Kroger, which owns QFC, Fred Meyer and other supermarket chains, is trying something new in little Gig Harbor: a smallish store that sells local and organic produce as well as conventional brand-name groceries.

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Karen Adams, who lives in Gig Harbor, was a regular at the town’s old QFC.

But it didn’t take her long to fall in love with supermarket chain Kroger’s replacement for her QFC: its first test of a new grocery-store concept called Main & Vine.

“Oh. My. Gosh,” Adams said, walking among piles of produce displayed prominently in the center of the store. “I couldn’t believe all the different kinds of kale they had. … I try to buy fresh, fresh, fresh. This layout makes it easier for me. I walk in and that’s what I see. They make it easy for us to eat healthy.”

The Kroger Co.

Number of Main & Vine stores: 1

Number of Fred Meyer stores: 132

Number of QFC stores: 65

Total supermarkets and multidepartment stores: 2,774

Convenience stores: 786

Store brands: Fred Meyer, QFC, Ralphs, City Market, Dillons, Harris Teeter, King Soopers and more

Headquarters: Cincinnati

Sales: $108.5 billion in fiscal year 2014

Employees: 422,000

Source: The Kroger Co.

She added: “I do hope that they keep the prices low.”

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That’s just the sort of response the national supermarket giant is hoping to get from customers as it tests the store, which opened this month. It’s a concept that emphasizes fresh, organic products selling alongside conventional brand-name staples, both at affordable prices, with a dose of community spirit.

Main & Vine’s light and airy space occupies the 27,000 square feet of the former QFC, where many of the traditional grocery aisles have been knocked down.

The produce is front and center, rather than at the perimeter, and so are a large bulk-bin area and an “event center” where cooking demos take place. An expansive kitchen turns out everything from daily dumplings to focaccia pizza to tossed salads, while a “grab & go” area offers prepared foods.

The Gig Harbor test comes at a dire time for supermarkets as their customer base has been eroded by warehouse and big-box stores, drugstores and online retailers.

While Kroger, the nation’s No. 1 supermarket chain, has logged 48 consecutive quarters of sales growth, many supermarket operators have gone bankrupt or closed stores.

“The modern supermarket is trying to defend itself on all fronts from a lot of these competitors,” said Neil Stern, retail analyst with McMillanDoolittle.

In the meantime, how people shop and what they’re shopping for continue to change. Customers are increasingly looking for fresh produce, healthful foods, prepared meals, and places to eat, learn or be entertained — via cooking demos, for instance — while in stores.

As their core customer base gets older, grocery stores are also looking to draw in the next generation, many of whom enjoy locally produced products such as craft beer and artisanal cheese.

The Kroger Co.

Headquarters: Cincinnati

Sales: $108.5 billion in fiscal year 2014

Employees: 422,000

Supermarkets and multidepartment stores: 2,774

Convenience stores: 786

Store brands: Fred Meyer, QFC, Ralphs, City Market, Dillons, Harris Teeter, King Soopers and more

Number of Fred Meyer stores: 132

Number of QFC stores: 65

Source: The Kroger Co.

With so much competition, supermarkets are looking for ways to differentiate themselves and to entice customers and create loyalty.

While Kroger has been successful with its conventional stores, they tend not to be places with which customers form strong emotional connections, Stern said.

“They’re very functional, they’re very successful, but you don’t hear people raving about them the way people would talk about a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods,” Stern said. “You don’t hear a lot of people going around saying: ‘I love Fred Meyer’ or ‘I love QFC.’ ”

Main & Vine is Kroger’s bid to change that, with a concept that, if successful, could expand to other cities.

It’s also a concept that tackles several of its main competitors at once.

The store capitalizes on Kroger’s centralized buying and distribution power to keep prices affordable on produce and staples. (Whole Foods, in comparison, uses a middleman to do its buying and distribution nationwide and ends up paying up to a nickel or more per dollar on its buys than Kroger does, estimates Burt Flickinger III, retail analyst with Strategic Research Group.)

Main & Vine’s emphasis on fresh produce provides a contrast with Trader Joe’s, whose “Achilles’ heel has always been that it’s average to below average in produce,” Flickinger said.

Three computer monitors let customers order specialty items not found in the store for delivery to their homes — a move that could forestall some customers from fleeing to online retailers.

And its showcasing of local products and support of the local community lift a page from the playbook of independent and small chain stores, such as Metropolitan Market.

Main & Vine also acts as a laboratory for Kroger, with successful experiments likely to find their way into some of its other stores across the country, including Fred Meyer, QFC, Harris Teeter and King Soopers.

Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey declined to give specifics on how the company will evaluate the store’s success, and if or when it might expand to other cities.

Kroger, which in recent years absorbed Harris Teeter Supermarkets and Roundy’s Supermarkets and is reportedly seeking to buy specialty grocer Fresh Market, has traditionally learned from stores it’s acquired and applied those lessons throughout the chain.

It’s “one of the things we think we do very well,” Dailey said.

“Small-town feel”

Kroger is pitching Main & Vine not just as a grocery store but as a community hub, where local products are prominently displayed, community involvement is highlighted and people can hang out in the store’s two-level cafe area.

In the “brew and blend” cafe area, beers including those from Gig Harbor’s 7 Seas Brewing are on tap, and coffee from Gig Harbor’s Cutters Point Coffee is served. Customers can eat sitting at tables and chairs or can people watch from lounge chairs on the upper level.

Local and regional wines and beers are arrayed prominently in the adult-beverage section, Gig Harbor’s Artondale Farm has its own stand for soaps and lotions, local artists painted the murals on the walls, and a product display features a small wooden boat built by Gig Harbor BoatShop.

“It’s got a Whole Foods feel but also a small-town feel,” customer Brian Dansie, 33, a pediatric dentist, said during a recent shopping trip. “I think anything that feels small town does well here.”

Timing is right

Gig Harbor was chosen to launch Kroger’s new concept store because it made sense to test a community-focused brand in a smaller, tightknit community, said Dailey, the Kroger spokesman. Also, the company already knew the community through its former QFC store, and the Pacific Northwest has an ample supply of artisanal food purveyors.

The name came from what the company wanted the brand to represent, with “Main” evoking the Main Street of a community and “Vine” conveying green and fresh.

The intention is for Main & Vine to become a one-stop shop where people can buy both artisan, local and fresh products alongside their Diet Coke and Tide, Dailey said.

Flickinger, the Strategic Research Group analyst, believes Main & Vine is going to become a successful destination store.

Gig Harbor, with its small population, could support sales of up to $375 a square foot for a high-end store, he said. Flickinger expects Main & Vine to do even better — up to $900 to $1,000 a square foot, drawing shoppers from up to 15 miles away.

He sees it as part of Kroger’s strategy to “build one of the key cornerstones in being the first truly national food retailer in the U.S. covering every key format.” Those formats include the no-frills, low-price of Food 4 Less; the food, drug and discount combination of Fred Meyer; the traditional food retailing of QFC; and the high-end but affordable blend at Main & Vine.

Flickinger expects Kroger is spending $12.5 million to $15 million for the Main & Vine experiment.

But it’s necessary, he thinks, at a time there’s “a real Darwinian destruction in the supermarket sector in the U.S.”

Discount, warehouse, dollar and other stores have taken away 35 percent of the business from the supermarket sector over the past 25 years, Flickinger said.

Some stores, including independent ones such as Metropolitan Market in Seattle and Tacoma, have been innovative and strong, he said. Whole Foods is also innovating, trying a new, smaller format store called 365 by Whole Foods Market, including a location scheduled to open this year at Bellevue Square.

Said Stern, of McMillanDoolittle: “I think you would find elements of what (Kroger is doing with Main & Vine) in a lot of independents and smaller chains around the country. But I think it’s unusual that we’re seeing it from the largest grocery chain in the country.”