Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

How many people does it take to make a corned beef sandwich beautiful? In this case it takes, from left, chef Jackie Lau, art director Karen Jones, Lau's assistant Ronnie Nasuti and photographer Alex Viarnes. Lau and Nasuti are both with Roy's Restaurants. The sandwich is a potential cover candidate for Foodland's March Maika'i Rewards book.

Just rewards

Adding kitchen-tested recipes
to an ad circular proves a good
way of marketing a supermarket

By Betty Shimabukuro

Basic truth: If people cook more, they buy more food. Basic truth: Yellow food looks bad in photographs.

Combine these to understand the large- and small-scale realities that shape Foodland's Maika'i Rewards publication, the advertising circular that shows up at 300,000 households every month. Actually, "advertising circular" is a lousy description. It's more like a free mini-magazine, carrying recipes, cooking tips and advice on buying wines, around and alongside the food ads.

The Rewards book was born three years ago as a way of advertising store specials. Other supermarket chains have similar handouts; this one carries the concept many steps beyond the usual community cookbook.

As corporate chef for Roy's restaurants, Jackie Lau is used to working in a fully equipped kitchen, but in the photo studio she has only one gas burner, a toaster oven, microwave, hibachi and a torch.

"We really wanted something that would inspire customers to cook a little bit more and hopefully get them into our store to try things," says Foodland President Jenai Wall.

As a marketing strategy, it's pretty ingenious -- make food look good through meticulously dressed photographs, and sound good through simple, kitchen-tested recipes that appeal to local tastes. The result: people are prompted to buy groceries while thinking kindly of the grocer.

In the beginning, the Rewards book was pretty much an in-house project, but in 1999 Foodland offered chef Roy Yamaguchi exposure in the book in exchange for a recipe suggestion each month. Enter Jackie Lau, the chef Yamaguchi trusts to oversee all his Hawaii restaurants, who also has become the paid chief cook and recipe tester for the Rewards book.

For Lau it is a three-week project that she takes on after work and on her days off. "If I don't have a day off, it's a 2 o'clock in the morning process."

It's also a long-distance process, since Lau is based at Roy's Waikoloa on the Big Island. Lots of information is exchanged via e-mail and once a month Lau comes to Honolulu for the big show -- the photo shoot.

But before that comes the job of developing user-friendly recipes for the average home cook, using only ingredients that can be purchased at Foodland and Sack N Save. "I go to the store and buy stuff and bring it home and try making it 'til it comes out simple and good," she says.

She writes up the recipes and sends them to the corporate office, where they are proof-read by average cooks who tend to question instructions that may be obvious to a professional, but a total mystery to others.

Chef Roy Yamaguchi's ribs recipe is the most frequently requested of those run in the Maika'i Rewards books.

The result is simplicity, but with flair. The January book, for example, contains a Lobster Chawan Mushi recipe that mirrors what's served at Roy's, except for a simpler stock.

Dishes are based somewhat on seasonal specialties, but also on what Foodland wants to put on special. For the upcoming March book, Lau was asked to come up with a recipe using ham hocks, and so a Cassoulet of Braised Ham Hocks, Rustic Beans and Wild Mushrooms was born. "Next month they might say, 'Hey, we have ketchup on sale ...' "

Also in March, in honor of Girls Day, the request came for a recipe for mochi ice cream. Lau says she tried and tried, but couldn't figure out how to keep the ice cream frozen and the mochi soft. "My husband finally decided that he wasn't tasting anything that involved mochi ice cream. I had to give in and say, 'That's it. I can't do it,' which really bums me out."

It's the only time she recalls being unable to fulfill a mission.

The Book

The Maika'i Rewards book is mailed to Foodland's top 300,000 customers, based on use of their Maika'i cards. Additional copies are available free at stores.

Last year, Foodland published a cookbook containing the most-requested Rewards recipes.

"Maika'i Favorites" sells for $5 at Foodland and Sack N Save stores. Foodland plans to publish a new cookbook each year during the holidays.

But out of adversity came triumph. To replace the mochi ice cream, Lau offered a recipe for green tea mochi with ice cream on the side. In making mochi for the photo session, though, she used wasabi to turn it green instead of tea powder.

And it tasted great. The result being that a spicy wasabi mochi will be served at a wine dinner at Roy's in Hawaii Kai at the end of the month, garnished with fresh fruit and candied ginger syrup. Ronnie Nasuti, chef at Hawaii Kai, calls the dessert "nuclear."

Everything leads up to the photo shoot, in which the half-dozen or so dishes for each month's book are assembled, made beautiful and lined up for the camera, one after the other.

Alex Viarnes of Alex Photography wields the camera in this monthly one-day marathon at his studio in Chinatown. It's a welcome change from photographing humans, he says. "Food takes direction better. And I get to nibble."

Lau hauls all the food to the second-floor (no elevator) studio, mostly in a gigantic cooler. This is a particular challenge with the November book, when she has to bring in three turkeys.

She does prep work the night before at her mother-in-law's Kaimuki home, then does final cooking on meager equipment in the studio.

Most dishes are shot three different ways, thus the need for three turkeys at Thanksgiving. None were edible, by the way, having sat out for hours. When leftovers remain edible, they're donated to River of Life Mission.

At her restaurant, Lau's concern is to make a dish beautiful on a plate -- usually a big, white plate. She's learned the camera doesn't see things the same way as the human eye. A big, white plate is no good, as the food is overwhelmed. Also, for some reason the color yellow looks really bad, and then there's meat. "Meat does not photograph well," she says. "A meat dish is your nightmare."

So you'll notice meats are always dressed up with garnishes so that their expanses of brownness are toned down.

You'll also notice, if you're clued into the subliminal messages, that recipes are placed in sections keyed to their ingredients. A recipe for Cilantro & Green Onion Steamed Chicken, included in the January book, is in the Asian section, just above notices that sesame oil and soy sauce are on sale. Both are part of the recipe.

Wall prefers not to talk about how much it costs Foodland to produce the book, but she allows, "the vehicle itself is one that pays off for us in terms of sales and image."

The book comes out at the beginning of each month, with specials running for two weeks. "We definitely see a bump (in sales) when the book gets in homes, in the items that are featured," Wall says.

The connection is often quite obvious, such as when a recipe was published for Roy's hoisin-marinated ribs. The recipe called for "Chinese chili paste." "Our stores were all telling us they were having so many requests -- now which one exactly is it? Which chili sauce?"

The rib recipe remains the most requested of all that have run in the book. For the record, look for a chili sauce labeled Sambal Oelek or Sriracha. They're in the Asian foods section. At Foodland, of course.

Roy's Szechwan Ribs

4-1/2 pounds pork spareribs or baby back ribs (3 slabs)
2 cups hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons minced ginger
2 tablespoons Chinese chili paste (Sambal Oelek or Sriracha)
1/2 cup honey

Cut rib slabs in half and place in a large pot of boiling water. Slow boil 90 minutes, or until tender (meat will shrink down from top of bone at least a half inch). Remove from water and let stand 10 minutes.

To make marinade, combine remaining ingredients and refrigerate.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Brush ribs on both sides with marinade. Place on a rack on top of a cookie sheet in the oven. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, until shiny. Remove and cool. Cut into pieces and brush with more marinade. Grill on a hibachi a few minutes until hot. Serves 6.

Approximate nutrient analysis per serving: 610 calories, 21 g total fat, 7.5 g saturated fat, 130 mg cholesterol, greater than 3,000 mg sodium, 73 g carbohydrate, 40 g protein.

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