CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. (FNS) - Wegmans Food Markets, an early innovator in high-quality prepared foods, added another "first" to its corporate plate as one of four anchor partners/developers of the New York Wine & Culinary Center that opened here June 17.
Reportedly the first of its kind with a supermarket partner, the $7.5 million, 19,475-square-foot center functions primarily as a culinary tourism draw with hands-on/demonstration classes by guest chefs and lecturers - akin to the larger, arts-infused Copia Center in California's Napa Valley. It also showcases New York wine and agricultural products.
But partners Wegmans and the food-oriented School of Hospitality & Service Management at the Rochester Institute of Technology set the center apart as an on-site and distance-learning training facility offering credit and non-credit courses in food preparation, nutrition, food handling safety, recipe development and other areas.
"This is an opportunity for the industry to have events or courses tailored for them at the site" or via technology to anywhere in the world, said Jim Berndt, Wegmans' senior vice president of prepared foods. His staff helped with recipes and advised on food preparation areas and equipment.
Other Rochester-area partners are wine company Constellation Brands and the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. Robert Sands, Constellation's president and chief executive officer, who chairs the center's board of directors, drew inspiration from Copia during Constellation's 2004 acquisition of the Robert Mondavi brand. He recruited Wegmans and RIT and helped garner more than $2 million in government funds plus private financing.
"Wegmans is the most progressive chain in the entire U.S.," Sands told SN. "They are very involved in the prepared foods business with many chefs, and they're the perfect partner for food and agriculture in particular."
It wasn't a hard sell. "The center's approach is all about food and wine and learning and fun. How could we do it without you?" was how Sands framed his pitch.
"How could we not do it?" was Wegmans' response, said Mary Ellen Burris, Wegmans' senior vice president of consumer affairs. "Our customers expect us to play this role. Anything that adds to the appreciation of food will work for Wegmans."
Speaking at the recent preview for dignitaries, Sands lauded Wegmans' in-kind services - it assigned staff (some almost full-time) to getting the project launched - and its $50,000 first-year pledge toward staff training or other needs.
Among high-tech features in the hands-on kitchen are 15 overhead video monitors that show live or taped feeds from the adjacent 44-seat demonstration theater.
This fall, 26 Wegmans employees will take Food Identification and Assessment, the first RIT course here. Ranging from fruits, meats and seafood to oils, dairy and chocolate, the 10-week, four-credit course includes sensory characteristics, nutrition guidelines and food/wine pairings. Berndt hopes to see enrollment rise to 100 per year.