PITTSBURGH — Giant Eagle continues to invest big in road trips designed to keep raising the level of customer service in its stores.
The 227-unit chain sends its managers — regional, store and store-level department managers — out into the world, immersing them in the culture of food, from planting field to store. When they return, participants share what they've learned — using lots of photos — with their colleagues, including store-level associates. This trickle-down of information and enthusiasm is intended to fire up store-level associates to interact more confidently with their customers. It is, in fact, doing just that, officials told SN.
“It's a big investment, but it's worth it. We've done at least 10 of these trips so far, and we'll keep doing them,” said Kevin Srigley, senior vice president, Giant Eagle's Market District stores.
Srigley was quick to point out that keeping customer service levels high is a never-ending endeavor.
“Good customer service is a journey, not a destination. We're making good progress, but we haven't arrived yet.”
Srigley said the trips, called Passion for Food Tours — orchestrated by consultant Howard Solganik and his team at Culinary Resources, Dayton, Ohio — fit perfectly into Giant Eagle's ongoing endeavor to boost customer service levels.
The next tour takes off May 14 and will visit the Seattle area, with stops at artisan shops, manufacturers, seafood companies, growers, retailers and restaurants.
“The immersion in the food world broadens our people's knowledge and perspectives,” Srigley said, adding that he has seen the quality of associates' interaction with customers improve as a result.
That's affirmed by a barrage of positive feedback the chain gets from its customers.
When the Giant Eagle group arrives in Seattle this month, an executive coach will be waiting for them. The bus is big, with tables as well as seating that could accommodate 40. Solganik, however, keeps the number of participants per trip to 25 or fewer.
“I take photos, and we bring them up on our laptops between stops and talk about what we just saw. The idea is to reinforce and maximize what we've learned, and we want to be comfortable.”
GETTING TO KNOW FOOD
First on the Seattle itinerary is the city's renowned Pike Place Market. Next is Pike Brewing Co., where the group, after a tour, will have lunch.
The next few days will include close-up looks at waterfront seafood processors and artisan cheese makers and bread bakers.
“This is no vacation. We're on the go from 7:00 in the morning till sometimes 10:00 at night,” Solganik told SN.
“In Texas, we visited the Nolan Ryan ranch, huge feedlots, and then a relatively small pecan farm. The entrepreneur pecan grower gave us so much information about how he works and about pecans. Who knew, for instance, there are 10 different varieties of pecan?” Solganik said.
“I try to get a couple of really good dining experiences in, too, to introduce folks to things they may not have eaten before. On our Chesapeake tour, many ate oysters or softshell crabs for the first time in their lives.”
One GE division official still talked enthusiastically about his tour with Solganik to south Florida in January.
“I learned more about food sourcing, processing and handling in those five days than I have in the 30 years I've been in the industry,” said Dave Daniel, vice president, operations, of Giant Eagle's 18-unit Columbus, Ohio, division.
“It gave me insight into the whole issue of farm-raised and wild-caught fish, new perspective in dealing with our seafood supplier. I can talk now, too, to our customers better. Those guys [at one of the country's largest suppliers of farm-raised salmon and tilapia] were a wealth of knowledge.”
Daniel said he was impressed by Solganik's ability to cram so much into an itinerary.
“Howard does a great job getting us exposed to food from vine to store. Seeing it, tasting it, smelling it. It's unforgettable.”
In Florida, the group walked out into strawberry fields and grapefruit groves to see the fruit being harvested.
“It becomes very easy to be ‘passionate’ about the foods you work with in-store when you have picked the strawberries and watched the harvested grapefruit being washed, sorted, sized and packed,” said Ralph Stevens, front-end manager at one of Giant Eagle's fresh-format Market District stores. “Now when I see customers considering some of these products, I can offer a firsthand opinion and share my experiences.”
The chain is considering doing some Solganik mini tours of a day or two close by, Srigley said.
“We could get some of our other store-level people on those.”
In the last couple of years, Solganik has exclusively led groups from Giant Eagle's traditional stores and its new Market District stores. But this year he will be taking other retailers on tours as well.
“Ideally, I would like to get participants from two or three retail chains together on a Passion for Food Tour. It would be like a mini share group combined with the regular tour itinerary, because they'd be talking to each other on the bus.”
Such a combo, facilitated by Food Marketing Institute, could be on the near horizon, he said.