Food sampling returns to grocery aisle with pandemic protections

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Customers are noshing on free samples in the grocery aisle again — albeit with more pandemic protections than before.

Two weeks ago, grocery chain Stew Leonard’s began handing out bite-sized samples of its homemade cheesecake stuffed into tiny paper cups — but only after building 28 plexiglass booths to keep employees at a safe distance from customers.

Just last week the New York metro area chain added five more food items to its giveaway –watermelons, pineapples, chicken burgers, salad and Stew Leonard-branded chocolate cream pies — all of which are being handed out through a small opening at the bottom of its handcrafted plexiglass booths by masked and gloved employees.

The quirky chain known for its petting zoos and animatronic displays only reintroduced the practice after polling customers via its Facebook page.

Stew Leonard's staffer Devon Wilkins takes a break from handing out pink pineapple samples through a small opening at the bottom of his plexiglass sampling booth in Norwalk, Conn. Ninety-five percent of Stew Leonard's customers polled recently said they want food samples back as vaccinations rise to 63% of the US population.
Stew Leonard’s staffer Devon Wilkins takes a break from handing out pink pineapple samples through a small opening at the bottom of his plexiglass sampling booth in Norwalk, Conn.
Stew Leonard’s

Ninety-five percent of respondents replied “yes” to bringing sampling back, Stew Leonard, owner of the eponymous grocery chain told The Post. “Our customers love the samples and have been asking for them,” Leonard said.

With COVID-19 infections dramatically down and vaccination rates up, little bites of cake, fruit, cheese and meat are making a comeback at food retailers big and small. But even as people are more receptive to eating indoors amongst strangers again, customers are still demanding that their grocery store sampling be done differently than before.

Costco and Sam’s Club have also recently said they will resume their food sample programs this week with new pandemic restrictions. Costco will be handing out samples via plexiglass booths, like Stew Leonard’s, while Sam’s Club said its food demos will only be held on weekends with sealed samples.

Meanwhile, experts say the return to sampling could help boost supermarket sales as skyrocketing food prices threaten to lower consumers’ purchasing power in other sections of the grocery store, like the meat aisle.

“Stores like sampling because it makes people hungry and they buy more as a result,” said retail consultant Burt Flickinger, who says that shoppers who nosh and shop typically add 10 percent more to their bill by purchasing the promoted product. 

Mom-and-pop brands that rely on sampling to get the word out about their new products have also been eager to start passing out little paper cups at supermarkets again.

Salad dressing maker Bold Palate had its first tasting two weeks ago at the Upper West Side Pioneer Market at 289 Columbus Ave., where it nearly ran out of the supply it brought to the store.

“Most customers wanted to try everything, which surprised me,” Kate Mann, chief executive of Bold Palate Foods LLC, told The Post. 

“We launched our product the same week the pandemic was being labeled a pandemic. So at that time, stores weren’t taking new brands like mine,” Mann added.

Stew_Leonard's supermarket in Farmingdale, NY.
Stew Leonard’s is among a growing number of supermarkets handing out samples again as coronavirus restrictions lift.
Edmund J Coppa

Although Mann’s tasting table was not surrounded by plexiglass, she and her staff were wearing face masks and gloves and quickly informed customers who stopped by that she and the staff were “fully vaccinated,” she said.

Mann expects her brick-and-mortar sales to potentially double now that she can give away free tastings of her four varieties of plant-based dressings. And that’s not pie-in-the-sky thinking, experts say.

“A brand can increase its sales at a store by 300 percent in just one day by doing sampling,” Phoodie Marketing chief executive Sam Miller, told The Post. “And if you do it a couple times a month, your sales can be huge.”

Supermarkets abruptly dropped food sampling at the start of the pandemic. Setting up tables that attract small crowds was simply bad business at a time when social distancing and getting in and out of stores quickly was the norm.

Shoppers reach for cheese samples during the grand opening of the new Ralphs at 9th and Flower in downtown Los Angeles Friday July 14, 2007. After decades without a major supermarket, downtown is getting a grocery store. Many downtown boosters view the market's opening as a sign that the area has become a true residential neighborhood.  (Photo by Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Food samples like this went out of style last year but are coming back now — with new COVID restrictions.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

But the CDC’s new guidance about vaccinated people being allowed to ditch their masks in most public settings, has proved a game changer.

“Three weeks ago no one was calling about setting up a demo,” said Brian Lillquist, co-owner of Kinetic Events, which produces food demos for both retailers and brands. “Now the requests have significantly increased mostly for dates later in the summer.”

“We used to do 400 demos a month and this month we’ll do 40 if we’re lucky,” another food demo executive, Rachel Golian-Rafaelov said, but that’s quickly changing, she added.

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