PITTSBURGH - Giant Eagle is rolling out a comprehensive training program designed to give associates a broad working knowledge of food, including menu planning and meal preparation techniques they can pass on to consumers.
The program, which officials hope to offer to every employee at the chain's 219 stores, is an extension of last year's popular "Passion for Food" tours. The road trips gave managers at a handful of select Giant Eagle stores the chance to tour California, upstate New York and New England. Participants ate caviar, drank wine, chatted with artichoke farmers and toured lettuce fields, among other experiences. The tours inspired participants to bring that knowledge home and share it with fellow employees and customers.
The trips also inspired stores to get competitive. Giant Eagle held a contest during this year's first quarter to see which stores would get to enjoy future "Passion for Food" tours. The contest had stores vying for the best-in-store events related to football games and Valentine's Day. For the football theme, one winning store sent invitations to top customers asking them to attend a Friday night event. When they arrived, customers were greeted in the parking lot by an employee grilling Pittsburgh Steelers-style black and gold chicken breasts. Inside, customers found tailgating parties and other football-themed celebrations.
The contest was an opportunity to create "a potentially ongoing theme event approach, basically highlighting the things that make our store and shopping experience different," said Rob Borella, Giant Eagle's director of corporate communications. "Let's show our customers our passion for food and highlight our points of difference."
Giant Eagle plans to conduct more "Passion for Food" road trips to culinary hot spots like New Orleans and other "great food towns," Borella said.
The company has also developed a plan to educate employees, either in-person or through a computer-training module. The program is operational in about 60 stores, and Giant Eagle has a three-year plan to double the amount of face-to-face instruction and provide the "e-tutorial" to all its stores. Training is conducted quarterly and covers about 72 food items a year. Giant Eagle developed all the learning materials and curriculum in-house.
The in-person training is conducted at a handful of Giant Eagle stores and is led by a "food professional," a culinary expert who has the dual job of conducting training and developing in-store demonstrations and recipes for customers. The cooking pro is responsible for the "ongoing education of the customer base and [training] the employees in-store about food and how to use it," said Carin Solganik, vice president of Solganik and Associates, a Dayton, Ohio-based consulting firm that works with Giant Eagle.
The in-person training is one-hour long, and each Giant Eagle employee -- from cashier, to meat department manager, to pharmacy employee is encouraged to attend. During the sessions, the food professional walks the group through about 18 different food items. The cooking pro describes the product, offers a brief history of its origin, and explains the price and sales points. Employees are also trained on what to pair the item with so that they have a conversational knowledge of the product and are able to suggest meal combinations to customers. During the training, employees test the product and see how it is used and prepared. Participants follow along in class with a single-page product-information form.
Employees are so enthusiastic about the training sessions that some purchase the sampled products to take home to their families, said Timothy Monsman, the food professional at the Legacy Village Giant Eagle store in Lyndhurst, Ohio. Monsman, a chef, leads the training at his store and also works with Giant Eagle business leaders to develop the overall curriculum and choose featured products.
"There is definitely a lot of enthusiasm about it," Monsman said of the training. "Most employees don't just sit there -- they get into it. They can't wait for the next class. We are a few weeks away from the last one we did, and they are already asking when the next one is."
Where Giant Eagle is not able to provide in-person training, it relies on a computer module that leads employees through a series of products and short quizzes. The hour-long e-tutorial is being used in 55 stores and mirrors the hands-on training. The training tool gives case studies on products and sample dialogues on how to promote products to customers.
For example, one such role-play has a Giant Eagle employee recommending salmon to a customer who wants to make a special dinner. Employees trained on the computer also get the printed product-information forms, but are not always able to sample the product. Giant Eagle is developing a procedure that would allow computer-trained employees to taste the products, Borella said.
The education does not stop with Giant Eagle associates -- customers are learning, too. Monsman said he conducts about six cooking demonstrations each week, and has a regular group of customers who "look forward" to the demonstrations and "collect" his recipes. He said customers regularly tell him they are looking for new ideas for dinner parties or new ways to cook traditional items.
The products featured in the training relate to seasons and holidays and also suggest logical food and wine pairings.
This quarter, springtime foods such as Asian pears, Citterio boneless prosciutto, Copper River wild salmon, balsamic vinegar and pinot grigio wine were featured. A suggested meal plan for the items included salmon, with a side of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and a glass of pinot grigio.
Borella said the company is working to measure sales associated with the featured products. Anecdotally, the response from customers has been good, but Borella believes that if "you focus only on quantitative pieces, you are missing a big point of the program."
"I think from my perspective, the qualitative impact that you make on the employees or on the customers is as [valuable], if not more valuable, than the quantitative sales impact," he said.
"We want customers to feel like people in the store care about the food they are selling," she said. "Nothing sells food more than personal interaction, and that's where we are trying to go with this particular program."