If you've been taught by supermarket soothsayers that soon no one will be cooking at home, maybe you should go back to school.
Cooking school, that is.
Study after study indicates that consumers want help from retailers in their quest to prepare meals more quickly. And while nearly all stores seem to be trying out their own home-meal replacement schemes, a select few are also concentrating on providing something different: classes where customers can pick up some new recipes, polish culinary techniques, and learn ways to cook with unfamiliar ingredients.
Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo., for instance, have established a long-term commitment through in-store home economists who have run courses on healthier cooking and meal preparation since 1978.
Others -- Byerly's, Edina, Minn., and Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston, for instance -- lean toward high-profile chefs on tour to sharpen their stores' reputation as cutting-edge retailers.
These and other retailers have found there are still many shoppers who enjoy meal preparation the old-fashioned way and find banging around in the kitchen with pots and pans personally rewarding, said a variety of cooking school managers and consumer affairs specialists.
Consumers like these deserve encouragement to remain loyal shoppers, they said, and cooking schools are one way to retain them.
These nonprofessional cooking schools are not profit centers -- indeed, some lose money, said their operators. But they are an important piece in the service puzzle, and can help elevate a store's image to where it becomes the place for permanent meal solutions. Cooking schools even provide some star-quality inspiration.
"A woman who attended one of our classes recently got excited about a famous chef, telling me he was 'the Brad Pitt' of cooking," says Rice Epicurean cooking school manager Peg Lee.
While even the most aggressive stores -- like the two high-powered Chicago-area Byerly's, where 33 classes were held last October, and where celebrated local four-star restaurateur Charlie Trotter is the chef in residence -- would be hard pressed to calculate a tiny bump in sales as a result of these classes, school managers report much anecdotal evidence that students go shopping with their most recent lesson in mind.
"A lot of times, our cooking assistants tell me that after class they see the same people walking through the store with a shopping list taken directly from the class they just attended," said Diane Holleran, consumer affairs director for the Kroger cooking school in Lexington, Ky.
"If someone's been in a class where a chef prepared a beef tenderloin recipe they liked, they're not likely to rush out and buy a tenderloin to cook at home the same night," said Dierbergs' director of consumer affairs Barbara Ridenhour. "But later that month, when they're in the store, they will be ready to try the recipe themselves and buy the ingredients for the recipe they liked."
Consumers are more likely to buy upscale fresh pasta and imported cheeses after tasting a dish whipped up by a well-known chef using those ingredients, said Scott Silverman, specialty buyer, Rice Epicurean Markets. "[Cooking classes] help educate them into better customers. We know there's a sales benefit; quantifying it is another issue." Rice also uses the school to keep staff current on trends, inviting deli and produce employees to audit the classes.
"But the purpose of the cooking schools is certainly not to make a profit -- we'd consider ourselves fortunate to even break even," he said. "It's expensive in terms of labor, both to hire staff and maintain the space used."
At Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, cooking school director Deb Lackey tries to offset costs by getting vendors to participate, promoting their products by underwriting the cost of a class or sending their own chef to teach. She's held classes sponsored by Coleman Beef on lamb and will run another on beef next spring, for instance.
Lackey also focuses her classes on new products carried in the two Dorothy Lane stores. She's currently developing recipes for a class on emu, a relative of the ostrich whose meat is red and very lean.
Kroger's Holleran works to tie-in her classes with cookbook promoting chefs with a local book store chain, and runs cooperative classes for kids with a regional dairy supplier during dairy month.
Tying the arrival of visiting chefs to other events helps heighten a store's profile, said Rice Epicurean's Lee. When touring chefs appear, Rice cross promotes by arranging signings in their book departments, where the classes are also promoted. Recently, popular TV chef Emeril Lagasse's class for 50 sold-out, with a waiting list topping 160.
"Cooking school is a service, but it's also a way to encourage people to make use of the food we have in the stores," said Lee.
The financial pay-off of these classes may not be calculable, but for some, offering the lessons is part of a seamless educational promotion program, said Betsie Garside, relationship specialist for Sutton Place Gourmet, Rockville, Md., and Hay Day Market, Westport, Conn. "Education is a large part of enjoying foods, and learning how to produce great foods and get the freshest flavor out of foods is what we're about. Cooking classes, informative signs, newsletters, and recipe cards, all speak to the same point -- knowing about food is half the fun of eating."
Sometimes, though, there is an immediate return. At Hay Day, the gourmet food store that merged with Sutton Place in early 1995, the classes are held on the selling floor after hours. During the classes, a chef may dash over to the produce aisle to display how to peel a mango, for instance. Since Hay Day opens its registers after the class to accommodate attendees, the newly enlightened frequently pick up just those items used in the lesson.
"We use the cooking schools as a source of consumer education," said Mary McMillen, director of consumer affairs at Buehler Food Markets, Wooster, Ohio. "But it is the rare person who can walk into a supermarket and not buy something. We know that these classes impact sales, but we don't track it."
Buehler's classes, started as informal get-togethers on the grocery floor, are primarily taught by home economists and local chefs, McMillen said. And the most popular program,"Cook your own birthday" parties for kids -- so popular they must be requested up to a year in advance -- builds loyalty among tomorrow's shoppers.
Kid's birthday party classes are popular at other stores, and some reserve half their classes for these, adult birthday and anniversary parties and private classes organized for church groups, Girl Scout troops and other organizations.
And at Buehler, special events are repeat sell outs, such as recent holiday gingerbread house classes. "We've built more than 500 gingerbread houses this season," McMillen said in mid-December.
The cooking schools in the five larger Buehler Markets are sophisticated class with upholstered theater seats, the schools employ standard home kitchen equipment, rather than the Vulcans and Blodgetts found in many schools.
"We're geared to the basic home cook, so we have a home-cooking style kitchen," she said.
At Dierbergs, the emphasis has always been on service. "Bob Dierberg decided he wanted to have home economists in each store to help people with questions they had about cooking," said Barbara Ridenhour, director of consumer affairs for Dierberg's, and an on-air cook for the chain's quarterly television cooking program. Now four of the stores have cooking schools, with room for about 20.
"Sometimes, we have people in the classes who have no intention of ever making the dish at home; they just want to see the chef at work and taste the meals," Ridenhour said. "Others fully expect to prepare these restaurant quality meals at home. The classes get people excited about cooking at home, cooking with newer products and, of course, buying them at our stores."
While many attendees are those who already enjoy cooking, Dierbergs offers many basic classes in low-fat meals, rush-hour cooking, speed scratch baking and other sorts of quick meals, she said.
Some successful classes are unexpected.
"When I first listed the sushi class in our brochure," said Lackey of Dorothy Lane, "I was sure that of all the classes we offered, that was the one most likely to be canceled due to lack of participation -- after all, this is Dayton, Ohio." But the class was such a hit, Lackey is offering more sushi sessions.
Meanwhile, though customers repeatedly ask Lackey for more low-fat classes, she said the response when the classes are offered has been disappointing.
Most classes in these informal schools are demonstration-style with little hands-on work by attendees, but one that got kids involved in baking made a big splash last year, said Lackey. A class made Christmas ornaments which made it all the way to Washington in a national competition. The class itself got the chance to see their own work hanging on the White House tree.
But, like everything else in the supermarket world, the marketing and reputation-building opportunities these schools offer retailers are being challenged from outside. Seeing the phenomenon grow in popularity, restaurateurs, caterers and small cooking schools are mounting their own competitive programs, according to Rice Epicurean's Silverman.