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2008 1119 kroger 01

Vendors arrange produce on shelves inside the Kroger's Fresh Fare store during a pre-opening, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008, in Cincinnati. The 82,000-square-foot store that opened in the suburban Kenwood area Tuesday is the first of its kind in Kroger's home region. (AP Photo/David Kohl)

CINCINNATI -- The Kroger Co. opened its biggest "Fresh Fare" store yet Tuesday, and plans more of the stores aimed at luring eat-at-home and natural foods shoppers.

The store features high-end meats and seafood, gourmet cheeses and natural and organic foods, as well as chef-prepared meals to take home, besides the usual array of grocery items.

The 82,000-square-foot store that opened in the suburban Kenwood area is the first of its kind in Kroger's home region. Kroger expects to open one in Dayton early next year with others in the works. The concept began with Kroger's Ralphs stores in California, and has grown to 83 such stores, including one opened last month in Atlanta's tony Buckhead neighborhood.

The nation's largest traditional grocery chain reported last month that identical supermarket sales growth, a key retail indicator that tracks stores open at least five quarters, was running above 5 percent, not including fuel sales, for the current quarter.

"Our business really has been pretty strong," said Geoff Covert, president of Kroger's Cincinnati-Dayton division. "We've gotten some business from competitors and we've gotten some business from restaurants."

Kroger has also been replacing older stores with other bigger formats, such as Marketplace stores that offer wider selections of nongrocery merchandise. The company operates nearly 2,500 supermarkets and multi-department stores in 31 states, using local banners that include Ralphs, Fred Meyer, Food 4 Less, Fry's, King Soopers, Smith's, Dillons, QFC and City Market.

Kroger officials think the Fresh Fare stores will do well in a worsening economy as people cut back further on restaurants and sales slow for specialty food chains.

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