Not so long ago, chefs in supermarkets were as rare as butchers in convenience stores.
But today, as retailers are addressing the needs of the time-pressed consumer by building meals programs, toques have sprouted in large and small stores, all over the country.
"For chefs, the supermarket is an incredibly growing field," said Pat Bartholomew, chair of the hospitality management department at New York City Technical College, Brooklyn.
While many chefs would still think of cooking in the supermarket as a step down, Bartholomew pointed out that, not so long ago, business and institutional food-service operations were also considered less important than fine-dining establishments.
But B&I operations, like food service in supermarkets, were then in need of creative thinking, and as a market provided chefs with lots of job opportunities. Today, many of those institutional jobs are considered plums.
Still, in the supermarket world there are cultural problems to deal with. "Supermarkets are used to running businesses their way; chefs are used to doing things in a different way. They think about food differently," said Bartholomew.
And while many chefs worry the supermarket setting will curtail their creativity, it frees them to enjoy some attractive benefits: predictable working hours and days off, a less-pressured atmosphere, and good, if not outstanding, pay.
"I'm having a blast here," said Ryan Hampel, executive chef at Straub's, St. Louis. "This is the first year I've had any holidays off in the last 10 years."
The hours are the main attraction for chefs, said Dirk Rusthoven, meals solution specialist for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich.
"There is a much better quality of life on this side of the business, whereas in a freestanding restaurant, hotel or club, you have to run the kitchen whether you're there or not. And that usually boils down to you being there. The hours are very demanding, anywhere from 60 to 90 a week. That's all right when you're 25, but do you want to be doing that at 35 or 40?"
For Rusthoven, who spent many years in fine dining and country club restaurants, being a corporate-level chef means getting one or even two weekend days off. In restaurants, two days off together anytime are rare, let alone on the weekends.
Hours are more predictable, if not entirely so, said Chester Wallace, corporate chef at Piggly Wiggly Memphis Inc. "In food service, there are no set hours, but since the deli closes at 9 p.m., we're not here long after that. In the retirement home, we would serve dinner and then come right back to start preparing breakfast."
For Roselee Burrello, chef at the Chagrin Falls Russo's Stop-N-Shop, Chesterland, Ohio, hours are not as important as job satisfaction.
"What's good is that I'm pleasing a customer. I know that people in two-income families need help, and I want to serve them so when they come home from work they and their children have something on the table."
Hampel, who works out of Straub's central manufacturing kitchen, said there were no comparisons between supermarkets and restaurants. "They're two different industries."
Hampel previously worked in the St. Louis Ritz Carlton Hotel restaurant and at country clubs throughout the area. He said his most difficult adjustment was no longer cooking from a fine dining menu. Straub's attracts high-end clientele, but the food sold there is still more homestyle than haute, he said.
"Here, I'm catering to everybody, instead of a tenth of one percent of St. Louis. The same techniques can be applied, but we do more pot roast than Dover sole here. Our high-end dish here is an $8 salmon papillotte."
Wallace, who moved to supermarkets after heading a fine-dining operation at a retirement home, said supermarkets offer the chance to develop a personal relationship with customers. "You can walk them through the store and sell them everything from fresh produce right down to fresh baked breads. I'm actually more of a salesman in the store than a chef who's just cooking."
But Rusthoven argued the supermarket environment does not always encourage the immediate and individual feedback that is available in a more traditional food-service setting.
"Obviously, a la carte service is entirely different from supermarket food production. In a restaurant, you immediately know what the guests think, positive or negative. In supermarkets, you don't get a response, and may never hear from them" -- other than in the covert message of lackluster repeat sales.
Burrello, who's spent her entire culinary career in the supermarket industry, likes the personal touch, and follows up with customers to make sure the poached salmon or pork tenderloin came out right.
"I like to be behind the case to help them. It's a real person-to-person contact that I like. Our kitchen opens up into the store, and I'm always bringing food out that customers can see and smell. When they see what I have, I can explain to them what it is. It's exciting and I can sell them on the product."
The supermarket chef's job is, to some extent, to take the thinking out of cooking for consumers, said the chefs.
"You can really see here and in Schnuck's and Provisions [a St. Louis supermarket chain and a meals store, respectively] that people are talking more to the in-store chefs, to get guidance on how to cook things, or about how to make sauces," said Hempel.
"At Straub's, we'll advise them on what to buy in the produce department to make a classic sauce for their meat dishes."
Wallace uses customer feedback from a suggestion box to fine-tune his meals program, which has seen a sales increase of 125% in the two years he's been there.
While fine-dining restaurants present more of a creative challenge, there is plenty of opportunity for growth in the supermarket, Hempel said.
"I'm learning something new all the time. We're just barely getting off the ground, and we're already making money. We can easily get into casual catering where people can come in and pick up foods they've ordered, and still maintain nice hours."
At Piggly Wiggly, Wallace's ability to roam the aisles advising customers about his ready-to-heat meals depends on the quality of his staff.
"I've found that you have to have a trained staff. I trained each one of my cooks in what I
want. When I tell them I want 25 pounds of lasagna, I can walk off and know it will get done the right way and on time."
Holding on to labor, which is a big issue in restaurants as well as supermarkets, is apparently no problem for Wallace at Piggly Wiggly.
"One advantage we have here is that it's a union deli, so the pay scale is compatible to restaurants," he explained. Add in no late hours, and rotating weekend shifts, and the package is very attractive to some chefs, who are used to working nights and weekends.
Staffing is a challenge at many other supermarkets, however, especially since some chefs find they are working with associates with no food-service experience.
"In some cases, if you try to do something new in the stores, it may be viewed as an inconvenience from an associate's standpoint," said Rusthoven, "which is a different response than you expect in a restaurant kitchen."
Besides attracting and keeping good labor, Rusthoven said, interdepartmental problems are one of the most serious challenges for chefs. "Management needs to break down that wall. They need to remove steps for the customer, and if they don't commit to do it, they're missing a huge opportunity."