FINDING OUR WAY BACK TO HOME COOKING AND DINING

"Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house" was a common refrain across America during Thanksgiving. It still is, but years ago, it meant sumptuous dinners and pies cooked with grace by knowledgeable matriarchs. Never once were the curtains raised to reveal anything but one true wizard behind every meal. For myself and many others of my generation, it was magical.It was a time when

"Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house" was a common refrain across America during Thanksgiving. It still is, but years ago, it meant sumptuous dinners and pies cooked with grace by knowledgeable matriarchs. Never once were the curtains raised to reveal anything but one true wizard behind every meal. For myself and many others of my generation, it was magical.

It was a time when television, airports and supermarkets were commonplace. If cooking was a daunting task for any modern woman, Betty Crocker was there to guide the way. It wasn't long before TV's June Cleaver picked up the torch and became an icon of suburban perfection with the family still gathered at the table. When the '60s heated up, Julia Childs captured America's hopeful cooks with her wit and wisdom for uncommon and global cooking success.

As the world has gotten faster paced and TV focuses on reality programs, it seems the only reality is that more cooks, housewives and matriarchs are asking themselves the same question: How did I do it? In fact, it seems the know-how, labor and anxiety in getting any feast right has driven many to restaurants and takeout establishments.

Where does that leave today's food retailer? Statistics from the National Restaurant Association revealed at least half of Americans had their Thanksgiving meals cooked outside their home this year. Last year alone, 11% ate their Thanksgiving meals in restaurants.

While cooking for larger gatherings has become too much for many, Food Marketing Institute reported that although more than half of U.S. families (54%) don't eat dinner together regularly, the desire to do so is there. Thirty-six percent of consumers surveyed in last year's "Shopping for Health" report said they are trying to gather at the table more often.

With family values a theme of the current presidential administration, the time appears ripe for a return to the table and home-cooked meals -- good news for the food retailing industry and center store if true.

Innovative retailers like Publix (see feature story, Page 14) are trying to buck the trends, and encourage shoppers to buy ingredients and turn on their stoves. In 2001, Publix introduced a themed cooking school occasionally conducted by celebrity chefs. These events drew media coverage, brought in shoppers to get their cookbooks signed, and branded Publix as a food expert.

The program didn't stop there. It was carried onto the sales floor with quick-cook, fast-meal demos where shoppers picked up recipes and tips on preparing a "simple meal." A nearby endcap included all the quick-meal ingredients. The late Charles Jenkins, founder of Publix, would have been proud of the concept that reinforced Publix's motto, "Where shopping is a pleasure," in addition to making Publix a fun and exciting place to shop. "We recognize the trend is going away from people cooking at home. We're doing something about that," Charles Jenkins Jr., CEO of Publix, told SN.

Others are doing something about it as well. Lunds Foods, D&W, H-E-B, Wegmans, Bashas', Dierbergs Markets, Draeger's in San Francisco, and Caputo's in Chicago have initiated cooking promotions to spur sales.

The reality is retailers have a huge hurdle when it comes to changing society's eating patterns. But food retailers have the most at stake here and the biggest opportunity. Bon appetit!