MINNEAPOLIS -- Lund Food Holdings has rolled out a consumer-friendly food demonstration and education program featuring a crew of cooking experts who show shoppers easy ways to use fresh and shelf-stable specialty foods during the hours consumers are most likely to be in the stores.
The new FoodE experts program, launched in August at 11 Byerly's stores, replaces the retailer's culinary specialists program, which had been in existence for at least a decade. The retailer will hire additional culinary pros so that all Byerly's and Lunds stores will have a full-time food expert on board by mid-October. Part-time people will be added after that. The program also features a dedicated call center staffed six days a week with a food expert who answers cooking-related questions by phone.
"We've got a large number of customers who come in from 4 to 7 and they're in a hurry," said Julie Griffin, director of culinary services and products for Lund, which operates 20 Byerly's and Lunds, as well as three Rick's Markets stores in the Twin Cities. "They're looking for something nutritious and delicious and easy to fix for their families at home. The FoodE experts are there to help them and tell them the products to use to create that meal. We gave [the program] a new name. We wanted to make it approachable and fun."
The FoodE experts differ from culinary specialists in that the "foodies" conduct a far greater number of product demonstrations -- typically featuring a fresh item paired with a shelf-stable specialty food -- and they take place during peak hours on weekends and in the late afternoon and early evening. That's when stores fill up with after-work shoppers seeking dinner. FoodE experts are easy to spot, since they wear green and blue aprons. When not conducting demos, the experts act as high-profile store ambassadors, walking through the aisles, answering questions and giving advice.
Griffin, who spent a year developing the program and business plan, said a similar program offered at H.E. Butt Grocery's Central Market division in Texas served as a model - and inspiration.
"They do a terrific job," she said. "I was very impressed by what they were doing there. I really saw the energy, enthusiasm and how they engage people and how much fun they're having with it."
Griffin sought out associates who could not only fix a simple, tasty dish but had the people skills to engage customers and answer their questions. Some of the FoodE experts came over from the culinary specialists program, including Merrilyn Tauscher, the FoodE manager who works closely with the company's product directors to coordinate promotion of featured items. Some experts are new hires. Everyone in the program took part in five full days of training prior to the launch.
The experts work closely with retail executive chef Sue Erickson -- in fact, they've used some of her recipes for demonstrations.
For demo purposes, the food experts have married a variety of foods from virtually all departments. Some recent examples include peanut butter with fresh, locally grown apples; Copper River salmon with Old Bay seasoning; lemon dill caper sauce with fresh green beans; fresh mozzarella cheese with olive oil, fresh basil and tomatoes; and angel food cake from the in-store bakeries with specialty dessert sauces and fresh berries. The highlighted products are usually featured at a discounted price, and are promoted with special "FoodE Favorite" signs.
"A big part of the program is to introduce people to items they may not know about and drive sales," Griffin said. "It's had a very positive impact on sales. We're looking at prior-week sales for featured items, and [sales for] the week we're promoting the item. We're seeing a nice [sales] lift for those items. We can see it working."
Pairing up at least two foods for a demonstration is especially effective, since it drives additional sales and shows consumers how different foods can be used together, she said.
The timing of the launch was deliberately set for a slower period in the stores, to give the company time to establish the program before the busy fall holiday season starts. Griffin said she expects the call center in particular to get busy with the approach of Thanksgiving. The call center, which functions as a help desk for home cooks, is staffed from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Right now, the number of calls received each day varies greatly.
"Some days we've taken as few as 20 calls, and some days we've taken as many as 100 calls," Griffin said. "That's typical with a start-up. People are just getting to learn about it. My plan is when we get into turkey time, the phones will light up. We're doing some planning to make sure we're covered for that."