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Supermarket Chefs In Season: How Kroger, Hy-Vee Are Improving Sales

Seeking to improve customer experiences as well as revenue growth in the burgeoning takeout category, supermarkets are hiring trained chefs – or in the case of Kroger Co., training their own. Essential to success is ensuring that customers feel they get their money’s worth.


 

What do you get when you mix carry-out with cuisine? More and more often, it is your neighborhood grocery store.

A growing number of supermarkets is hiring experienced chefs – or training them – in an effort to spice up the customer experience as well as revenue. From standalone specialty markets to national chains, a broadening category of stores is adopting the movement as grocers seek fresh ways to remain relevant.

The number of workers in grocery food preparation and serving, which includes chefs, rose to nearly 331,000 in 2015 from 312,500 in 2013, according to Occupational Employment Statistics. In 2012, the category was not even listed. As if in lockstep with the industry, the Food Marketing Institute in 2013 launched an annual Supermarket Chefs competition, and in 2016 introduced the Supermarket Chefs community, more than 50 professionals dedicated to building partnerships between sales leaders and culinary talent.

Changing lifestyles, and the ensuing heightened demand for healthy prepared meals, are apparently justifying the investment. Also supporting these efforts is a broader movement to incorporate better nutrition into the supermarket shopping experience, as explored in my last column.

But also, and perhaps more importantly, in-store chefs may prove an investment in future store performance, if they succeed in accelerating sales in the burgeoning takeout category. Essential to chef success, however, is ensuring that customers feel they get their money’s worth, especially when the store down the street is serving up similar options.

Cooking The Books

The expense of employing chefs is one reason many might expect this strategy to be the domain of high-end, specialty supermarkets. The upscale Cardiff Seaside Market in the coastal town of Cardiff, Calif., for example, in 2015 hired Michelin-starred Chef James Montejano to “solidify our role in the community as a gourmet food supplier.”

However, chain supermarkets are seeing the value in chefs, as well. Kroger Co. recently announced plans to invest $2.5 million to remodel a Cincinnati facility into a culinary training and education center, where its hundreds of in-store chefs can train, share food knowledge and exchange ideas.

Now let’s consider the potential of having an in-store chef who can spearhead a store’s carry-out meals strategy. More than half of consumers buy meals at the prepared-meals section of the supermarket, according to a survey of 63,000 Consumer Reports subscribers. That translates to almost $29 billion a year in sales, and the category is growing at a clip twice as high as overall grocery sales.

For context, $29 billion is more than twice the annual revenue reported by Kellogg in 2015.

“Convenience may have fueled this (prepared foods) trend, but what’s keeping it going is a desire for meals we think are healthier than traditional takeout or dinners from the frozen-food aisle,” Consumer Reports states.

3 Special Ingredients To Success

The chefs who are charged with delivering on these expectations are realizing the extent of this challenge when operating within the realms of the supermarket industry, but they also appreciate the opportunities.

Elizabeth Davis, chef at Hy-Vee, competes in FMI’s Supermarket Chef Showdown. Photo by Steve Greiner.

Elizabeth Davis, chef at Hy-Vee, competes in FMI’s Supermarket Chef Showdown. Photo by Steve Greiner.

At the Food Marketing Institute’s annual conference in Chicago in June, the three winners of its Supermarket Chefs competition talked about the ups and downs of their roles. Among the challenges within the store environment is proving their worth – how they can contribute to sales as well as the customer experience.

“In grocery stores we get a unique opportunity at education. We see our customers a lot and get a chance to have a real relationship with them,” said Rachael Perron of Kowalkski’s Market, the 2014 champion in the annual event. “We can learn from them and teach them about food.”

All three chefs (the others are Elizabeth Davis of Hy-Vee and Keoni Chang of Foodland Super Markets) said that deeper customer relationships, and elevating the prepared food experience, are key sources of job satisfaction. Achieving these goals, and ensuring customers feel they are getting their money’s worth, takes three simple steps, based on what these supermarkets are doing:

Understanding the recipe: Elizabeth Davis of Hy-Vee said one of her challenges has been getting her co-workers to think outside the supermarket mindset. “They don’t know what a chef’s purpose is inside that grocery store,” she told the FMI audience. Bringing in a chef is akin to introducing a new product category, so staff should be apprised of the chef’s purpose in the store, their own roles in achieving that purpose and the opportunities the new strategy presents for them. Monthly contests that bestow rewards for coming up with healthy dishes could generate camaraderie.

Preparing a mis en place: Kroger, in developing its own chef training and education center, is making sure the roles of its cooking professionals are understood and consistent. By going through a program, the chefs and other food preparers presumably will enter the stores reinforced with knowledge of retail operations. This is a big advantage. A chef from a high-end restaurant may develop dishes to swoon over, but without an appreciation of the less glamorous, day-to-day demands of the supermarket aisle, it could be difficult to build a loyal team.

Seasoning – but not too much: Chefs can add a dose of credibility and prestige to a supermarket’s good-food mission, but it is important they do not overshadow the store’s key role among consumers. If the brand is known for low prices, it should align its chef’s mission to accommodate the customers’ needs for lower prices. If the store is known for gourmet ingredients, then its chef should capitalize on them. Chef Montejano at Cardiff Seaside Market, for example, develops recipes with new gourmet products that can be bottled and sold.

There are additional methods for assuring success, such as offering cooking demonstrations and classes. It depends on budgets and, more importantly, the store’s target shopper. If a supermarket bakes these steps into pretty much any strategy, it should receive three-star results.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here

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