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    FRESH FOOD: Special delivery

    Smart operators are pulling out all the stops to offer catering programs, cooking classes, and other tactics to excite shoppers and sell more perishables.

    Today's food shoppers are searching more than ever for positive, memorable experiences in the store. Isn't that special?

    As a matter of fact, it is. And a number of perishables-driven retailers are making impressive commitments to specialty programs meant to ensure that their customers feel cherished and appreciated. Strategies that include additional levels of service, customized offerings, and, above all, expert advice are proving to be the most effective means of making consumers feel special.

    "It's all about finding ways to create and maintain a connection with customers," says Julie Griffin, director of culinary services for Minneapolis-based Lund Food Holdings, Inc., which owns and operates eight Lunds, 12 Byerly's, and three Rick's Markets in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas.

    Griffin, who joined Lunds four years ago and was previously brand manager for the famous Marshall Field's Frango chocolates brand, has been charged with strengthening the retailer's consumer connection.

    "I've got the best job in the company, hands down," says Griffin. "When I began my role as director of culinary products and services, my main responsibilities centered on preparing and presenting food for great one-stop shopping, with a whole collection of products to use, prepare, and present the great food we sell in our stores."

    After she accomplished that mission, Griffin says, her duties were expanded to include creating the now flourishing FoodE Experts program, which Lunds launched in August. The program, which Griffin calls "a really big hit," features highly-trained store associates who offer superior, personalized service; product tastings; and meal-planning solutions, all geared to driving incremental sales of perishables and specialty foods.

    "Our FoodE program gives customers a contingent of chef-trained experts in all of our stores but one -- St. Cloud, which will soon be on board, as well -- that has been absolutely phenomenal thus far," says Griffin. (The 20-store Lunds organization also has a few more innovative irons in the fire as it prepares to open two namesake banner stores in downtown Minneapolis in 2006 --- a move that will mark the first full-service supermarkets in the heart of that city's downtown.)

    The FoodE Experts' two main duties are to coordinate product tastings and act as rotating ambassadors in the aisles. "Regardless of their level of cooking experience, our customers can count on having an expert right there at their disposal to help them out with everyday expertise on great cooking tips, recipe recommendations, and other helpful advice to help them relax and enjoy the meals they are preparing," explains Griffin.

    The new FoodE team went over especially well during the last quarter of 2004, according to Griffin. "We had an absolutely fantastic fall and holiday season," she says, noting that when FoodEs weren't conducting tastings to highlight signature and private label products, specialty items, and other new arrivals, they did particularly well at roaming the aisles as ambassadors.

    The FoodEs' responsibilities vary "depending on the day," she says. "If it's the day before Thanksgiving, for instance, they're out there in the aisles seeking out potentially confused customers and helping seasoned chefs find all the right ingredients for their big holiday dinners."

    Griffin adds that while building goodwill and loyalty are tremendously important, "Our FoodE Experts program is all about moving products, and we've been really pleased with the successful measurements we are seeing of late."

    For example, the program was a key component in the recent successful launch of a new high-quality private label line of spices. "One of our FoodE experts came up with a recipe to make a simple shrimp dip, using our private label shrimp mixed with a very basic mayonnaise sour cream to make a delicious Island Breeze shrimp dip. At that point, we also had a great way of promoting our signature shrimp, which we've already become known for in the market, and we just blew through the product."

    While Griffin works closely with the FoodE team, Lunds fortified the effort by recently hiring a new manager to coordinate communication, training, and operations for the program. The chain promotes FoodE in its weekly feature sheets, as well as in newspaper ads, radio spots, and its Web site, and has also tied the program to a local television cooking show, "Cooking with Sue Erickson," who just so happens to be Lunds' executive chef.

    "The FoodE program really solidifies our company's abiding commitment to great food and great service," says Griffin. "It has definitely added another dimension to our culinary services."

    Those services also include a pair of culinary arts schools, in a Byerly's unit in St. Louis Park, Minn. and a Lunds in Edina, Minn. The schools' instructors educate students about the art of cooking a palette of cuisines, and also host premier culinary experts and authors.

    "What we're really looking to do with our culinary schools is to look at the current interests and evolving food trends, and key our classes accordingly," explains Griffin. Although the class themes vary by season, "something unique usually presents itself each year," she notes.

    Last year, for example, she says, "Many of our classes centered on the Atkins and South Beach diets, while the trend for the past six or eight months has been geared toward food and wine and cheese pairings."

    For the duration, Lunds has enjoyed a great response to its Kids in the Kitchen children's cooking classes, says Griffin. Ditto for cookbooks written for youngsters, and personal appearances made by prominent chefs like Rick Bayless, who wrote "Rick & Lanie's Excellent Kitchen Adventures" with his teenage daughter, and Rachael Ray, author of "Cooking Rocks! 30 Minute Meals for Kids."

    "Our kids' cooking classes are an especially great way to bring people into our stores, to not only help them learn more about the foodstuffs we're selling, but to also solidify us as experts," says Griffin. The icing on the cake, she adds, is that the events produce "patrons who are predisposed to buy when they walk out of the classes. They've now got a terrific recipe they've learned how to make, and they're heading right to the shelves to pick up the products."

    Ethnic cooking classes featuring Spanish, Indian, Asian, Pan- Asian, and even the basics, such as Italian and French dishes, are always in demand, says Griffin. Other perennially popular cooking class curricula are "party foods and appetizers, which are obviously extremely popular during peak holiday seasons."

    Catering coup

    While there may be no place like home for the holidays, the two-store independent McGinnis Sisters Special Food Stores has been giving many party hosts and busy home cooks in Pittsburgh somewhere special to turn to when they deck their halls.

    The McGinnis Sisters' stores support their specialty service proposition with full-service butcher shops, top-quality produce, large delis, catering, prepared foods, and cooking classes. In the process, the operator also supports local farmers and emerging food manufacturers.

    Says Sharon Young, co-owner and v.p.: "We are a very party-driven operation. We like to have a holiday every month, and if there isn't one, we'll make one up."

    The company's biggest "made-up" event is an annual open house that has moved around many times in the past several years, but has now found a permanent home on the first Saturday in November. Young describes it as a "big sampling event" that engages McGinnis' preferred vendors in collaboration, to focus on easy entertaining for the holidays.

    "Our purveyors donate door prizes for each department, and we advertise it very heavily in the weeks leading up to the event," notes Young. The program has become a social event that shoppers look forward to, she adds.

    A key to the event's success is that it challenges each department to outdo the others by selling the most product. Associates from the winning department are duly saluted and rewarded.

    Young says the main focal point of the open house is the company's catering service. "We've been doing catering for almost 30 years, and have found it works really well for us" by boosting sales each year, she notes. "We're always out there hustling to pick up new customers while also working hard to keep our existing clients," which include three campuses of a large local community college. The effort has paid off: The readers of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently voted McGinnis' program Best Caterer in Pittsburgh.

    Young adds that the catering arm "is a tremendous backdoor advertising strategy because what they taste and like at the events we service are available in our stores for purchase."

    The McGinnis organization also offers high teas two Sundays per month, popular affairs that "are by reservation only and always book up," says Young.

    "Who would think of going to the grocery store for a traditional high tea? At first we weren't so sure," she adds. "But they've become so popular that we were voted one of the three best places for tea by "Pittsburgh" magazine."

    Prices for the high tea events generally range from $20 to $25, but their dividends extend further. Young says that aside from providing "a great opportunity to cross-merchandise other items from our bakery department, the teas are also for our employees, who get to dress up and take on different duties. We are also getting dual use of our china, which is used for both the high teas and catering events."

    The high teas are always tied to a unique theme and are often embellished by local theater troupes that perform, sing, and entertain guests. Among the most recent events was a "River Moon Tea Tasting," which featured various brewed blends and a discussion by a tea expert from the River Moon Cafe. The admission fee: $20.99.

    McGinnis, which is in the process of finalizing plans for a third suburban Pittsburgh location, is also a huge proponent of tasting events. On a sunny Saturday last fall, the stores hosted a German tasting featuring cheeses, meats, breads, sauerkraut, and other authentic foods. The free event was followed up with an Oktoberfest German High Tea, featuring a four-course German menu, for $21.

    On an everyday basis, Young says, "The best results come from demos and tastings involving bakery and seafood items, and I think that's largely due to the fact that they're the two biggest departments consumers don't trust. They've been so burned by the chains that many have been trained to think they're going to get burned with stale bread or a stinky piece of fish."

    Young says there's nothing better than getting McGinnis' products in people's mouths, because shoppers are exposed to products that are very impulse-driven. Rustic breads, for example, have become a key focus of the stores' sampling efforts of late, "but we aim higher by sampling our breads with dipping oils, imported butters, cheese, and sauces," she says.

    In addition to featuring an exclusive line of McGinnis Sisters breads, the stores provide a marketplace for a variety of local bakeries, including Mancini's, BreadWorks, Friendship Farms, and Wood Street Bakery, adds Young. "There is always something to sample in our bakeries."

    In seafood, one of the company's most recent successful promotions involved Nantucket scallops selling for $20 per pound. "As a limited-time-only product, we wanted customers to also know how special these scallops were, so we told customers as much as we could about the product during demos," explains Young.

    "As it turned out, if customers didn't buy them right then and there, they came back the next day to make a purchase. In the end, we sold in excess of 400 pounds in less than a month's time."

    At the heart of any successful in-store tasting is the right sampler, a person "who really loves food and people, as opposed to a lady in a hairnet with latex gloves on handing out hunks of cheese on toothpicks," Young says. "We use beautiful tablecloths and nice platters to create an atmosphere, and our customers really appreciate it and feel a connection with us."

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