A gala of packaged gourmet treats are sprouting up right beside the fruits and vegetables at select King Soopers stores in the Mile High City.

A gala of packaged gourmet treats are sprouting up right beside the fruits and vegetables at select King Soopers stores in the Mile High City.

The supermarket “garden” grows - but not necessarily with produce picked from the ground. We’ve all become accustomed to finding a few surprise items, particularly of the sweet and salty snack variety, cross-merchandised in the produce section of our favorite grocers. The trend has roots in bulk candy makers such as Brach’s, offering candy pieces by the pound amidst the apples.

But it has evolved more recently to include such delicacies as small tubs of microwavable dipping chocolate sitting right beside the strawberries, cellophane bags of “restaurant-quality” tortilla chips sold beneath a crate of avocadoes, and plastic canisters of organic nuts and dried fruits neatly stacked alongside potatoes. This here-and-there dispersing of packaged goodies within fresh fruits and vegetables has become standard impulse fare at competitive supermarkets across the country.

Then there are trailblazers such as Denver-based King Soopers, a division of grocery powerhouse Kroger. This true Western pioneer has gone way beyond what is typical in produce department cross-merchandising.

Like many Denverites, I am familiar with the King Soopers philosophy of “building strong local ties with its customers,” particularly through a great assortment (often including local brands) at typically unbeatable grocery-store prices. But what I saw recently at a nearby “prototype” store in an upscale suburban neighborhood blew me and my snack-happy taste buds (not to mention my impulse shopping addiction) out the door to a tune of $61 worth of candy and snack extras.

Most of these I found within the first five minutes of my shopping trip, in the colorful, expansive, country-market-style and upscale-spotlighted produce aisles. I am certain this was no mistake on King Soopers’ part. Here were some of my findings:

• A Market Feel: First of all, the produce department was a world unto itself, angled off with outdoor market-like slatted tables and ambiance lighting that highlighted the multitude of colors. Overhead, wood and wrought-iron ceiling fixtures hung from the rafters, calling attention to sprigs of dried flowers and leaves that were tied upside-down, appearing to float. This set the stage for all the treasure-hunt treats to come.

• Gourmet Cheese Sampling Table: Directly across from fresh fruit, this sturdy cherry wood table featured pre-cubed, imported “cheeses of the day,” displayed under glass domes on elegant green-marble rounds, but ready for the taking. (Was I really in a “regular” supermarket?) Upon closer inspection, I discovered all the “packaged jewels” creatively stacked and placed on this table. They included a 12-oz. tub of “Old-fashioned” Kookaburra Liquorice from Australia, available in red and black, for $7.29; a 7-oz. block of Imported Fondue Au Chocolate from Swiss Knight for 6.99; King Sooper’s own brand of Marcona Fried Almonds in a gift tub for $15.49 a pound; and other odds and ends in baskets, like Margaret’s Rosemary & Sea Salt Artisan Flatbread.

• A Wooden Wheel-Barrow Display: It’s hard not to notice an 8-ft. wooden wheel barrow tipped on its side, with a fabulous spillage of Stacy’s all-natural baked pita chips in flavors that speak to the produce aisle - Parmesan Garlic & Herb and Pesto & Sundried Tomato - in convenient 6-oz., take-along bags for $3.49.

• Wooden Crate Endcaps:Just in case you were trying to stick to the onions and spaghetti squash without venturing a few feet to the aforementioned displays, King Soopers is ready to get you in on the packaged snacks, too. Below the onions and garlic (I swear), a humble wooden crate encap display held a feast of deli-like plastic cartons filled with Orchard Valley Harvest (of Modesto, Calif.) delicacies such as Chocolate Toffee Pistachios (10 oz. for $5.49), Mixed Chocolate Coffee Beans (10 oz. for $4.99), Asian Mix with Wasabi Peanuts (16 oz. for $2.99) and Sugared Pineapple Quarters (15 oz. for $4.49).

• A Full Antipasto and Olive Bar: This incredible array - which ran 16 ft. on its longest side and then curved around to the “air-shipped fresh from Europe” cheese and dessert case, complete with a cheese steward - honestly looked like something you’d find in a family-style Italian restaurant. It was even longer than similar displays in stores such as Whole Foods. There were no candy and snacks within the serve yourself/by the pound cases, but there were plenty to be found behind the back-end in a special stacked display of mostly imported (from Italy and Greece) snack crackers and “petit toasts.”

The cross-merchandising genius of King Soopers’ new expanded produce prototype was such that shoppers could never leave the produce section and still get all the confections and snacks their hearts desired and carts could hold. It made me wonder: Would any of us ever visit the candy aisle again?

Honorable Mentions in the Candy Aisle

Yes, I admit, after being wildly satisfied by the sinful selection of confections and snacks in the produce section, there wasn’t much incentive to visit the regular candy aisle at King Soopers. I mean, just how much sugar and spice could a gal throw into her shopping cart in one shopping trip? But as a candy and snack editor, I knew the responsible thing to do was to at least take a gander.

So from my position in the glamorous produce section, just off the store’s no-door entrance (just a big, open-air entryway), I walked - and walked and walked - all the way back to the second-to-last aisle (No. 22, to be exact). There, I found candy, clearly marketed towards a less-mature customer, as it shared the aisle with toys.

“Ho-hum,” I thought, as I pushed past the typical lay-down bags of promoted “snack size” candies (although I did note that many were set at great price-points of two bags for $5 or even $4). I literally yawned past the 4 ft. of generic peg-bagged assortments of gumballs and gummy worms.

I was about to call it a King Soopers Day. Then, toward the end of the aisle, on the top shelf (where else would my fellow female shoppers gaze while waiting for their kids-in-tow to make candy selections), I saw Merci Finest Assortment of European Chocolates (made in Germany by Storck). An 8.8-oz. box of 20 individually wrapped pieces - including cream truffles, praline crèmes, dark creams, and hazelnut crèmes - was $7.49.

Curious now, I glanced further down this top shelf and spotted a familiar upscale brand name: Starbucks. I had not yet seen the coffee company’s much-touted chocolate selection, but here at my local King Soopers, there was a pretty complete assortment, including the box I just had to purchase: Chocolate & Tea Tasting Squares (the store’s most expensive confectionery item at $5.49 for 2.64 oz.).

Fully perked up now, I noticed even more adult, top-shelf selections such as Lindt, Ghirardhelli, and Toblerone, all offered at the quite impressive “everyday low prices” that King Soopers has become famous for ($2.79, $2.49 and $2.39, respectively).

But it was the 4-by-4-ft. shelf section, just at the end of the aisle, that brought me the most personal delight. It was a true Denver display: an impressive offering of locally packed candies and snacks under the name “Rocky Mountain Treats,” fairly priced and artistically packaged in clear bags. For example, “Continental Divide” yogurt-covered raisins (9 oz. for $2.99), “Union Station” Sesame Sticks (7 oz. for $1.99), and “Durango and Silverton” chipotle peanuts (8 oz. for $2.99). I added these three products (and others) to my already overstuffed cart.

King Soopers proved to me that even with a killer selection of gourmet items up-front, it still knew how to please kids of all ages in the candy aisle, even if the store did bury such treats in the back. And it wasn’t all candy, per se, that got me. It was the superb cross-merchandising by my newly crowned king.