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Demand for Supermarket Chefs is Cooking

People love good food. Yet busy schedules leave little time to cook up delicious, healthy meals. But now people can have their cake and eat it, too. Chefs are popping up in supermarkets everywhere, dishing out take-home gourmet meals for the discriminating food lover.

"Food is very 'in' right now," says Jessica Hersh. She is a private chef and caterer. "And people love to see a chef in a white coat.

"An in-house chef can offer a supermarket a little more cachet than simply having meals ready to go. There are some stores that are moving toward cooking lessons held in the store during busy hours so customers can learn a little food lore while shopping."

This trend toward tastier, more convenient food is creating new employment opportunities for chefs. For the most part, the supermarket has been undiscovered territory. But years ago, a few pioneering stores decided try out some pilot programs. And the results were very promising.

Laird Livingston is the director of education for the American Culinary Federation (ACF). Years ago, he was a consultant for one of the oldest supermarket chains in America. There, he witnessed the in-store chef program.

"The programs were developed to help market and sell meat, seafood and produce," says Livingston. "The chefs would develop recipes utilizing certain products, which would be advertised on sale. The programs became so successful that some stores actually set up restaurants and catering facilities.

"With two family incomes, the busy life schedules of working parents and the emergence of fast food restaurants, the popularity of microwaves and takeout food helped the sale of in-store signature dishes prepared by the chefs," says Livingston.

These programs became so successful that grocery companies began hiring corporate chefs and consultants to develop these marketing programs regionally. They even hired celebrity chefs to implement signature dishes.

Walter Neuhold is the founder of the Professional Chefs Association. He acknowledges that as far as supermarkets are concerned, the point is to get a larger piece of the takeout market.

"Some stores offer high-quality meals prepared by known guest chefs, consulting chefs and also some food sections employ [chefs]," Neuhold adds.

The success is fueled by consumers who want quality products and are willing to pay the right price as long as they get their money's worth. "The average family eats out four times a week. And the trends for takeout prepared foods are continuing to grow," says Livingston.

"If you travel to Boston, you can see some beautiful stores that only hire chefs and pastry chefs to prepare foods in their bakeries, delis and cafes."

Hersh points out that more busy families understand the importance of eating meals together. "For most of these people, restaurant dining is either cost-prohibitive or just undesirable. So take-away meals from the grocery stores are very important."

Ned Abbott is the human resources coordinator for another supermarket that has experienced significant success with its in-store chefs. "Given the trends in the industry, I feel there will be a spike in demand for trained culinary experts industry wide," he says.

"Given the increase in quality levels demanded by our customers and less disposable free time, high-quality balanced meals are increasingly popular. We find that customers see the value in these offerings. We have had tremendous success with this concept....Currently, we employ 20 chefs," says Abbott.

Don Rooke is a certified chef who frequently did recipe demonstrations in supermarkets. His experience in this industry gave him some insight into the new opportunities for chefs in supermarkets. "It is very wonderful for a customer to come into a grocery store and have a chef there who can demonstrate and explain any product or dish they might use in the future," he says.

"When I demonstrate or show a recipe in a grocery store, everyone stops to see and taste," says Rooke. He adds that people would take the recipe and fill their basket with all the necessary ingredients. They'd even come back to discuss the cooking process.

"Without a proper chef, that couldn't be done," Rooke says.

Many supermarkets prefer restaurant, catering, or hotel experience or a culinary degree. Supervisory experience is especially helpful. That's because supermarket chefs manage staff and deal with hungry people.

Abbott adds that most of the chefs at his stores have culinary training.

"As long as the economy stays as it is, I think all stores will be offering, at the very least, ready-made meals, and more of them will offer custom meals," says Hersh.


Supermarket Chef Showdown
An annual recipe competition for supermarket chefs

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