Personal Chefs

Mark your calendar for a break out time: I pick March 18, 2001, the day The Food Network will be doing a special on personal chefs. USA Today just ran a cover story on the topic; all over the country, they are the rage. A movement that has been building for years is about to break out bold. How many supermarkets are ready to rumble?

Supermarket executives have gotten used to the fact that “share of stomach” has been lost to restaurants and take-out. The litany of problems is well known: as women have entered the paid labor force, their cooking skills have atrophied and families have become time-starved. Families today have neither the inclination nor the ability to spend time cooking.

Supermarkets have fought back with HMR programs, but always with something of the sense that they were fighting a losing battle. Well, now comes news that all across America, the hottest trend in dining is that people are going to eat…at home – but they still don’t want to cook and they don’t even want to take out.

No, the trend of the day is the personal chef.

These chefs are often well-trained at culinary schools but burnt out of the restaurant scene where they must give up their weekend evenings and are often treated like serfs by the head chef.

Private chefs are nothing new. Wealthy families have always had full-time cooks, but today’s personal chefs are independent businesspeople who may have a clientele of 20 or 30 families – sometimes even more.

What usually happens is the chef meets with the family to discuss preferences. The chef then will shop for ingredients and, at your options, prepare the food in your kitchen or his own in varied menus of roughly two weeks each. The prices vary with location and what you order, but here in Boca Raton, you can get 20 dinners for $300 (plus a small premium if you want kosher meat or other expensive items).

Now it is not quite a complete meal. You have to make or buy your salad fresh. You still need beverages. Depending on your order, your meal may or may not include soups, appetizers, rolls, desserts, etc.

Still, at $15 a plate, even just for the entrée, starch, and vegetable, the meal is likely to be no more expensive than eating out. And there are considerable advantages: Though eating out is often a time-saver compared to cooking, it can take a lot of time to eat out. Consider all the time spent waiting for tables, waiting for waiters, waiting for the food, waiting for the check. If people have fled cooking because they wanted to save time, they may flee restaurants to eat the meals that their personal chefs have prepared for the same reason.

Restaurant food is often not healthy. The portions are too large, the sauces are too rich, and items are prepared in fattening oils and whatnot. True, one could ask for the fish prepared dry, or to have one’s steak cut down to four ounces. But most people don’t. The fried chicken on the next patron’s plate looks so good.

With a personal chef, you avoid all these excuses and temptations. You sit down to prepare a lifestyle with your chef and do it without the distraction of aromas and sizzling plates. Here you can order the kind of food you really want to eat.

Eating at home can also be more comfortable than eating out. Dress as you choose – or dress not at all. Sit in the dining room, or on the couch. Listen to the music of your choice on your stereo or dine in total silence. Restaurants impose an atmosphere; a home can be an atmosphere you create.

Now, restaurants aren’t going out of business anytime soon – they provide entertainment value that home dining won’t easily match. And some foods simply don’t taste good if they are prepared in advance – even by a chef.

Still, all across America, culinary schools are churning out chefs, and as the personal-chef market grows there are two very good possibilities for supermarkets: First, supermarkets will take away restaurant meals as people prefer more meals at home that are prepared from scratch. Second, the personal chef will be open to buying more unusual items than consumers would buy themselves,

Together this means more sales of ingredients and more sales of higher profit items.

Now the question is whether supermarkets are smart enough to ride this wave.

If left to its own, the personal chef movement will probably drift away from supermarkets. The chefs will want to claim they scour green markets and local butchers for the very best.

But just as health clubs have seized on offering personal training as a great way to get additional club members, so can supermarkets offer personal chef services.

Lots of stores have tried in-store chefs. Though getting chefs is easy – no Saturday nights and you can become a star-making it work has been a struggle. That is because most in-store chefs have tried to dictate to consumers what they should buy – Friday is Shrimp Scampi – take it or leave it – and most people left it.

But just as Macy’s has a personal shopper who will select your ensembles, every supermarket deli department should look at putting a personal chef or chefs on staff.

It can be a double-barreled boost to store sales and profits: First, the division can make money on its own; second, the division would be an enormous customer for the store itself.

There are about a hundred reasons why this won’t work – from lack of cooking facilities to insurance problems, to union problems. But some stores will make it work, and they will prosper.