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Out from the kitchen

More supermarkets are hiring chefs, not just to cook but to educate and entertain and customers are eating it up

Recently, a chef and a patron struck up a conversation about a certain type of fish, Copper River salmon. This particular type of salmon is from Alaska, the chef explained. It’s succu- lent and high in omega-3s. Such a chat normally occurs in a five-star restaurant. But this one took place in the seafood department of a supermarket. Dressed in his traditional, white double-breasted jacket and floppy toque, the chef walked from behind the counter and explained how to prepare Copper River salmon. He also recom- mended ingredient accompaniments and even sug- gested wine pairings. The customer left impressed and with a fresh, wrapped salmon in his cart.

Expect to see even more of these types of encounters taking place in supermarket aisles. That’s because a growing number of grocers are bulking up their service counters with trained chefs. Sobeys, for example, has started putting Red Seal chefs in some stores as part of a test. Red Seal designation means these chefs are equipped with broad culinary skills and experience. In Toronto, meanwhile, the Longo’s chain has upwards of 20 chefs working in open-concept kitchens. Being on the store floor makes it easier to interact with cus- tomers and answer their questions, says Rosanne Longo, the retailer’s spokesperson. At the Hy-Vee grocery store in Lenexa, Kan., chef Jake Haynes trained at New York City’s famed French Culinary Institute. He is one of 130 certified chefs employed in one of the 235 Hy-Vee stores scattered through- out the Midwest.

Haynes has a multi-tasking job. In addition to chatting up customers, he works with the store’s dietitian to create healthy meal suggestions for customers and conducts three-hour classes that offer shoppers a month’s worth of dinner recipes. People today don’t have the same [cooking] skills as previous generations, says Haynes. “Meals today are about convenience, but I see a return to home cook- ing thanks to the Food Network. Cooking is cool again.” Hy-Vee’s vice-president of perishables, Tom Hobt, bel-

ieves chefs offer a value-added service to retail. “[It’s] an entirely new way of connecting to our customers that builds a loyalty that exceeds pricing,” he says.

Take those three-hour classes Haynes teaches; participants learn cooking basics, from knife skills to how to assemble sim- ple dinners from scratch. At the end, each student is given a cart full of groceries–enough to make 30 dinners costing $10 to $15 to feed a family of four. “We do all the shopping and put together all the ingredients,” Haynes says.

More often than not, chefs are moving out from the kitch- ens to front and centre, acting as a store’s culinary coach. Hy-Vee is especially keen to see more of these interactions in the meat and seafood departments. “When a chef tells a cus- tomer about a great new marinade, saying ‘Try this one, it’s really good,’ it’s credible,” says Hobt. Hy-Vee is also looking to act on the emerging produce “butchers” trend by having chefs demonstrate how to cook with more fresh vegetables.

Dana McCauley, culinary director at Janes Family Foods and a food trends expert, thinks in-store chefs provide an amazing opportunity for retailers to encourage people to try something new, while expanding their baskets. “If you’ve never cooked a roast, and a chef tells you this is the way, and here’s the sauce, the pan, the rub, they’ll buy all that stuff–it pays for itself,” she says. “The same reason department stores have personal shop- pers is the same reason grocers should have chefs.”

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