H-E-B RECIPE FOR PRODUCE USES COOKING CONNECTION

ROUND ROCK, Texas -- H.E. Butt Grocery Co. has taken a taken a different tack when it comes to hiring associates -- especially for the produce department -- in a new store here in this suburb of Austin here.The new unit's produce department participates in The Cooking Connection, a demo center set amid the fresh-food departments that brings products from various departments together for recipes prepared

ROUND ROCK, Texas -- H.E. Butt Grocery Co. has taken a taken a different tack when it comes to hiring associates -- especially for the produce department -- in a new store here in this suburb of Austin here.

The new unit's produce department participates in The Cooking Connection, a demo center set amid the fresh-food departments that brings products from various departments together for recipes prepared by chefs on site [as reported in SN, July 21]. But that's not all; the department also has two chefs of its own who demo recipes made from fresh produce all day long.

"The chefs in produce cook right on the sales floor. They have work stations that include an electric skillet, microwave and electrical outlets [for other appliances]," said Michelle Krzywonski, perishables director at the 90,000-square-foot store.

Produce associates also encourage customers to try items they may not have tasted previously. To carry that off, the department has to pay particular attention to the type of people it hires, Krzywonski said.

"When we were interviewing, we didn't ask if the person knew how to use a pallet jack or a case cutter. Instead, we asked how they feel about cooking, how often they cook, do they watch cooking shows on TV," Krzywonski said.

"We'd ask them what they have at home in their refrigerator. If they said just frozen pizza, we knew they probably weren't right for the fresh departments," she added.

The San Antonio-based chain actively went into the community looking for associates who appreciate food, like to cook, and like to interact with customers, Krzywonski said.

"We went to culinary schools looking for them," Krzywonski said.

But H-E-B found that some interviewees who weren't necessarily food aficionados, did like to talk to people. In that case, they'd often hire them for the front end or other service departments.

The ideal candidate for any of the fresh departments is one who loves food and likes to talk to people, according to Krzywonski.

"We were particularly interested in those who talked about food, and recipes," she said. She explained that interviewers at H-E-B drew job candidates into conversation by asking what they liked and what they did on their days off.

"And we'd ask them to tell us about a time on their previous job when they felt they went beyond their normal duties to satisfy a customer. You can get a good idea by that of what they think about customer service and what their expectations are as far as providing it," Krzywonski said.

In the produce department, H-E-B wants associates who are enthusiastic when a customer comes looking for more of the golden tomatoes that might have just been demoed in a sauce at The Cooking Connection station, she said.

Krzywonski said produce department items were high on customers agenda on a recent day when The Cooking Connection was demoing freshly made blackberry-port wine sauce, mango sauce and golden tomato sauce for steaks.

While The Cooking Connection is a corporate-generated program, the idea for the chef stations in the produce department were initiated by the produce manager, Krzywonski said.

The chef stands inside a small horseshoe-shaped counter equipped with a mirror over the work station. This setup enables customers to see the cooking action from further away and is designed to bring them into the department. Television monitors high overhead in The Cooking Connection serve the same purpose, Krzywonski said.

The produce chefs recently demoed grilled potato salad with steak, which drew a crowd in the aisle.

"This [the action at the produce chef stations and The Cooking Connection station] is the first time we've had demos going on constantly. And that includes Central Market," she added.

Central Market, an H-E-B food-only format, stirred up much attention in the industry when it opened here four years ago. That store, which includes a sit-down cafe, is 18 miles across town.

The chefs at the new store here are dedicated to demoing and to educating customers about the food they're cooking. None of their cooked creations can be purchased.

"We want to get people back into cooking, and in produce it's particularly important to educate people about the different products," she said.

In the new store here, produce displays, which include 60 feet of multideck cases, show off up to 800 items. Typically about 100 of those are organics, Krzywonski said.

"There's so much variety, and we make a real statement with fresh herbs. We have to have associates who know the products and will talk about them to customers. If we don't get the product knowledge out there, customers will walk on by," she said.

Krzywonski explained that with a commitment to 700 to 800 items, there are many products customers are not familiar with.

H-E-B has 242 units including 25 stores in Austin which is home to the innovative Central Market.