STORE COOKING SCHOOL CALLED HOTTEST DEMO BY PANELISTS

NEW YORK -- The supermarket cooking school is the ultimate demo, according to Cathy Cochran-Lewis, manager of the food education demonstration program and cooking school at Central Market, Austin, Texas."It doesn't get any better in terms of communicating to the consumer about product and quality [than] during a two- or three-hour class," she said.Cochran-Lewis was one of the panelists for a seminar

NEW YORK -- The supermarket cooking school is the ultimate demo, according to Cathy Cochran-Lewis, manager of the food education demonstration program and cooking school at Central Market, Austin, Texas.

"It doesn't get any better in terms of communicating to the consumer about product and quality [than] during a two- or three-hour class," she said.

Cochran-Lewis was one of the panelists for a seminar on partnering with suppliers to increase sales through in-store demos, held here last month at the International Fancy Food & Confection Show. Other speakers were Penelope Pate-Green, consultant and former owner of a food-demo agency, and Claire Criscuolo, owner of Claire's Corner Copia, a vegetarian restaurant in New Haven, Conn. Criscuolo also works as a cooking school instructor for Draeger's, Central Market and other retailers.

Manufacturers may help support cooking-school demos by paying all or part of the fee for the chef's time and/or traveling expenses. "The point of it all is product sales," said Criscuolo.

Best results from demos are achieved when suppliers and retailers work together and events are booked three months in advance, according to the three specialty experts. By planning promotions early, said Pate-Green, "you are in a better position to plan your promotion budget and sampling allocations." This also lets the retailer work with other suppliers to plan demos for complementary products. The retailer can then join in cooperative advertising, and demo staff can be booked in advance. This will assure the best price, she said, and will allow the demonstrators plenty of time to learn about the products.

All three panelists agreed that the best demo person is someone who is involved with the manufacture of the product; is enthusiastic and/or knows the product and can tell customers ways to use it. Education is the best reason to hold a demo, they said. Not only does it introduce shoppers to a product, but when it tells them many ways to use it, it makes it much more likely they will buy it and come back for repeat purchases.

For this reason, Central Market uses recipes much more than coupons. "Customers love recipes," Cochran-Lewis said. Five or 10 customers per week call and ask for them. Suppliers ought to work with retailers to establish an annual in-store promotion calendar, according to Pate-Green. Plan six months, or at least three months ahead, said Cochran-Lewis, and take advantage of the season. Criscuolo brought a calendar of events, showing, for example, August as National Back to School Month; and September as National Honey Month, as well as chicken month, cholesterol education month, national ethnic foods month, mushroom month, rice month, and National Organic Harvest Month.

As for equipment, Criscuolo said, she has received blenders from manufacturers when she does televised demos. Waring, Black & Decker and Kitchen Aid will often give you one or two, she said, because it's a free ad for them. Even in stores, without TV, this should work. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 customers may see it, if it's at Central Market on a weekend.

Cochran-Lewis said retailers can expect manufacturers to provide product or credit, fliers, recipes, coupons and equipment. She even got a kosher oven once. Central Market, where demos are run extensively, provides burners, gas for cooking, cups, spoons and staff. Often the vendor will supply napkins with the product logo on it, she said.

Be sure you know who's responsible for bringing the table, they all agreed. A demo table needs to have a clear, 2-foot by 3-foot surface, and Cochran-Lewis said height is critical. The table also must be sturdy and not topple. For this reason, Central Market had its own demo table designed and made to order.

Not surprisingly, the best place to set up a demo is in departments with the most shoppers, where they can stop, nibble and get a quick sales point. Four hours is the optimum length of a food demo; from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on a Thursday or Friday are the best weekday times; Saturday from 11:30 to 2:30 is good; and on Sunday, some say people are relaxed and more likely to buy on impulse.