Classes held at supermarkets may conjure thoughts of basic Crock-Pot dinners and 20-minute spaghetti dishes, but many are going beyond the standard recipe walk-throughs.
For instance, Ball’s Food Stores  in Kansas City, Kan., uses classes as a way to promote its commitment to local growers and producers. The Hen House banner has extension agents come in to teach proper food preservation. These lessons can come in handy for customers who want to eat local produce off season.
“We had three classes on canning because we had people asking, ‘How do you can?’ It’s just become, I don’t want to say it’s a ‘lost art,’ but people just haven’t done it, and we got new people interested in it,” said Bill Esch, executive director of marketing and advertising at Ball’s Food, in an earlier interview with SN.
“So we’ve already had some customers asking if we’re going to have it again this year.”
The chain’s registered dietitian organizes the classes and has asked Kansas State University to return to Hen House this year.
In addition to giving guidance on the art of canning, the classes also demonstrate proper freezing techniques, which many customers use for a popular local sweet corn, according to Esch.
“People who have done it [the freezing method] said it tastes just liked it was picked this morning. So it preserves the flavor and the taste attributes,” said Esch.
Workshops for mothers
In May, Martin’s Super Markets , South Bend, Ind., will also start offering a class on preserving foods, but with a focus on making and storing homemade baby food for children 6 months old to 3 years old.
“For the preservation we’ll be teaching them how to store in the fridge, how long it can be kept in the fridge and also how to freeze the food,” said Maria Haisley, Martin’s new health and wellness advisor.
Haisley, a registered dietitian nutritionist, will also discuss cooking techniques, the health benefits of homemade baby food, allergens and how to introduce new foods to babies. (See Fresh and Easy Baby Food  for more on baby food trends.)
This class is one of the first two wellness workshops that Martin’s is offering as part of its new Eat Smart, Be Well initiative. Martin’s has partnered with Beacon Health System — a nonprofit that runs two local hospitals — for this initiative.
Haisley, an employee of Beacon Health System who is also a certified personal trainer, solely works at Martin’s Super Markets, offering customers one-on-one wellness consultations, organizing events, teaching classes and giving store tours for customers as well as patients in the health system’s diabetes and cardiac arrest program, said Haisley.
The second class in May will focus on nutrition for women who are pregnant, who are planning a pregnancy or who are new moms.
“And how we tie it in to food is I’ll be going over the specific nutrients that are important for each phase of the pregnancy and then tying in certain meals, foods that are high in those specific nutrients that they can be making for meals to have as snacks, so just kind of leading them through the pregnancy with food but with that focus on nutrition and the nutrients they need,” said Haisley.
The two classes are $10 each, with the proceeds donated to Children’s Memorial Hospital in South Bend.
A fresh approach
Classes at the Seattle-based cooperative PCC Natural Markets  focus on a variety of culinary topics including how to make cheese at home or how to make fermented foods like kombucha and kefir.
“Homemade Cheese is one of our core classes that we offer each quarter and it is always well received. Fermented Foods has been a hot topic recently, so we have successfully run this class several times now,” said Marilyn McCormick, PCC Cooks manager.
One unique class this past winter focused on making Siberian foods. The course description reads almost like a short story.
“Siberia ‘enjoys’ between six and nine months of frigid temperatures, depending on the specific region. If you were a typical Siberian family, what would you eat for dinner on one of those cold nights? It might be Rassolnik (barley, beef and tangy pickle soup) and Pelmeni (small dumplings filled with juicy ground pork and beef),” reads the first part of the course description.
Class participants also make tea and a dessert.
“Our students really enjoy ‘peeking in the kitchen window,’ so to speak, for the cuisines of cultures around the globe,” said McCormick.
So, how does PCC think up these creative class topics?
McCormick said instructors come up with a lot of the ideas and students will also make topic suggestions.
“In the case of Winter Nights in Siberia, the instructor is from Russia, so she had the cultural and culinary knowledge for such a unique class.”
Publix Super Market ’s Aprons Cooking School also offers classes that step outside traditional meals. Some recent class topics include a sushi-making class, a condiments class and an ice cream class.
“We get some ideas for classes based on industry and buying trends as well as customer requests and popularity of previous classes offered,” said Maria Brous, spokesperson of the Lakeland, Fla., chain.
“From time to time, we feature celebrity chefs, both local and national; however, our resident chefs have a fan base of their own and are very popular with our customers.”
Living on the edge
Retailers who want to introduce some fun and a little bit of danger into their upcoming events could look to a class held at North Market in Columbus, Ohio.
The market — a collection of vendors and farmers offering produce, floral, fresh meat, seafood, prepared foods, bakery items and cookware — holds classes on Sundays featuring different merchants.
One recent class led by a floral shop and a wine shop combined the worlds of beer tasting and floral arranging.
“I thought if they’re drinking their expectations will stay low because I’ve been at this 30 years, but really I’m guerrilla trained; I really don’t do design classes,” said Marty McGreevy, owner of the flower shop Market Blooms.
While some supermarkets hire trained chefs for their cooking classes, food retailers should also consider using the talent they already have on staff.
• If your stores have trained butchers, why not hold a butchering class? The hip Brooklyn Kitchen, which has a butcher shop on site, has regular classes such as the pig butchering class in April where for $85 students watch a snout-to-tail demo, learn about obscure cuts and sip beer.
• Classes that focus on topics like floral arranging and cheese and wine allow retailers to highlight employee category expertise and feature store offerings.
• Retailers can also partner with suppliers and local businesses on classes that may bring in new customers.
“So I just warned people from the beginning this is a 100-level course. We’re essentially going to ply you with beer and hand you a sharp object. Because everybody got a floral knife.”
(Only one person got a small “nick,” McGreevy said, noting she was ready with Band-Aids.)
In the class, “Buds, Brews and Buddies,” McGreevy gave the students a review of flower purchasing and care, and the owner of the wine shop Barrel & Bottle Collin Castore talked about the beers being sampled. Participants were able to taste four beers and put together two floral arrangements: one in a beer growler and one in a pint glass.
McGreevy said the class was fun and that she plans to offer it again, perhaps with wine the next time. Her motivation for offering the class, however, was not profit.
“I didn’t approach it as a money maker. I approached it as exposure, relationships, good will, all of the above,” she said.
Some supermarkets that hold regular classes say there are many benefits to their programs.
Publix sees its cooking school as a way to engage with its shoppers and a way to help customers with meal solutions and bring families together for dinner, said Brous.
“Our Publix Aprons Cooking Schools bring the novice and the seasoned at-home chefs together for fun, sharing and learning new tricks of the trade, which they can take back home to cook for family and friends. Or they can bring family and friends in to our cooking schools for an evening out and let us do all the planning, preparation and hosting.”
All in all, PCC’s 30-year-old cooking school had more than 1,200 classes in 2013 with almost 17,000 seats filled by 5,300 unique customers, said Diana Chapman, director of sustainability at PCC.
At PCC, classes allow the retailer to maintain relationships with regular customers and reach out to new ones. McCormick noted that most students in classes are already members of the cooperative, but a quarter of the students aren’t members and find the classes online.
“Our classes bring them into our stores, many for the first time. After taking a class, students often stay to shop for ingredients, all of which are available at PCC. It is a win-win symbiosis to have the cooking class program in our stores,” she said.
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