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Case Study: Turn to the pros

Chef recommendations bring sales to specialty seafood retailers

Rex's Seafood in North Dallas relies on Chef Jeff
    Rockow to educate customers. - Photo courtesy of Rex's Seafood Market
By Lisa Duchene
November 01, 2007

If you want to sell more seafood, put a chef behind the counter. When Rex Bellomy, owner of Rex's Seafood Market in North Dallas, opened his shop in early 2006, he hired Jeff Rockow as executive chef and fishmonger. Nearly two years later, the shop is thriving. New customers are popping in and trying the fish on the recommendation of local chefs and the cooking school at Sur La Table, an upscale kitchenware retailer.

And when they do, Rockow is ready with more tips and seafood know-how to make sure they'll return.

Rex's product selection and customer service are all reasons chefs at Sur La Table's cooking school recommend the shop to about 100 cooking-class students each week, says Olivia Torres, the store's manager. Rockow has taught a sushi class at the store since summer 2006. He teaches seafood cooking classes at Rex's and at the Viking Culinary Arts Center in Dallas.

"There is strong demand in Dallas for seafood education," says Rockow. "Having somebody who's knowledgeable about how to prepare fish and be able to convey that to a customer who comes in and make them be successful helps us with our business," he says. "Especially when they're paying $20 per pound for fish. They don't want to mess it up."

Smart seafood retailers know a chef's recommendation carries a lot of weight with consumers, especially the foodies who cook for pleasure and will spend the extra bucks on a somewhat pricey protein like seafood.

"Having food professionals endorse where they buy their fish or the types of fish you carry can be nothing but a positive influence on seafood," says Howard Solganik, a supermarket fresh-foods consultant and head of Culinary Resources in Dayton, Ohio.

A chef's help in selling seafood - whether it be a chef recommendation from a cooking school, a chef on staff or a guest chef demonstrating seafood cookery in the store - conveys credibility to consumers. But to earn that recommendation, a seafood department must be pristinely clean, offer a variety of quality products and solid customer service, and have the know-how to answer customers' seafood questions. That takes a significant investment and a specialty-retail mentality, Solganik warns.

"How do you get the consumer to see you as that food authority? What does it take? It's not just low prices, it takes a combination of ingredients to become a food authority," he says. "One of the ingredients is working with chefs, teaching about food, having knowledgeable people in the departments and having good information in the stores."

In addition to having a chef-spokesman like Rockow reaching out to foodies, specialty retailers partner with chefs by sponsoring cooking schools or offering a discount to cooking school students. Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co. in Villa Park, Ill., for example, gives a 10 percent retail discount to members of Cooking with the Best Chefs, a Chicago club of 1,500 food enthusiasts that holds cooking classes and organizes restaurant tours and special gourmet events.

Such relationships pay off. About 5 percent of sales at the Atlanta Fish Market, a retail fishmonger and restaurant, come from the recommendation of the cooking school at the Viking Store, estimates Ian Bailey, manager of the Atlanta Fish Market retail store. That perk began with proximity. The Atlanta Fish Market is a few miles from the Viking store and the chefs there started shopping the market for their classes, says Bailey.

Peter Rubin, director of Viking's cooking school, considers the shop to be the finest in Atlanta that sells to the public because of its quality, cleanliness and knowledgeable staff. He also recommends Whole Foods, which helps sponsor the cooking school. Between its classes on sustainable seafood and fish mastery, both for beginners and advanced cooks, and the seafood recipes it demonstrates in other classes, Viking teaches consumers about seafood at least every other day and sometimes daily, says Rubin.

Seafood specialty shops aren't the only retailers using chefs to reach new customers. According to the Food Marketing Institute's Speaks 2007 report, shoppers who enjoy meal preparation are "dream shoppers" for retailers. "They cook more, shop more and spend more, especially at their primary store," says the report.
One-third of grocery stores offers cooking classes and about 40 percent set aside space for cooking demos. These services, says FMI, may help retailers increase the number of customers who enjoy shopping for 
and preparing home-cooked meals, "creating a loyal, high-spending following."

King's Supermarkets in New Jersey, Wegmans in the Northeast, Ukrops in the Southeast, Andronico's in California and Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, all have great reputations for effectively using chefs and cooking classes to build excitement and credibility. Giant Foods' new Market District stores also have chefs on staff and host celebrity chefs.

"There are definitely chains around that have built [the chef component] into how to create differentiation," says Steve Lutz, executive VP of the Perishables Group in Chicago. But getting chefs on board doesn't make sense for every retailer, says Lutz.

"Retailers basically are structuring products and merchandising around what's of value to their customers," says Lutz. "If the customer base is focused on price and price is the 
most important thing, the retailer does everything possible to deliver price to consumers, which means cutting out those extra services."

The flip side is true as well, adds Lutz. If the customer base seeks new flavors and products and price is secondary, delivering value means introducing new flavors and new ingredients. And food pros like chefs are often in the best position to dazzle consumers with flavor, ingredients and know-how.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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