ST. LOUIS — Schnuck Markets had its seafood managers steaming and poaching fish at an all-day seafood school earlier this month.
Like many other retailers, Schnucks has recognized a strong, positive correlation between a knowledgeable front-line team and keeping customers coming back. Its seafood school is just one way the company immerses its managers and associates in product knowledge to help them deal more effectively with their customers.
An annual event at Schnucks, the seafood school focused attention this year on cooking methods, and it was the first time the chain had arranged for actual hands-on cooking instruction rather than instruction by demo, Pam Malone, Schnucks' seafood category manager, told SN.
“One way to keep customer service at a high level is to provide education for managers and associates so they can share what they've learned with their customers,” Malone said.
“I know we're getting into the middle of grilling season, but people are interested in cooking their favorite fish in different ways. So we chose poaching and steaming.”
Poaching and steaming are not necessarily top of mind when a customer has a fish fillet in hand. He's more apt to think about grilling or frying.
“We chose to use these methods [poaching and steaming] because they're not so commonly used,” Malone said, adding that it gives the associate something new to talk to customers about. “Steaming can make a one-pot meal. You can put cut-up vegetables in with the fish and in the end you have a healthy, complete meal. A colorful one.”
The healthful aspects of the methods were particularly emphasized in the cooking class. While other retailers regularly conduct product knowledge meetings locally or regionally, Schnucks chooses to do the seafood school just one day, inviting all its seafood managers, and their assistants and store managers too. The company rents a facility in a St. Louis suburb that lends itself to classroom instruction and demos.
Even though the chain has 101 stores in seven states, it has a definite advantage in terms of density. In fact, they're all within a six-hour drive from St. Louis, Malone pointed out. So it's not too cumbersome to get personnel from all stores together on one day. Many members of top management attend the annual educational event as well.
At a morning kick-off session, Ed Meyer, vice president of meat and seafood, addressed the group as a whole. Then school attendees spent the rest of the day in individual classrooms.
The school's agenda was structured to cover six different subjects. Class attendees, in teams of about 30, were rotated into a different class every 55 minutes. This year's roster included classes on cooking, information on crabs, shrimp, sushi, new products and the latest trends in seafood. Several vendors participated in the instruction and also helped with setting up and cleaning up, Malone said.
National Seafood Educators' Evie Hansen conducted the cooking classes, which featured individual cooking stations that were equipped with an electric skillet, steaming equipment, measuring cups and spoons, salmon and tilapia fillets, and other ingredients.
There's a reason most consumers, when they eat seafood, eat it at a restaurant or other food-service outlet, industry sources have told SN. It's that they're often hesitant about cooking seafood because they're less familiar with it than they are with other proteins.
Hansen, president of the Richmond Beach, Wash.-based NSE, said showing seafood department staffers how to cook fish and other seafood is the most important thing a retailer can do to improve customer service and sales.
“It's so important to get them [associates] confident enough to tell their customers how to do it, and to give them suggestions.”
Schnucks officials said class attendees were very enthusiastic about the cooking segment of the day-long educational agenda.
“We'll definitely include a hands-on cooking class again next year. Everybody loved it,” Malone said.
Hansen, too, said participants were eager to try their hand at poaching and steaming.
“We used recipes from my book, but I emphasized that a recipe was not really needed, that my aim was to show them the broad steps” involved in the two cooking methods.
Hansen, who has written a series of seafood cookbooks, has just published her latest, which is entitled “Seafood Omega-3s for Healthy Living.”
Schnucks sells Hansen's cookbooks in all of its seafood departments.