Award-winning grocery chefs share the joys and trials of prepared food

Award-winning grocery chefs share the joys and trials of prepared food

Three winners of FMI’s Supermarket Chefs competition shared their recipes for winning at their jobs every day during a panel discussion Tuesday at FMI Connect in Chicago.

Although their approaches and responsibilities differ, all three cited forging deeper relationships with shoppers as a key source of satisfaction in their jobs, as well as a playing a role in transforming the expectations of their stores by bringing the prepared food trend to life. All three cited the importance of support from co-workers, staff and management. They also shared concerns ranging from the practical to the existential.

“In grocery stores we get a unique opportunity at education. We see our customers a lot and get a chance to have a real relationship with them,” said Rachael Perron of Kowalski’s Market, the 2014 champion in the annual event. “We can learn from them and teach them about about food. Albeit abstractly, I think about our customers as extensions of my family, and I like to think about preparing foods for them that I’d like to prepare for my own children in my own home. For me that’s a very special relationship.”

Keoni Chang of Foodland Super Markets, the 2013 winner, likewise described his job as being a “change agent” for the Hawaii-based chain, helping both shoppers and company management to realize the possibilities inherent in a corporate chef.

That role can be frustrating at times, he confessed, particularly when the opportunity requires a new investment in resources and equipment.

“When you’re a change agent there can be a lot of pushback to what you do,” Chang said. “You’re swimming against the tide. Sometimes getting the internal organization to buy into the change can be frustrating.”

Chang noted he had a powerful champion in Foodland Chairman Janai Wall. “She has a vision and a desire to offer more compelling food in our stores.”

Chang, who could not attend the event due to a store opening in Hawaii, delivered his remarks via prerecorded audio.

“As an in-store chef one of the most difficult parts of my job is walking into the store and making the store believe they need me,” said Elizabeth Davis of Hy-Vee, the winner of last year’s competition. “They’re so used to being a grocery store they don’t know what a chef’s purpose is inside that grocery store … and how they can utilize that chef in their own department to elevate what they’re already doing.”

Asked about her frustrations at the job, Perron discussed overcoming logistical disadvantages of supermarket prepared foods versus competitors in the field like restaurants, particularly when it comes to being sure the food--sometimes but not always meant for immediate consumption--travels well. “I often think of how wonderful it would be to work in a restaurant or a bakery again because you get to serve your customer right away,” she said. “Time and temperature are not your friends in prepared food in a grocery store, That’s one of the most challenging aspects.”

Grocery stores and their prepared food staffs also need to be careful not to “do what’s easy over over what’s right,” Perron added.

“Often times doing what’s easy is less expensive, faster and doesn’t require much thought,” she noted. “Doing what’s right for our customers sometimes takes more time to plan and execute, it may be more expensive, and it may require more explaining of why we’re pursuing a more challenging avenue. I think we can get there at Kowalski’s because we believe people have the capacity to understand what’s right. And making them understand where we’re going with that really helps.”

This piece originally appeared on, a New Hope Network sister website. Visit the site for more grocery trends insights.

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