business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

I walked past the in-store bakery of a local upscale retailer the other day when it struck me – I might as well have been standing in the frozen food aisle or meat department - or in a drug store. There was not even a whiff of fresh-baked bread or a wafting scent of warm chocolate chip cookies.

By contrast, the next night I arrived at a preview of the new Broadway musical “Waitress” and was immediately enveloped by the unmistakable scent of fresh-baked apple pie. I could even purchase a delectable mini-pie before taking my seat.

For almost 15 years on MNB, we’ve lamented the sterility of many modern supermarkets, which have been so focused on efficiency that they've lacked the sights, smells and tastes of food that would engage the customer and enhance the shopping experience.

Retailers should take a page from the “Waitress” Playbill. The cinnamon-laced pies are baked in a lobby convection oven 20 minutes before the doors to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre open and sets the stage for the show, which is based on the 2007 indie movie Waitress. Before the central character, Jenna, sings the opening words - “Sugar. Butter. Flour” - you know this is about pie.

Jenna is a warm-hearted waitress and signature pie maker at a small town Southern diner who bakes to escape her abusive lout of a husband.
To keep it real, the producers hired New York bakery owner Stacy Donnelly as the official “pie consultant” back in 2014. Stacy worked with the all-female creative team and baked thousands of pies throughout the two-year road to Broadway. She also taught the show’s luminous star, Jessie Mueller, how to expertly roll out pie dough while singing the music and lyrics by pop sensation Sara Bareilles.

Now that the show has officially opened, Stacy bakes some 40 pies a week – 27 custom flavors that sit in cases on the set of Joe’s Pie Diner and five that are served to actors on stage. The former dancer turned Manhattan merchant is also responsible for the 1,200 to 1,600 personal size Mason jar pies sold in the lobby each week.

Trust me, with what Stacy calls the “smell of grandma’s kitchen” permeating the lobby, audience members were lustily scooping up the mini pies. This led me to think about how retailers consistently miss the opportunity to appeal to the consumer’s sense of smell.

Retail studies confirm what stores such as Costco, Stew Leonard’s, Trader Joes, Dorothy Lane Markets and Bristol Farms know through experience – in-store food sampling and demonstrations significantly boost in-store sales.

I think the most successful sampling stations appeal to three of the big five senses – taste, sight and smell. Of course, the smell of baked goods ranging from hearty breads to molten chocolate brownies attracts immediate attention, but the same holds true for just about anything sautéed in garlic and good olive oil or tossed with citrus and fresh mint. Case in point: When I caught the savory scent of ricotta and parmesan cheeses, garlic and tomato last week I had to detour to the Vegetable Lasagna being sampled at Trader Joe's.

Beyond taste and smell, successful sampling informs the consumer about the product’s nutritional benefits, method of preparation and pairing with other foods, and even wine or beer. It’s an ideal way to engage with a customer, and make their shopping experience more personal and meaningful. It creates relationships, as opposed to just selling stuff.

"Waitress" pie consultant Stacy Donnelly told Playbill that the theater audience is very educated and “want to feel a real experience. They want to be a part of it.”

I think today’s consumers want the same experience. Savvy retailers will find a way to make that as easy as pie.

Comments? As always, send them to me at .

KC's View:
I'm just glad that it was "Waitress" that used the pie sampling strategy, and not "Sweeney Todd."