Shop till you learn something new at the market

“I’m looking for a new rice, and what the heck to do with it,” a middle-aged customer announces on a Saturday morning at the shiny new Whole Foods Market in Rockville.

This is music to the ears of Michael Kiss. Strategically positioned in the bulk foods section, he is not merely a team member, as company employees are known. He is the in-store cooking coach, a pioneer in Whole Foods’ effort to enhance food shopping with the one-on-one experience of, say, an Apple Genius Bar. Without having to make an appointment.

Kiss, a 35-year-old trained chef, spends five days a week engaging people in conversations about food. He tells them what farro is, how to pick the right dried chili peppers and which meat substitutes work best for stuffed artichokes. He directs them to the row of reference books on his work table: “Veganomicon,” “How to Cook Everything,” “Spice and Herb Bible,” among others. He wears an apron, not a chef’s coat. He listens, nods, answers lots of questions and jots things down for customers on a special prescription pad.

What he doesn’t do is cook for them or spear samples with toothpicks.

Some folks find this confusing. They see a menu of tasty-sounding dishes on a chalkboard overhead, recipe handouts and bowls of dried beans next to the books.

Are you demonstrating something? they ask.

“I’m your cooking coach!” Kiss replies. “I’m ready to talk about food.”

Sometimes, that provides a starting point; other times, Kiss gets a blank stare.

These days, the dialogue about what we should be eating grows louder but not so clear. There are more choices, and caveats, in every corner of the supermarket. We want food that’s healthful, and we’re realizing that preparing it ourselves is key. But that doesn’t mean all of us know where to start.

Lex Alexander figured out long ago that the grocery store is a natural place to educate, as have several major supermarket chains. The challenge these days seems to be finding the right level of engagement. He and his wife built the Chapel Hill, N.C., grocery chain called Wellspring, which they sold to Whole Foods in 1991.

“I saw people come in fairly exhausted [at day’s end], in need of encouragement or enthusiasm to make their evening meal,” he says. “I wondered what would happen if we put a team of people in the stores next to the fresh plants and expanded the selection of dried plants next to that. The team would assist and encourage people to cook with these. That would be a great service.”

Alexander bounced the idea off his pal Molly Stevens, the well-respected food writer and cookbook author. She got it right away — including the part about not hoisting a single pan.

“I do demos all the time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them,” Stevens says. “But they don’t go far enough. The person who is doing the cooking can’t focus one-on-one. Are customers motivated, or are they looking for samples? I’ve watched them try to eat dried pasta.”

She came to Rockville recently to check out how customers were responding just after the store opened in mid-April. Outfitted with a store apron, she had three interactions within 20 minutes that, for her, confirmed the cooking-coach approach.

“One of them was an elderly gentleman who was standing in produce with a questioning look on his face and a bag of fresh spinach in his hand. He told me he was recently widowed.” This is a demographic that really needs help with learning to eat and cook healthfully, Stevens and Alexander say.

“ ‘I want to make a quiche with this,’ the man continued. We had a long conversation about that, about his wife and how he has learned to cook. A little later he came up to me and asked me about the dried [bulk] mushrooms and whether he could make a quiche with them.”

Alexander pitched the idea to Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey in Austin, who found that the concept dovetailed nicely with the company’s Health Starts Here initiative. Last summer, Alexander met with Whole Foods’ regional leaders. Now four stores have cooking coaches (including Charlottesville, which opened this week), along with guidance and recipes from Stevens and online support via in-store iPads from Food 52, the smartly designed, crowd-sourced recipe hub founded by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, and their FoodPickle, a quick question-and-answer service.

Whole Foods looks for coaches with a culinary background, the ability to problem-solve and excellent people skills. The consensus is that Kiss fills the bill. But there is room for flexibility with regard to the one-on-one tactic: The coach at the flagship Austin store teaches twice-a-week classes in bulk basics, for example.

Having a resource available for shoppers is something the Wegmans chain has done since the 1990s, says Jo Natale, the company’s director of media relations.

“We call them meal coaches,” she says. “It began when we found there seemed to be a knowledge gap, particularly in produce and seafood. Customers had a desire to learn more.” The meal coaches do not necessarily come with culinary experience; “we teach them what they need to know,” Natale says.

Cooking is part of the equation. It happens throughout the day in different departments, such as demonstrating how to pan-sear fish or steam clams. Ingredients of the particular dish are situated nearby but not bundled.

The effort is closely associated with Wegmans’ quarterly Menu magazine, for which the company has a culinary team that develops recipes for the public and a team of consulting nutritionists. Natale says the focus is on “cravable” vegetables: recipes that make people want to cook more of them. “All of our employees in the fresh food department are trained so they can talk to customers about cooking techniques,” she says.

About six years ago, the Giant corporate umbrella in the Carlisle, Pa., division made a different commitment to nutrition education. A total of five stores (three in Pennsylvania, one in Richmond, one in Eldersburg, Md.) offer all or a combination of in-house registered dietitians, accommodations for cooking classes and even food summits open to the public on issues such as childhood obesity.

The program doesn’t have a catchy name but is popular nonetheless. “Our nutritionists are almost evangelical about what they do,” says Tracy Pawelski, vice president of external communications for parent company Ahold USA. “They talk an awful lot about how you can make healthy choices, about how you shouldn’t sacrifice your health just because it doesn’t fit your budget.”

It’s impossible to miss the enthusiasm that clinical dietitian Mary Ann Moylan, 57, has for the mission. She’s been at the Giant Super Food store in Willow Grove, Pa., for three years, with all the right initials in her title to indicate her training as a registered nutritionist and certified diabetes instructor.

Moylan spent years working in hospitals and teaching wellness classes. Being able to consult on the preventive side made her jump at the chance to run this type of program.

“The grocery store! Really, this is where we [nutritionists] should be,” she says. Part of her day is spent in private consultations (12 to 15 per week) with customers who include 5-year-olds with their parents, teens, people with an intolerance to gluten or who want to lose weight. A majority of them are senior citizens who are especially “into” health and wellness, Moylan says.

Such appointments can cost $40-plus per hour, but at Giant, the service is essentially free. Customers pay $20 but receive a $20 store gift card. She speaks to school groups that come to the Willow Grove store on field trips as well.

In one-on-one sessions, “we talk about food likes and dislikes, about the times they eat, their medical issues, and get their height and weight. Then I calculate their nutritional needs,” Moylan says. “Together, we come up with a meal plan.

“And right when we’re finished, I say, ‘Let’s go to the floor.’ We go shopping . . . and not just the perimeter of the store.”

Bread and cereal shelves are regular stops, where Moylan and her client will compare nutritional labels and assess amounts of fiber and carbohydrates. “As I’m talking to my customer, five or six others will gather around, which is great.”

That kind of small flash mob is what happens to the charismatic Kiss all day. He may have as many as 50 interactions, ranging from a simple answer about how to cook beans that ends with his offering a helpful Whole Foods pamphlet on the subject, to a 15-minute troubleshooting session on lamb curry.

Customer reaction has been positive overall, says the chef, his blue eyes twinkling. Although Kiss’s formal training may come up in conversation, he has left “chef” off his name tag to eliminate the intimidation factor.

“I go to Michael for everything,” says repeat customer Rockville resident Netherland Washington, who’s a good example of the ongoing connections with customers that Kiss is after. “I’ve been a vegetarian for 10 months, and he has told me how to prepare things I had no idea about.”

There is no official way to gauge his impact, but anecdotally, he says, sales of bulk foods increase significantly when he’s around. And the demographic of this suburban store is more varied than he expected it to be.

“This has gotten me really excited about cooking again,” Kiss says, upbeat at the end of the day. After a shift, he will often go home with something new to try. His own recipes are incorporated in the Whole Foods database online as well, and he posts them on his weekly store blog.

“I think this is something that’s going to change Whole Foods,” he says. “When you shop here, my goal is to make ‘What’s for dinner?’ no longer the hardest question you ask yourself that day.”

RECIPES

Vegan Empanadas

Stewed Okra

Tomato Pie

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew . . . . Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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