a cheese cart. Wire racks display merchandise throughout the store.

Earth tones dominate the store's palette, but Robinson had to include blue, of course, to reflect the store's name. Customized banners hang from the ceiling throughout, to add to its warmth and to close the space between the tops of the aisles and the ceiling. "We worked with a graphic designer to create the artwork," she says. "We wanted to create a visual experience that would make the space feel smaller."

The combination of the open architecture, the natural wood, and the exposed steel beams gives the store a character that's unique but meshes perfectly with its surroundings, according to Robinson. "Our profile fits in quite well with the rest of the building; it's very complementary."

A bit of high-tech

Sophisticated technology also found its way into Blue Moon Grocery's design. In addition to the wireless access point that provides high-speed Internet connectivity, sleek track lighting illuminates the cafe and highlights certain products.

Robinson is particularly proud of the store's custom sound system, which was tricky to set up properly, given the space. "The ceiling's 14 feet high, so it was tough to get the sound right," she explains. "Adding to this difficulty was the fact that we have large floor-to-ceiling windows that go down the entire length of the store. One set looks outside, the other looks internally to the hallway. So there wasn't a lot of wall space. We had to get up on ladders and mount the speakers up toward the ceiling, but position them so that they would still fill the space down below."

To solve the problem, Robinson worked with the Harman Pro Group, a developer and manufacturer of professional audio components that provides integrated sound system solutions for commercial applications. The company consists of a family of brands that manufactures a variety of audio components.

Three of these brands were used for Blue Moon's system: JBL speakers are powered by Crown amplifiers through dbx processors. "We needed enough sound to fill the store, but there were different sound needs for each area."

Harman developed a sound system with three zones -- the cafe, the rest of the store, and the back room -- each with its own volume control. "We play the same music throughout the store, but I make it louder in the back room because the employees like it," says Robinson. "I can also deliver messages to a specific zone through the system."

Music is delivered via a Sirius satellite music system, and Robinson keeps it tuned to popular music, as well as genres such as jazz. Every once in a while, however, a certain channel will throw her a curve ball. "The problem with the programming is that it's not too consistent," she says. "We cater to a large student crowd, so we want the music to match their tastes, but we also have to keep the other shoppers in mind. You might have five or six great songs; then they'll play Motley Crue's 'Girls, Girls, Girls.'"
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