Fun in Aisle Five: Gourmet Grocers are Attracting Customers with More than Well-Stocked Shelves; Join the Crowd at One of These On-the-Cheap Nights Out

Everyone loves a free sample. Those little booths help make obligatory grocery store runs more tolerable, sure, but a paper cup of soup or sausage-on-a-pick will hardly bring in a crowd. So area markets have introduced store events designed to supplement or even replace your nighttime outings.

"There aren't many places you can sample five wines with food and live music for $5," says Mandi Kelley, the marketing team leader at Whole Foods on Cedar Road. "And you get a dollar off if you bring back your free reusable glass."

Every week, Whole Foods hosts Foodie Fridays (called Five By Seven Fridays at the Chagrin location), which runs for two hours and offers five different wine and food pairings. Each event is themed: wines with cherry notes; eco-friendly wines; wineries that support a cause or grapes from a specific region, for instance. This is the type of event people will drive over specifically to attend, whether or not they leave with a dozen free-range eggs.

Other stores have gotten in on the action, too. Though Heinen's wine tastings are less regular (and more expensive, at $10 per event), attendees get to sample 10 regional wines paired with artisan cheese and breads or charcuterie. And Mustard Seed Market in Montrose, near Akron, regularly hosts art exhibits featuring local artists, free appetizers, live music and wine or beer pairings.

Heinen's also does craft beer tastings, either as a $10 special event or as a courtesy to perusing customers (though you'll have to choose from whatever's on tap). Or go to one of Whole Foods' monthly Beer School pairings.

These samplings are more than just a way to move dusty bottles, according to Kelley, who says Whole Foods' core values include community engagement.

Gabe Nabors, second-generation owner of the Mustard Seed Market, actually invites casual visitors. "If you don't want to drink, that's fine; you can just show up for free and eat appetizers and check out the art and be social," he says.

If you're looking for even more bang for your buck, or wine and beer just isn't really your thing, try a grocery store cooking class instead. The Viking Store was great while it lasted, but at more than $100 a pop, those classes could hardly be considered a bargain.

Again, Whole Foods and Heinen's both offer classes: how to whip up green smoothies, healthy foods seminars and gluten-free cooking offer instruction as well as free samples.

The Mustard Seed Market actually has full-kitchen classrooms. Nabors says the Mustard Seed Market got started when his mother, Margaret Nabors, started making soups. "People really liked [them], and they asked her if they could have some of it for a party or for a wedding," he says. "And then all of a sudden they started doing cooking classes out of their home, and people started coming. And then that's kind of how they got the idea to do Mustard Seed, and they continued that [with in-store classes]."

Full hands-on classes generally run about $20, depending on the event, and are limited to 30 participants. Free demos, such as the quarterly Cooking With a Doc, which brings in partnering Cleveland Clinic doctor-chefs, max out at 125, but Nabors says they book up every time.

"Everybody comes when there's free food," he laughs.

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