Grocery Store Chefs
Despite competition from the restaurant industry, especially the booming fast-casual segment, and the popular meal kit phenomenon, grocery retailers have found a way to keep up with the competition: prepared foods. Claimed by some to be the fastest growing foodservice industry segment, supermarket prepared foods require more than the bare-bones deli staff of the past. More grocery stores are employing in-store and corporate chefs to make sure their offerings are up to par with the restaurant scene, which means restaurants are competing with grocery stores for customers and for talent.
The Temptation of Time
Being a restaurant chef is not an easy job – the kitchens are hot, fast-paced, and stressful, and the hours are long. Considering the demanding environments restaurant chefs must endure, it’s really no surprise that many would jump at the opportunity to cook in a more slow-paced environment.
As the prepared foods segment continues to grow, many chefs are finding that opportunity in grocery stores. James Montejano, a well-known chef in San Diego, made the move from Michelin-starred kitchens to Cardiff Seaside Market, where he oversees the store’s prepared foods program, as well as its culinary event space. In an interview with Eater, Montejano said he made the move because he values the quality of life and time with his family the new job affords.
Whole Foods has also been growing its culinary department, recruiting executive chefs from Washington, D.C.,-area restaurants. Colleen Conrad, one of the chain’s recently hired chefs, also cited the long hours of a commercial kitchen as an impetus for her change.
“It’s a really unsustainable lifestyle,” Conrad said in an interview. “If you want to continue to have family and friends that aren’t only in that industry, then you can’t do it when you’re working 14 hours a day, six days a week.”
Adding a chef to a supermarket’s payroll may sound like a costly investment, making the decision a difficult one for many operators. However, the growing popularity of prepared foods and success of chains that have expanded their prepared foods can be powerful motivators.
One example of this success is Wegmans, a grocery store chain based in New England. Its stores have had a variety of in-store dining options available since the late 1980s, helping the store cultivate fanatical fans who call themselves “Wegmaniacs.” Wegmans offers a variety of foods to fit any budget, prepared in-house, and served at buffets and serving stations around the store. Some locations even go so far as to offer live music.
While Wegmans jumped in on the prepared foods trend early in its rise, it’s not too late for other stores to follow suit. Even with annual sales of $29 billion, prepared meals in grocery stores are thought to have plenty of growing left to do, with a focus on upcoming generations that are gaining more spending money as they age. Many grocery stores are targeting amateur cooks who use prepared foods to supplement their own cooking for hybrid semi-homemade meals.
Hiring a chef is a great way to help a grocery store build trust in its culinary offerings, and also provides a great outreach opportunity with cooking demos and classes. Another addition some stores have made in recent years is dietitians, who are available to help counsel in-store chefs and customers about making good nutritional choices.