The tall, white chef hat, named the toque, has always been a symbol of culinary expertise and success. Now, Utah’s food-related retail stores are using it to fire up new interest in their products and capitalize on the recession-motivated trend toward home cooking. The results are batches of loyal clients and increased revenues.
Cooking Goes Cosmopolitan
With the increasing popularity of cable TV’s Food Network, limitless recipe-related Websites and more chefs, besides Martha Stewart, reaching celebrity status, preparing your own food now has a glam factor.
“Cooking has recently become very cosmopolitan,” says Kelsey Nixon, a Brigham Young University graduate and one of the four remaining finalists on the reality T.V. show “The Next Food Network Star” last summer. “It used to be considered a blue collar industry and now chefs are very respected—almost being viewed as artists.”
The trend is supported by financial necessity as much as social interest—the recession has more people back in the kitchen and out of expensive restaurants. Many national food authorities, such as Conde Nast’s culinary site, Epicurious.com, The Food Channel, Better Homes and Gardens and NPR food commentator Bonny Wolf, say the hottest culinary trend now is nostalgia cooking—taking old recipes and applying a new technique.
“The recession has brought back home-cooked meals in a big way,” says Wolf in a May NPR report. She says, though, that since people haven’t been cooking at home for many years, they’re turning to cooking classes. And local retailers are meeting the demand, from handing out recipe cards to stepping students through assembling a sushi roll.
Small Town, Big Ideas
The food industry isn’t new to the marketing idea of selling through sampling. Grocery stores have always had employees doling out spoonfuls of the latest product. But since last November, Dick’s grocery stores in Davis County have elevated the practice.
While the word “chef” has a natural connotation with “gourmet,” Chef Matt at Dick’s Bountiful location and Chef Kim at the Centerville location keep cooking simple. Donning chef hats and robes everyday they deliver a condiment-size cup of simple common family fare, like sloppy Joes, enchilada casserole and strawberry shortcake.
While the morning shoppers can see how the food is assembled, this is not a gourmet platform for the public to see on-going demonstrations or have hands-on participation. But Steve Rich, vice president of marketing for Associated Retail stores, says gourmet instruction is not what they are trying to offer. In Davis county, where half of the households have children under the age of 18 living with them (2007 American Mortgage and Investments data), Dick’s targets the family-on-the-run audience—those with busy lifestyles who want quick preparation tips. Most of the meals are designed for customers to feed a family of six under $20.
“Grocery stores are trying to provide more restaurant quality meal solutions—something with nutrition behind it,” says Rich. “People still want quick meals; often they equate preparing a recipe to taking 40 minutes to an hour of their time to prepare, but if it’s a quick fix recipe, then it will take 15 to 20 minutes and that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s almost as if people want to do a little bit, but don’t want to spend hours doing it.”
The scaled down demonstrations are done on long cutting-board tables in the produce departments. The tables hold silver chaffing dishes or frying pans with prepared food, recipes and stacks of products used to make the dish of the day. And the demonstrations have been wildly popular with customers.
“While it doesn’t sound like much, since we started sales have been up 4 percent,” says Rich. “Right now, with the economy where it’s at, to have an increase at all is doing good—most of our competitors are down.”
Rich says the store chefs, who are receiving regular training from former Little America Hotel chef, Chef Johan Jansen, are developing quite a following with customers. “They call and ask, ‘Is Chef Matt going to be there today because I have some questions for him, and there have been requests for him to compile a cookbook,” says Rich.
Dick’s follows in the shadow of a larger local grocer, Harmon’s, which last year opened a culinary education center at its Draper location.
“Before we opened the culinary education center, the store director, Chef Bob Bryant, and I went to Draegers in San Francisco,” says Hailey Cherrington, culinary education coordinator at Harmon’s. “We took different classes from them to understand how they ran things and to experience it as a customer.” While Draegers, a gourmet grocery store with a successful cooking school, was Cherrington’s primary model and inspiration for the Harmon’s school, Cherrington says the group researched cooking school models across the country including Sur La Table and Central Market stores in Texas.
The result at Harmon’s is an urban-sleek style kitchen that sits above the store on the mezzanine, with patio dining outside its doors. “I wanted to create a comfortable atmosphere where cooking wouldn’t be so intimidating,” she says.
During hands-on classes in the kitchen, Bryant gives the instructions. And in April, the store brought in Nixon to demonstrate her favorite recipes and share her behind-the-scene experiences with star chefs at the Food Network. The event generated more questions and conversations about Nixon’s experiences on the program than the food being prepared.
Cherrington says people attend the store’s classes for social opportunities as much as anything else. “People come to the wine and cheese pairings here and meet people and then come back together. There are regulars that return again and again.”
The most immediate result from Harmon’s culinary education center is improved client retention figures, says Cherrington. “We’ve met regulars at the classes that we now consider friends,” she says. “I feel so satisfied in what we are doing when someone will just stop by to say ‘hi’ or call [Bryant] for advice. One couple brought us a pheasant after they went pheasant hunting.”
The combination of food, entertainment, education and social opportunities have kept enrollment up at the education center during the recession. And while Cherrington says food sampling still takes place in the store, “foodies” (what Cherrington calls the people handing out samples) are a built-in marketing tool that refer people to the classes upstairs.
“The employees who have attended the classes are the most passionate about the education center,” says Cherrington. “We have one employee that has actually bought customers classes so they can come with her.”
Besides observing stores outside of Utah, Mindy McDonald, culinary director at Orson Gygi, says Harmon’s also observed Orson Gygi’s processes in its hands-on cooking kitchen and 48-seat demonstration theater.
Orson Gygi was one of the first businesses in Utah to offer cooking classes. In 2001, it opened a culinary center as part of its new building after a fire three years earlier destroyed the original facility. For more than 60 years, the store has been a supplier to restaurants, caterers and other institutions, and now has a steady clientele of home cooks.
From a glass-wall room with a Tuscan-style bar tile roof, shoppers can see something that mimics a large Italian family coming together to cook a meal right in the middle of the store. Afterwards, class members sit at a dining table and share the meal.
McDonald says the demonstration theater and kitchen are used for various groups and parties. Recently, the store hosted the Outdoor Retailer’s Association since the demonstration room and kitchen are commonly used for corporate training followed by cooking as a team building activity.
“Cooking lends naturally to team building occasions,” she says. “You easily and naturally interact with each other.”
One Class, Triple Revenues
When Stephen Richards, a Provo resident, entered the distribution channel six months ago to market his natural sweetener product, Xagave, he didn’t think he’d be making pancakes and carrot cakes in front of large audiences.
But at Bosch cooking stores and other locations, such as Orson Gygi, mixing up sauces, salad dressings and pie filling, then letting clients taste the treats, has resulted in a $1 million business and partnerships with several retailers in the state.
Richards is already a businessman as owner of Graywhale Entertainment stores. But he cooks as a hobby and as a borderline diabetic, was determined to find a natural sugar substitute. His search led to nectars derived from Agave Tequiliana (Blue Agave) and Agave Salmiana (White Agave) plants. A manufacturing facility in Mexico blends the nectars and adds a standardized inulin content to make a sugar substitute with a low glycemic index. The result is a food additive ideal for diabetics, he says.
Now, using his product, Richards demonstrates recipes from his cookbook “Delicious Meets Nutritious” at 120 food-related retailers across the country.
“Initially, I considered marketing this through a home demonstration model such as Pampered Chef, since I knew the product would require explanation along with the distribution,” explains Richards. “But I also realized that people are tasting this product and then telling their friends. So if one person comes to a demonstration, then at the next demonstration they bring six more friends.”
Last March, Richards did a free demonstration of his recipes and product to a packed room in the Orson Gygi demonstration theater. The audience tasted salad, teriyaki chicken and strawberry pie made with Xagave, while Richards showed how much product to use in the recipes. But he also used kitchen tools and appliances stocked at Orson Gygi during the demonstration, and explained how they worked, as well. Also, a representative from the local American Diabetes Association chapter was on hand to talk about the disease.
The audience received a 10 percent coupon to use in the store on Xagave or any other product in the store and the results were a three-way win.
“Our sales that day were increased by 25 percent because of the Xagave class,” says Heather Smith, assistant manager at Orson Gygi. “Xagave sales increased by 8 percent and our other products were increased by 16 percent.” Orson Gygi and Xagave split the total sales of Xagave that day and will be donating 10 percent of the profit to ADA. “This class not only promoted items that day, but we have had several repeat customers since. I have also had customers request we offer this class again,” Smith says.
The Rich Niche Filling
Other culinary retailers in the state, with or without regular cooking classes and demonstrations, are benefiting from cooking classes, even competitors. That’s because class chefs refer participants to where they’ve discovered the freshest offerings or hard-to-find products since, as Sur La Table’s Chef Kyle Nicholson explains, cookware and food stores have their own niche.
Nicholson says Caputo’s Market and Deli is a favorite business of his and he frequently uses its products in his classes.
“There are a few places I’m loyal to where I source my stuff and I mention that in my classes,” says Nicholson. “You’d be hard pressed to find some of the unique things that Caputo’s does elsewhere. In other metro cities there’s cheese stores and charcuteries, but not places that bring it all together like Caputo’s. I like to incorporate a lot of their things into my classes.”
Even though Caputo’s has cooking classes at its market and deli, the store posts Sur La Tables cooking classes as well.
While Nicholson says as a chef he never imagined himself succeeding in sales, he says his expertise and knowledge of products have naturally resulted in increased sales for the store. And while he says the cooking class program in the Gateway store is still developing, cooking classes in Sur La Table stores nationwide account for 14 percent of the company’s sales. In the Gateway store, since Nicholson started conducting classes last fall, sales went from averaging $10 per person to $50 per person, per class.
“I’m passionate about cooking and what I use,” he says. “For instance, while I’m using a Le Creuset pan I will tell the class ‘I wouldn’t use anything but a Le Creuset.’ And people in the class think ‘Well, it has a 100 year warranty and it looks cool and Chef Kyle says it’s good, so that’s what I’ll do.’ But I’m speaking from the heart. And if we use the stuff and if we can speak intelligently about it they take our word for it.”
Nicholson also says that seeing the store’s products in action have encouraged the customers to purchase them. “That’s a big part of it—they get to test out the stuff,” says Nicholson. “I always say, ‘This is your venue to play around with stuff,’ and even if I’m not using something in the class, if they want to try something, I let people make the most of it.”
Since Sur La Table clients get a 15 percent coupon with their class tuition, Kyle says they often buy other products not related to the class, taking advantage of current sales and promotions.
“Regular cooking classes at businesses develop brand loyalty and bring return customers,” says Nixon. “Often times a consumer will associate a food personality with credibility, and when attached to a product...you’ve got a sale. Cooking is such a likable skill and people are drawn to a good cook for good reason.”