SAN ANTONIO -- H.E. Butt Grocery here already offers a popular cooking course for kids through its upscale Central Market format. Now, Central Market is hoping to give them another reason to travel down the grocery aisles by stocking several cooking kits designed for young foodies.
New in the aisles this month are candy-making kits from Verve, a Providence, R.I.-based company, and lemonade stand and ice-cream-making kits from Chicago-based Sassafras Enterprises. Central Market is merchandising them in the candy and housewares aisles, along with child-sized chef's aprons and toques.
Central Market has sold kits before, during the winter holiday season. Those, from Color-A-Cookie, contained food coloring "pens" for decorating and tended to have seasonal themes. While the recent additions are expected to be popular in the summer, when kids have more free time to fill, the hope is to sell them year-round, said Rex Howell-Smith, specialty-foods buyer.
As children share in the growing popularity of cooking, more supermarkets like Central Market see an opportunity to cater to young chefs in training. To that end, they're offering cooking kits, accessories and cooking classes for kids in an effort to carve out a bit of this tiny but expanding business that's traditionally been the domain of specialty stores.
ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Jewel-Osco and Food Lion also carry Color-A-Cookie kits, while Albertsons, Food Lion and Giant Eagle are selling Crayola-licensed Crafty Cooking Kits, according to the kits' makers.
In addition to Central Market, Dierberg's in St. Louis and Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats are among retailers that have extended their cooking-class programs to kids.
Howell-Smith sees the Central Market initiatives as a way to extend to children its efforts to inspire shoppers' love of food. To that end, the banner also recently introduced prepared meals designed for young diners. Along with familiar fare like meatloaf, the menu includes coconut chicken tenders.
"We're more than just a food source for people," he said. "Some people see us as a Disneyland of food, and kids relate to the spectacle."
He liked the educational nature of the Verve candy-making kits. Billed as "food for thought," the kits come in chocolate, chewing gum and gummy bear versions and contain, respectively, information about the origin of cocoa, chicle and carrageenan.
"They're more traditionally sold in a museum gift shop, but we thought it was a great match for us in the way we try to involve children and adults in food and sourcing," Howell-Smith said.
Kids' interest in cooking isn't surprising, considering the proliferation of cooking shows that use celebrity and entertainment to demystify cooking for the masses. Food expert Emeril Lagasse and the Food Network are courting kids with cookbooks and Web sites. In addition to cooking kits, kids can find scaled-down cookware designed just for them.
"The Food Network has done so much to inspire kids and get them enthused about food," Howell-Smith said.
As a result, kids are more sophisticated, he said. Scout den mothers have come in the store and asked for unusual items like escargot, and their charges are likely to react, "Oh, I saw that. I'll try that," he said.
Retailers may be cultivating future customers with such marketing efforts, but they also see a more immediate benefit to targeting a group that's exerting increasing influence over what goes in the cart.