MELROSE PARK, Ill. -- A lot of surveys and industry observers report seafood consumption is down, but Jewel Food Stores, based here, is reeling consumers in with its third annual Seafood on the Grill promotion.
The one-day event drew more than 4,000 people to Jewel stores throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. A series of 90-minute cooking classes demonstrated how to properly prepare and grill seafood. The classes were held at all of Jewel Osco's 100 stores in promotion of its Pier 14 seafood departments.
During the early evening promotion, visitors learned how to prepare halibut, salmon, sea bass and shrimp kabobs. Those attending also received coupons for subsequent seafood purchases.
According to Karen Ramos, director of public relations, the event was a great way to get customers interested in grilling seafood.
"Summertime is the time when people like to cook out on the grill," she said. "So we saw this as an opportunity to help our customers with cooking seafood, which is an item we already know they are looking to buy."
Ramos refuted the polls reflecting a drop in consumption, saying the chain has enjoyed rising sales, in large part because of the retailer's commitment to educating shoppers about the different ways seafood can be prepared at home, including on the backyard grill.
"People are still interested in eating seafood because they know the health benefits of it," she said, though she acknowledged that many people may not be comfortable with cooking seafood at home and prefer to eat it at restaurants.
She said the promotion was presented as an opportunity to entice customers, who might not usually be inclined to cook seafood on the grill, to learn something new.
"Cooking seafood is something that many of our customers have not done and are not used to. They are unsure about how to cook it, and we're trying to help them," she said.
"What we are trying to do is educate people so they will feel comfortable purchasing seafood, taking it home and cooking for their family," she added.
At this year's event, seafood items were again cooked ahead of time since an in-store charcoal grill isn't feasible. An experienced salesperson took customers through a step-by-step preparation of the item, then skipped ahead to the finished product and urged customers to sample it.
"The whole idea of the seafood cooking class is to share recipes for cooking seafood easily and to show them step by step how to do so," Ramos said."[The demonstrators] go through the step-by-step process with them, showing them all the ingredients and how to put them together and how to prepare the item."
The demonstrations give the retailer an opportunity to promote new varieties and cuts of seafood. She said many new products have been added to the Pier 14 seafood cases in response to the classes.
"We have more people that are looking for variety than ever before," said Ramos. "As new varieties of seafood come on the market, we make sure we have it because we know people will start asking for it."
Some of the seafood products carried by Jewel are whole salmon, salmon filets, salmon chunks, whole catfish and catfish filets. "We not only have many different varieties of seafood, but we have them in different forms, so it's ready to cook, depending on what [the customer's] serving," she said.
Last year, the event drew more than 3,500 people. The high turnout was reason enough to schedule it again this year, said Ramos.
"We will just continue to have these classes as long as people want to come and hear the information," she said. "That tells us that our customers are very interested in information about how to cook seafood."
The best spot to hold these classes is directly in front of the seafood department, where a number of sessions were held, but at some locations there are space limitations.
"We do have some stores where the area right in front of the seafood department would be on a corner of an aisle and you wouldn't be able to set up chairs," she said. "So we're getting it as close to the seafood department as we possibly can."
The most recent seafood promotion, prior to the grilling classes, was in February, when customers were shown three ways to prepare fish at homes -- in a microwave, on the stove top and in an electric skillet.
"We conduct workshops throughout the year and at those workshops we will share with them information about new varieties of seafood and any new information about things that are new in the seafood department," Ramos said.
She said customers are constantly asking for tips on how to cook seafood, and to help them, a rotating circular rack holding several dozen recipe cards sits atop every seafood counter. Salespeople also are on hand to handle customers' questions about cooking seafood.
"Our Pier 14 clerks also give customers tips verbally about how to cook the seafood; how to prepare it," she said. "[The salespeople] are really the experts. They handle the different varieties seafood everyday."
There is a seafood guide located in front of every seafood counter that informs customers about the various species of fish carried in the department, as well as new arrivals such as tilapia or monk fish, and the best way to prepare them.
"[Customers] may have questions about where these fish come from and taste like," explained Ramos. "So we have a seafood guide in every one of our seafood departments that actually shows what the fish looks like and says where it comes from."
But she said it was the in-store demonstrations that lured the most customers.
"This class really takes it to the next level, which is actually showing them how to prepare it," she said. "It's really a natural progression. More and more customers are buying seafood. Our customers tell us that they're looking for ideas on to cook seafood."
At Jewel, product safety and quality are important, and most of the fish in the seafood department are farm raised.