- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Chris O’Brien draws on his 25 years of restaurant experience to dish out culinary tips every day to inquisitive home cooks.

That people would seek his expertise on cuisine is not surprising, but where he dispenses his advice is.

Two months ago, O’Brien took a job with supermarket chain Giant Eagle. He is an executive chef for its Market District store in Robinson.

“It’s surprising how much people say, ‘What’s good today?’ ” said O’Brien, whose experience includes 14 as executive chef of the Hyeholde Restaurant, a fine dining establishment in Moon. “They’re asking a chef, so I say everything’s good.”

A supermarket may seem an unlikely career choice for a skilled culinary professional. Yet O’Brien is not alone. Grocers are recruiting talent from culinary institutes, four-star hotels and restaurants to distinguish themselves amid fierce competition.

The $574.1 billion grocery business is growing at an annual rate of 1.5 percent, according to IBIS World, but profits are getting smaller.

Stiffening competition from warehouse clubs and supercenters, such as Costco and Wal-Mart, are forcing prices lower. It has led to consolidation - the number of grocers has fallen 3 percent since 2005 - and squeezed margins. Industry profitability is expected to be 1.6 percent this year, down from 1.7 percent five years ago, according to IBIS World.

Supermarket chains such as Giant Eagle and Wegmans are looking to distinguish their stores as places not to just buy and consume food, but where customers can immerse themselves in “foodie” culture - and spend more for the opportunity.

“The hope is that, rather than getting the customer who spends $1,800 a year in a supermarket… they’re hoping to get the customer that spends $10,000, because it is a destination attraction,” said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a New York retail consulting firm.

A recent survey by retail consultant LoyaltyOne found that 69 percent of consumers said an expert session with a chef or nutritionist would motivate them to shop more with a grocer.

Giant Eagle has recruited food experts for its Market District stores, a relatively new but growing store model based on making high-end taste accessible. They are stores where customers can eat a meal at an in-store cafe; buy hot prepared dinners of baked cod or Pan Asian dishes with Jasmine rice and Naan; see cooking demonstrations; and drink a craft beer in the bar, but also buy staples like laundry detergent and milk.

There are five Market District stores in the Pittsburgh area, and another scheduled to open in Fox Chapel next year.

Giant Eagle is following in the footsteps of Wegmans in trying to strike a balance of being a store where customers can do their weekly shopping and go to learn about food, Flickinger said. These extras not only give shoppers a reason to spend money, but serve as a recruiting tool.

“It’s very difficult from a recruiting perspective because a lot of culinary schools don’t think of grocery stores,” said Glenda Pavelski, human resources coordinator for Wegmans in Pennsylvania. “Having the pub in our stores has been a good gateway for us because that’s something that culinary students are familiar with.”

In hiring staff, grocers are looking for people with culinary skills and a passion for talking about food. At a Giant Eagle job fair in Monroeville recently, banners around the convention center floor advertised “Find Your Foodie Career” and “#Foodie jobs.”

Other retailers have tried to distinguish themselves with in-store expertise, but it doesn’t always translate to higher sales. Dick’s Sporting Goods hired PGA golf professionals to work in its stores, only to lay off nearly 500 of them this summer amid dismal golf equipment sales.

Unlike golf, food shopping is part of consumers’ weekly routine and less discretionary, and extras such as the opportunity to talk with a chef or sample new foods offer a luxury that still seems affordable, Flickinger said. Being able to speak with a culinary professional in the store sends a message that “we can do it all for you,” not just sell the ingredients, but help customers plan a meal, said Cathy Polley, head of health and wellness at the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group.

Supermarkets are attracting chefs who have worked at four-star hotels, Polley said. But it’s not enough to have cooking expertise. They need to have a bent for sales, which can be difficult to come by in corners of the culinary world.

“We are very interactive here, and customer service is key,” said Ben D’Amico, product development chef for Market District. “It’s a stereotype, but behind the scenes of a restaurant, you don’t have to have somebody who’s very nice.”

O’Brien said he still is adjusting to the customer-service part of the job. He spends most of his time developing recipes, working with the catering department and guiding other chefs. He’s also out on the floor two hours a day.

“A lot of chefs with my background, the fine dining, are comfortable in the kitchen and not comfortable interacting with customers,” he said. “I’m a person who enjoys staying in the back of the house more than front and center.”

Not that he minds talking with customers. He explains dishes, how to prepare them and helps people feel comfortable with items they might not have tried.

Chefs aren’t there to “upsell” or “push more volume,” D’Amico said. Chefs working in the demonstration kitchen are there solely to educate, he said.

“We’re not trying to push extra product on you,” he said.

Still, an endorsement from an executive chef holds plenty of sway over shopping decisions.

Recently, a Market District shopper asked O’Brien about the tilapia in the hot prepared foods section. O’Brien said the fish was good, prepared with a Romano cheese crust.

“He said, ‘Great,’ ” O’Brien said. ” ‘I’ll take four of them for dinner tonight.’ “

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1rz6ekt

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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