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.”