EXCLUSIVE: The White-Tablecloth Effect at Grocery

How executive chefs are elevating cuisine for food retailers
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
Lynn Petrak profile picture
Dom's prepared
Chefs at Dom's Kitchen + Market in Chicago use ingredients from the market to make a variety of prepared foods.

Those who work in the grocery business wear many hats including toque hats. Although retailers have long brought on culinary professionals to elevate their foodservice offerings, high-caliber chefs are trading in their restaurant kitchens for grocery kitchens.

Chef James Klewin, for example, didn’t expect that kind of career turn but ultimately relished the opportunity to work for Dom's Kitchen + Market in Chicago. “For me, it was a departure from what I’ve done previously. I come from the world of fine dining,” he told Progressive Grocer in a recent interview. “It was a change but I am very happy where I landed. We have a chance to create something that hasn’t been out there before – we are bridging the gap between restaurant dining and what you think of as traditional retail.”

[Read more: “Grocers Are Raising the Bar on Takeout Packaging”]

The business model at Dom’s Kitchen + Market, which bills itself as a food emporium, gives Klewin the freedom to use his chef skills in many ways, from working with restaurant partners to carry their ingredients and dishes at the Dom’s case to creating the grocer’s signature prepared foods from its “Kitchen” department. The menu includes twists on favorites and inventive offerings alike, such as a signature porchetta, a yuzu salmon bowl and ratatouille, among dozens of other entrees, sides, salads and sandwiches. The store in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood also features a Chef’s Table area, where Klewin and the other culinary team members create unique seasonal offerings and share their expertise in demos and short classes.

The fact that the kitchen is set within a grocery store gives Klewin plenty of inspiration and ingredients. “It’s like being a kid in a candy shop for me. Usually as a chef, you have to call someone to get product in. But here, if there is something I don’t have in the kitchen, we can go find it in our market. We don’t use what we don’t sell in the store,” he notes.

Getting out into the market goes beyond practical sourcing for recipes, to the benefit of both shoppers and Dom’s. “It’s a great time to have conversations with some of the different guests we have. Coming from hospitality, I believe that we don’t have customers – we have guests. And part of the experience is getting to talk to them,” he says. “Sometimes you find yourself walking around the store with people, giving them idea on what to make for dinner.”

Michigan-based Meijer is another retailer that has recruited and retained more culinary pros, who not only enhance prepared foods but help differentiate the retailer’s private label offerings, including its premium Frederik’s by Meijer collection. “The role of our chefs at Meijer has expanded in recent years to become an integral part of our research and development team, constantly working on product innovation for our Meijer brands,” reports Brian Williams, Meijer’s product development manager. “We work closely with our dietitians and spend a lot of time in our Innovation Kitchen to test and perfect recipes and ensure we’re providing customers the highest quality products.”

Recently, the retailer’s chefs got to display their culinary finesse during the Meijer LPGA Classic golf tournament near the company's Grand Rapids headquarters. “Our team of chefs has the hands-on role of developing new products and flavors at Meijer, as well as creating guest experiences at events like Frederik’s at the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give. We created a menu for Frederik’s based on our Frederik’s line of premium and innovative food, to inspire home cooks with ideas to prepare these items for their own gatherings,” Williams explains. The Frederik’s menu changed daily during the event.

Many grocers around the United States are likewise tapping chefs to work their magic in the kitchen. Trained culinary professionals lend their skills to independents, co-ops, regional operations and major national chains in a bid to give shoppers more choices and a convenient, valuable and enjoyable shopping experience.

“When I was a young chef, never in a thousand years would I have seen myself going to work at a grocery store, but it’s a different world now and this has been a great experience. It’s also more than what we do with food – it’s the people we work with and being able to share the passion for food,” Klewin declares.

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