ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Kowalski's Markets has increased the frequency of its cooking classes, eliminated fees for most of them, and scheduled some at lunchtime to make the program a more effective tool for marketing the retailer's products and services.
With the launch of free "Lunch & Learn" classes that are also repeated in the evenings and on Saturdays, the company aims to boost attendance in order to raise awareness of Kowalski's offerings, said Terry Bennis, vice president of fresh foods operations at Kowalski's, a nine-unit independent based here.
"Our Lunch & Learn classes have been very popular," Bennis said. "It depends on the subject, but most of them are free. The one on imported cheeses, for instance: We consider it an educational opportunity, an opportunity for us to talk about the specialty cheeses we have, and to offer samples, to get people acquainted with them."
In fact, two of Kowalski's cheese specialists are kept busy during classes, answering questions and extolling the benefits of using some of the more pricey cheeses, such as imported Parmigiana Reggiano. The specialists also demonstrate the use of appropriate cheeses for dessert and show attendees which cheeses can be used in baking and how best to use fresh mozzarella.
Another popular class on the lunchtime roster, "Small Plates for Summer," featured appetizing fare in the genre of Spanish tapas.
Officials this summer revitalized the classes and related food events, which are held at the retailer's flagship store in suburban Woodbury, Minn.
The key to being able to offer free classes frequently has been corralling in-house talent and recruiting vendor help to conduct the sessions, officials said. In addition to using its own cheese specialists and home economists as instructors, the retailer has tapped one of its vendors to do a Lunch & Learn class devoted to olive oil. Another session was conducted by a regional sausage manufacturer.
"There's so much competition in our market area [that] we made a decision to use our educational center [the mezzanine seating area of the store dubbed The Next Level] as a marketing tool to a larger extent. We can do that by making events free or by charging just a nominal fee," said Linda Anderson, the company's director of culinary promotions.
The mezzanine area, which provides additional seating for lunchtime diners, was intended originally to be used for community events and instruction. However, it wasn't fully utilized.
"When we first opened this store, we brought in high-profile chefs from top restaurants in town to teach cooking classes, and we were charging $50 and $60. That was fine for a while, but later sometimes we didn't have enough people registered to make up a class. Now, we have waiting lists for just about all of them," Anderson explained.
In fact, one of the most popular classes targeted children. Registration had to be cut off in order to keep the classes small enough to devote individual attention to attendees. The class will probably be repeated sometime this fall, officials said. Naturally, since the class was intended for kids ages 6 to 13, attendees included adults as well as children. After the cooking and the sampling, everybody was taken downstairs to the selling floor and shown where each ingredient could be found on the shelves.
That particular class was taught by Ann Noble, a home economist who was hired this year as manager of The Next Level.
"It was a series of three classes, called Kids Can Cook, and a lot of them took all three classes," Noble said. "The challenge with the children was to prepare things that were simple enough to assemble. We made barbecued chicken baskets, for example. That was done with a refrigerated dough product and precooked chicken. We pressed the dough into muffin tins and filled them with diced chicken, topped with one of our most popular barbecue sauces, and baked them. The kids said they'd make them at home."
Other menu items for the kids' classes -- which were made up of about an equal number of boys and girls -- were given fanciful names like "sailboat sandwiches" and "peanut snails." One of the classes, with a baseball theme, featured "pinch hitter peach salad," "catcher kabobs" and "short stop shortcake."
"We had a fabulous response to all our classes this summer, and we have good ones set for the fall," Noble said.
Next up is a Lunch & Learn session to be led by Kowalski cheese specialist Adrian Keyser. The class will focus on how to make pizza out of a variety of flatbreads. Keyser will use seasonal ingredients and, of course, a variety of cheeses for the toppings. The idea is to show how quickly and easily a pizza can be turned out in the customer's own kitchen. The class will be repeated in the evening at a later date.
In an experiment that veers away from the idea of promoting free classes, one this fall that focuses on cooking basics will have a $45 registration fee. However, attendees will get to take what amounts to three meal kits home with them. Indeed, they will be given ingredients for the meals, each of which would serve four people. For example, in two hours, the class will be shown in detail how to cook a pot roast, make chicken fajitas, and prepare a seasoned salmon filet -- all from scratch.
"We'll take the mystery out of sauteing. You know people sometimes look at a recipe and they see 'saute' and don't know what it means. So they put the book down and pop a frozen something into the microwave. We want to show them it's easy to cook," said Anderson, who will teach the class.
In addition, attendees will be given the ingredients to take home, including a hunk of fresh salmon, a beef roast complete with a vacuum-sealed pack of fresh vegetables, fresh chicken breasts, and Kowalski's private-label spices.
"In essence, that class is free, too, because they're taking home at least $45 worth of groceries," Anderson said.
The roster of upcoming classes is listed on Kowalski's Web site, on a flyer at the customer service desk, and in the retailer's newsletter.