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Case Study: Turn to the pros
Chef recommendations bring sales to specialty seafood retailers
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
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
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,
"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
preparing home-cooked meals, "creating a loyal, high-spending
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,
"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
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
Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte,