Sara Hayes is an executive who doesn't have a lot of time to cook, but wants the meals she does prepare to be special. That is just the attitude Procter & Gamble Co. is counting on with a new venture.
The maker of Pringles potato chips and Jif peanut butter is testing a combination gourmet cooking school and kitchen products boutique. That's quite a departure for Procter & Gamble, a consumer products manufacturer for 163 years.
"Our research showed that a major reason many people don't cook is not that they don't want to, but that they often lack the knowledge and basic skills," said spokeswoman Shanae Gibbs. "Culinary Sol gives them the opportunity to improve their cooking skills with the help of fine products and it gives us the opportunity to create awareness of a brand name while gaining insight into what consumers want."
Hayes, 28, enrolled in classes at P&G;'s new Culinary Sol after it opened in January at Rookwood Commons, an upscale shopping center in suburban Norwood.
"I like the creativity of cooking, and I want to learn how to make the best meals I can even if it's only once a week," she said. "The classes are designed so well that you really learn a lot."
P&G; officials declined to give enrollment numbers, but they say they have received good response.
The store has a Tuscan architectural style with warm, earth tones and furnishings in wood, stainless steel and copper. Sol, the Spanish word for sun, coincides with the Mediterranean motif and reflects the use of sunflower oil in many of the products.
The Culinary Sol product line includes spices, oils, flavor-adding elixirs, vinegars and seasoning rubs made of ingredients imported from around the world. Prices vary from $2 to $8 for the spices to around $5 for elixirs and rubs and $12 for a specialty olive oil, said retail director Lisa Austin.
Culinary Sol also features a demonstration kitchen surrounded by an amphitheater that seats up to 50 people and video monitors that allow close-up views of instructors' actions. A hands-on learning kitchen provides a small dining area and state-of-the-art cooking stations for up to 24 amateur chefs who often find themselves being watched intently through the large front window by curious passers-by.
"We draw crowds especially on nights when we offer our 'Let's Dance' series," said Amy Tobin, culinary director for the new enterprise.
Tobin said the dance series has paired New York-style cuisine with swing dancing, a Latin menu with salsa dancing and Texas-style barbecue with line dancing.
"The line dancing drew one of the biggest crowds," she said with a grin. "People were lined up on the sidewalk outside watching and some even danced along with us."
Some of the other classes focus on basic skills, exotic cuisine, at-home entertainment and food presentation. The "Sol Mates" classes provide an opportunity for couples, friends and family members to cook together. Corporations and other groups also can reserve Culinary Sol for private events such as cooking parties and team-building sessions.
Class prices range from $17.50 for a lunchtime mini-lesson to $115 for an advanced five-hour "chef de cuisine" course on how to prepare sushi.
P&G; officials won't say whether they are planning to establish other Culinary Sol stores or introduce the product line in grocery stores.
"Right now, we are focusing only on this location," said Gibbs. "It is a wonderful testing ground for our products, and it provides immediate consumer feedback."
Marketing analyst Gary Stibel, founder of the Westport-Conn.-based New England Consulting Group, doesn't expect to see Culinary Sol stores popping up around the country.
"This is a learning laboratory for P&G;," he said. "It allows the company to get close to consumers and learn what they like about cooking, how they behave and what they want," he said.
Douglas Christopher, who follows P&G; for Los Angeles-based Crowell, Weedon and Co., said Culinary Sol is a low-cost way for P&G; to experiment with a new product line and to strengthen its service connection with customers.
"Great service has more longevity potential than a leading brand," said Christopher. "If a company can really connect with customers on the service side, that can help grow all of its brands."
The analysts say P&G;, which is still trying to rebound from disappointing earnings last year, seems to be concentrating more on improving its service relationship with consumers and finding alternative and less expensive marketing techniques.
While some might question the wisdom of starting a cooking school at a time when consumers seem to be dining out more than ever, those in the food industry have an explanation.
"When people do eat at home these days, it's usually more for entertainment or relaxation, and they are looking for better foods and more innovative ways to prepare it," said Ron Tanner, a spokesman for the New York-based National Association for the Specialty Food Trade that represents 2,200 gourmet food manufacturers, retailers and importers.
Laird Livingston, education director for the St. Augustine, Fla.-based American Culinary Federation Inc., says there is no doubt that cooking classes are increasing in popularity.
"So much of our social life today centers around food, that many people are wanting to learn how to entertain more successfully in their own homes and improving their cooking skills is one way to do that," said Livingston.