Shoppers snapped up $35 billion worth of specialty food last year, testimony to their hunger for foods that are high quality, distinctive and exotic. And supermarkets are chasing those dollars with expanded sets and new formats devoted to specialty categories.But fancy bottles of sea salt and olive oil don't always sell themselves. Shoppers often don't know what they are, how they taste or how to

Shoppers snapped up $35 billion worth of specialty food last year, testimony to their hunger for foods that are high quality, distinctive and exotic. And supermarkets are chasing those dollars with expanded sets and new formats devoted to specialty categories.

But fancy bottles of sea salt and olive oil don't always sell themselves. Shoppers often don't know what they are, how they taste or how to use them, and they're pricier than their conventional counterparts.

"People aren't going to buy a $25 olive oil or a $50 balsamic vinegar without understanding why it's at that price or what makes it different or better," said Calvin Mayne, chief operating officer of Dorothy Lane Market, a three-store upscale retailer in Dayton, Ohio.

A growing number of retailers are realizing that to overcome that resistance, they have to bring life to the aisles - literally - by training associates in food know-how. This approach is used equally in fresh and dry grocery departments. But it's particularly key to the Center Store, which is home to many unusual products and is a part of the store that's by nature less interactive.

Dorothy Lane uses its associates as well as its monthly publication, Market Report, to encourage customer interest in specialty products.

"It's the general atmosphere in our company to be enthusiastic about food," Mayne said. "We encourage all of our staff to sample specialty foods. And then, in the buying process, we involve as many people as we can in the tasting process."

Other, conventional retailers are starting to take a page from operators like Dorothy Lane. Delhaize America banners Sweetbay and Bloom, an affiliate of Food Lion, created "taste ambassadors," roving

associates who walk the store and talk up foods.

Sweetbay's taste ambassadors may intercept customers with a sample, recipe or food-pairing suggestion, said Maria Chillura, manager of culinary strategy for the Tampa, Fla.-based retailer, which has taste ambassadors in about 25 stores. Distinguished by chef's hats, they also cook in the store, using customer-submitted recipes or the store's own private-label products. They represent the retailer at schools and community events, too.

Special emphasis is placed on unfamiliar or distinctive Center Store items, those that contribute sales incremental to Sweetbay's touted perishable departments.

"Some of those products in the Center Store are not low-ticket items," Chillura said. "As a consumer, although I might be intrigued, I don't want to try it unless I know what to do with it."

H.E. Butt Grocery's fresh-focused Central Market stores each employ a dozen or so striped apron-clad "foodies" who do demos, help customers find products and offer cooking tips.

"It's really a service that our guests love," said Greg Beam, director of operations for the North Texas stores. "People who shop with us really have a passion for great food, and [foodies] are people who can help provide our people with solutions. It's pretty common to see a foodie running around with someone, helping them find ingredients."

Giant Eagle, meanwhile, has been training associates in product information and food pairing. The Pittsburgh-based retailer took the training program up a notch for its new, upscale Market District format, employing trained "food professionals" who operate food demo stations.

Giant Eagle uses these efforts to raise awareness of its gourmet store brand, which also carries the Market District name. The retailer recently had a tasting of products from its specialty salt line, said Carin Solganik, president of Culinary Resources, a supermarket food service consultant and creator of Giant Eagle's training program.

Other retailers, too, use food enthusiasts to push their private label and other products the store wants to promote on a given week. Sweetbay gives its taste ambassadors a weekly list of meat and produce items to sample and promote, but lets them choose the Center Store complements, which they merchandise alongside the sampled item. Ambassadors also have the freedom to push items they think a given customer will want.

Training ranges in degrees of formality. Dorothy Lane conducts occasional instruction on topics like olive oil or cheese, but most of the educating happens organically. "It's sort of an everyday thing of constantly tasting and evaluating foods," Mayne said. "I think it's a natural thing. I think a lot of it comes from the managers."

Central Market looks for people with food experience, whether they are homemakers, culinary arts degree holders, or just people with a passion for food. "Our foodies are people who prefer reading a cookbook," Beam said. Seminars taught in the store help ensure foodies share a common knowledge base.

Sweetbay also seeks out people with a food background, then puts them through a full week of training, followed by ongoing classes in topics like wine, cheese and meat.

Personality is important, too. Taste ambassadors' job is to get not only shoppers but the rest of the staff enthused about food, which they do in classroom settings or five-minute "huddles" with employees.

To the same end, Giant Eagle has all employees, from baggers all the way up to store directors, take an hour-long class and taste the foods that are being sampled. "They just want, in Market District in particular, a whole culinary consciousness," Solganik said. "We want the cashiers to say, 'Oh, Hawaiian sea salt, we tasted that, and we thought it was fantastic.'"

Perhaps no retailer knows the importance of having helpful and knowledgeable staffers better than Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield, Ohio, whose 110,000 SKUs can bewilder shoppers. Jungle Jim's especially stresses staff training in its 47,000-SKU international section. "You have all kinds of people, looking for unusual things," said international section buyer Paul Fischesser, whose more unusual requests included rattlesnake in a can. (Yes, he has it.)

The department also strives to hire associates who have varied ethnic backgrounds or a strong knowledge of ethnic foods.Currently, the staff includes people from the Philippines, Cuba and India. Fischesser contends having a diverse staff has a direct impact on sales. Of an Indian staffer, he said, "Just him communicating with our customers, our sales on the Indian products almost doubled in the past couple years."

Still, getting the most out of these food enthusiasts takes some work. These associates have to get shoppers used to the idea of asking for help in the Center Store or tasting an unfamiliar product, and know how to identify the customer in need of help or open to suggestions.

Justifying their cost is another matter. Adding and training associates is expensive, and while retailers feel certain that having people exuding passion about food pays off in incremental sales and higher customer satisfaction, they have no way to prove that.

Sweetbay can trace sales lifts to sampling events, and its surveys have found service ratings are higher in stores with taste ambassadors. But measuring their value is difficult, Chillura admitted. "How do you justify having an individual in a store that's just interacting?" she said.

Another challenge is getting shoppers excited about food when they don't cook as much as they used to, and letting them know ambassadors are there, she said.

In the end, foodies' worth is a matter of faith. "We feel like it's a necessary investment for the experience we want to provide our customers," Beam of Central Market said. "It's difficult to measure. But we feel confident they do improve sales. I think there are add-on sales with recommendations of things they would enjoy."