American consumers, it now seems, want to watch their cake and eat it too. Cooking shows have mushroomed in popularity during the past several years, yet Americans are also eating more meals in restaurants and eating more takeout food.
The Food Network, for example, now reaches an average of 550,000 households during prime time each day, with viewership up 16% in 2003 and up 33% through 2004, according to a recent report by the Los Angeles Times. The number of cooking shows on public television has spiked 69% since 2001.
Although teaching customers to cook is certainly one of the more challenging methods for luring them away from takeout and back to the supermarket fold, some retailers have found that cooking schools and demo classes can offer an entertaining way to help customers balance their need for convenience with their desire to eat more healthy meals at home.
"Our cooking classes are primarily intended as a service to our members," explained Rosemary Fifield, education director for Co-op Food Stores, Hanover and Lebanon, N.H. "We have a real commitment to education here, because we're a co-op. Of course, we see results on that -- if a customer learns how to work with whole grains or dried beans, for example, then they're more likely to use our bulk department regularly."
The co-op offers both hands-on and demo courses in subjects such as wine and food pairings, ethnic cooking and kitchen basics. The classes have become so popular that a lottery system was set up to handle the volume of students, who attend for a variety of reasons.
"The people who come to the cooking classes specifically are people who cook, or people who want to cook more," Fifield said. "They want to go home and make a Thai dish or they want to learn to make sushi because they like sushi.
"But, I also see couples coming in with their friends, and it looks to me like it's a night out. I think those customers are probably less likely to go home and try to reproduce what they made during the class, but they always enjoy themselves."
For people who "want to eat at home and want to eat better, but aren't sure how to do it," the co-op also offers Express Lane Dinner recipe cards, which provide shoppers with a grocery list of 10 or fewer items from various departments, and a list of timed instructions to guide them through preparing the meal when they get home.
Cookbook author and cooking school instructor Sheilah Kaufman described three types of students: people who enjoy cooking and preparing elaborate recipes, people who are time-pressed and want to find ways to prepare simple, healthy meals at home and people who just enjoy watching cooking shows. "There are even people who buy cookbooks and never cook," she said.
To satisfy the demands of each type of customer, many upscale and gourmet chains, such as Bristol Farms, Dierberg's, Wegmans, Dorothy Lane and H.E. Butt Grocery's Central Market offer a balance of beginners courses, intermediate courses and courses hosted by local, regional or national celebrity chefs.
"There's a mix of students," said Deb Lackey, school of cooking director for Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio. "There are customers who are interested in quick and easy recipes -- even though people are pressed for time, they want to prepare nutritional, home-cooked meals and resist going through the fast food drive-through. But then there are other students who really want to further their passion for cooking."
Lackey said that business at the school, which the independent chain of three stores has operated since 1983, comes in waves. She noted that the emergence of a new wave of celebrity chefs and television cooking shows seemed to have begun with the Food Network's Emeril Lagasse, who helped raise interest in cooking among men.
More recently, at her school, Lackey noted that ethnic cooking classes, particularly for Asian foods and sushi, had grown in popularity. "Cooking classes also tend to follow different trends, not only with whatever the topic is, but also the type of class," said Lackey. "We've noticed during the past year and a half that the hands-on classes have been very, very in demand."
Cooking school directors have to keep an ear to the ground to know what their local customers want, particularly when hiring guest chefs, noted Kaufman. Interest in different types of food can vary greatly from city to city. "Ethnic food classes, for example, are very popular in some places, but in other places they're canceling those types of classes due to lack of interest," she said.
Kaufman, who has taught gourmet cooking on radio and television, as well as at schools such as Washington, D.C.'s L'Academie De Cuisine and supermarkets such as Wegmans, Gelson's and Publix, said that it's also important for the support staff at a supermarket cooking school to be able to assist both visiting chefs and students with questions regarding foods the store sells. On occasion, she noted, ingredients commonly used by a chef may not be available at a conventional supermarket.
"Supermarkets have become much more eclectic, but there are still ingredients that can be hard to find," she said. "For me, a successful class involves promoting the products already offered at the store and making recipes that won't intimidate students -- something easy and elegant that their friends won't have seen before."
At Dorothy Lane, Lackey's solution to fitting the needs of both the chef and their students became a popular new course. For a fee of almost $100 each, students can shop like a chef, wandering the aisles of the supermarket with four-star restaurant chefs and building a menu from the ground up based on what strikes the chef's fancy. During the demo-based course, the chef offers insider tips while preparing a multi-course meal for the students. Afterward, everyone enjoys the dinner together.
Still, despite their benefits, cooking schools pose significant challenges. Specifically, the amount of trained labor and space required to operate a cooking school -- particularly one that offers the hands-on courses that retailers and chefs often describe as their most popular -- can be daunting.
For example, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based D&W Food Centers, opened a 1,600-square-foot cooking school in September 2002 at the company's Grandville, Mich., location. Offering hands-on classes taught by local chefs, seminars on healthy eating from local health professionals and, at one point, a series of 16 cooking classes taught by Weight Watchers, the school was very popular with local customers and its events were frequently fully booked.
But, despite the program's success, it was discontinued last year. Vice President of Marketing Ron Cox explained: "It was doing well, and we had great customer response to it. But, we went into the program as a test to see what the customer response would be and what the viability of the program would be. As we moved through that process during the first year, we came to the realization that while it was a good, successful program, it wasn't part of our company's strategy going forward. We felt that there were better ways to utilize the space."
The 22-unit chain continues to consider it important to offer customers a place to find new recipes and ideas. The company's Web site offers a comprehensive list of recipes that can be searched by category, popularity, ingredients, speed of preparation or nutrition, and Cox said the site will be re-launched early this year in an even more user-friendly format.
Similarly, Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas' for two years has offered Cooking With What's On Sale, a program focused on giving customers ideas for simple, inexpensive home-cooked meals. Through a partnership with the chain, local chef Lisa Estrada provides recipes that highlight items on sale in Bashas' weekly circular. "Chef Lisa" also occasionally performs demonstrations at Bashas' stores, and she features her Cooking With What's On Sale recipes on a regional daytime television cooking show.
"We know that parents want to be able to provide a home-cooked meal for their family without spending too much time or money," said Alison Bendler, spokeswoman for the 144 store operator. Not only are most customers leading busier lives, some have also begun to believe that fast food is less expensive than buying groceries or cooking, Bendler added.
"The CWWOS program shows customers how to shop for low-price ingredients and prepare meals that any family can make time for," she said.
"Life just got easier!" proclaims the tag-line for Dream Dinners, a Snohomish, Wash.-based meal preparation service for busy parents. The concept, launched in 2002 by entrepreneurs Stephanie Firchau and Tina Kuna, places customers in a commercial kitchen and guides them through the assembly of 12 different meals for a family of four to six in about two hours.
The cost for all 12 meals, which are designed to be frozen and cooked later, is generally under $200 -- slightly more than what ingredients might cost at a supermarket, but customers say that the savings in terms of time spent shopping and cleaning up are worth it.
"When I talk to prospective franchise owners, 99 percent of them also say that they don't have the time to cook," said spokesperson Laura Christianson. "Even those that love to cook say that it becomes drudgery when they have to do it every single day, and that they'd rather spend time on the weekends enjoying their gourmet cooking. They just want to have something ready on weeknights that's healthier than takeout or fast food."
The concepts are catching on rapidly. Dream Dinners itself now has 60 stores -- mostly franchised -- in 16 states, and several similar concepts, such as Westminster, Colo.-based Supper Solutions, are now attempting to replicate the chain's success in other cities around the country in spaces as small as 1,200 square feet. One year ago, Kuna told the Portland (Ore.) Tribune that Dream Dinners' Seattle-area locations were grossing about $75,000 per month at 15% to 18% net profit.