For 26 years PCC Natural Markets has offered shoppers the opportunity to learn about the natural foods sold by the Seattle-based co-op through its PCC Cooks program. From its very low-tech beginnings to its recognition by the International Association of Culinary Professionals as the 2009 Best Avocational Cooking School, PCC Cooks has been a recipe for success that cooperative retailers of any size can adapt to their own markets and operations.
From FoodWorks! to PCC Cooks
“It only takes a passion for good food, a card table, and perhaps a skillet to start a cooking demonstration program—and increase sales,” says Goldie Caughlan, who founded FoodWorks! (as PCC Cooks was originally known) and is now PCC’s nutrition education manager. She began the program in 1983, conducting cooking demonstrations that emphasized bulk food preparation and using whatever space was available on the sales floors and employee break rooms in PCC’s three stores. Gradually the scope of FoodWorks! expanded to include a variety of cooking, nutrition and health classes, and part-time instructors were hired to satisfy the growing consumer demand for convenient, reasonably priced classes.
Marilyn McCormick joined the program in 1994 as an instructor and FoodWorks! administrator, taking over its management in 2001 when Caughlan was appointed to serve on the National Organics Standards Board. In 2004 the program was re-branded as “PCC Cooks” to strengthen its affiliation with PCC and its focus on cooking. Under McCormick’s guidance, PCC Cooks has grown into a half-million-dollar program that offers more than a thousand classes annually in multiple locations, including six state-of-the-art demonstration kitchens operated in PCC’s stores and office.
A staff of four administers the program, which offers day, evening, and weekend classes for ages 2 years and older, plus day camps for kids during school breaks. A trained instructor and two volunteer assistants teach each class. More than 200 PCC Cooks assistants volunteer each year for classes, in return for the opportunity to work side-by-side with the instructors and to earn a $20 PCC gift card. To encourage staff development, PCC employees may take as many courses as they wish at no charge, and they receive a $25 gift card for every three classes they attend.
Class sizes are kept to between 12 and 24 students, depending on whether they are demonstration or hands-on classes. The latter require more space for instructors and students to move around. Most classes are two-and-a-half hours in length and priced at $35 for co-op members and $40 for nonmembers. Fees include all materials and ingredients and are deliberately kept lower than those of area cooking schools. A week’s notice is required for cancellations; students may send substitutes to a class they’ll miss. A minimum of five students is required for a class for financial reasons and to ensure a lively interactive class experience.
Ingredients for success
Several elements need to be in place for a cooking program to be successful, but according to McCormick, “Perhaps the most important things to remember in managing a cooking education program is to keep the classes fresh—reflecting current culinary trends and the local and seasonal food in your stores—and to keep your audiences in mind.” Some students want to be entertained and don’t enjoy a hands-on experience of chopping vegetables; others can’t wait to get a knife in their hands. Both kinds of class experience should be offered.
PCC Cooks’ most popular classes have been the global gourmet series (cooking from around the world, with many instructors offering dishes from their homeland), classes taught by local and nationally recognized guest chefs, and elegant wine-pairing dinners. Classes and camps for kids that provide hands-on instruction in basic cooking terms, techniques, and safety rules have also been popular. Offered to children 2–15 years in age, they introduce students to a variety of cuisines and may even include trips to local farms. Alicia Guy, program assistant and instructor, notes, “There’s enormous satisfaction in helping kids to understand that their food doesn’t originate at the grocery store and that they can help in the kitchen at any age.”
Giving instructors the support and the training they need to be successful is essential and is a large part of McCormick’s job as PCC Cooks manager. Instructors do not need professional credentials but do need to be passionate about their topic; familiar with PCC, its products and values; and open to further training. Instructor compensation for each class varies but includes their development of the class concept and recipes, and time for preparation, instruction, and cleanup. All class recipes must use ingredients available at and purchased from PCC.
A well-written and produced class catalog is also very important. Copy for the PCC Cooks catalog, produced three times a year by PCC’s in-house graphics department and mailed to all PCC members, is the responsibility of Jackie DeCicco, PCC Cooks writer. Among the hundreds of classes she helps to develop and then promote through her class descriptions, “some have really bombed,” says DeCicco. No one signed up for the “Cooking for One” class, and she’s learned that when a “date night” class is offered it must be made clear that it’s the class menu that is suitable for dates; a date is not required to take the class.
Just as important are a website for current class information and online registration capability. Both are invaluable for administering a successful program and providing good customer service, especially the ability to sign up for classes online. Rachel Welker, PCC Cooks’ program specialist who handles class registration, remembers, “We used to input all orders by hand, with nearly everyone registering by phone. That was incredibly hectic, especially when a new schedule was released.”
The business case for PCC Cooks
From a business perspective, PCC Cooks has proven to be an effective marketing tool, offering consumer education and encouraging patronage of PCC’s nine stores. “We don’t scrutinize the program with a particular return on our investment in mind,” says PCC’s Chief Financial Officer, Randy Lee. “Even when times were tight, we never considered discontinuing it.”
Taking a long-term view, PCC has allocated resources as needed to make PCC Cooks sustainable both economically and environmentally—through the addition of staff as the program grows, providing information technology support, and the construction or retrofit of PCC’s classroom kitchens. In 1996, PCC’s Director of Store Development, Lori Ross, began experimenting with eco-friendly finishes and materials in the classroom of PCC’s new Greenlake store. Low-VOC paints and finishes, recycled fiber tabletops, wallboard and stainless steel countertops were used and are standard features now. Today, the classrooms in PCC’s West Seattle, Redmond, Issaquah, and Edmonds stores and business office have similar environmentally sensitive features to ensure that where students learn is as healthful as what they learn—and eat.