Harvest Foods begins in-house wine, beer tastings with Oktoberfest, and all that jazz

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WALLA WALLA - Would you care for an oaky shiraz with that can of tuna, on special this week for 79 cents?

How does a crisp micro brew with your mayonnaise sound?

Jazz with the orange juice? Merlot with milk? Bach with those bagels?

At Harvest Foods in Walla Walla, all are possibilities, as a second season of in-house wine and beer tastings begins Thursday at 3:30 p.m.

The weekly or so tastings are often accompanied by live music and always feature big spreads of offerings from the store's deli.

At $5 a pop, it may be one of the best bangs for the buck.

It's all a brain child of Sheryl Wilkinson, administrative assistant at Harvest Foods on Second Avenue. She demurs sole proprietorship, however, giving equal weight to her husband, Ed, and store owners Kathleen and Nolan Lockwood for nurturing her seedling of an idea.

While plenty of grocery stores do food and wine tastings, she figured the concept could be upgraded, Sheryl said. Take away the Dixie cup and toothpicks, add stem ware, live music and a real menu -- suddenly, a bona fide special occasion is born.

Nola is quick to credit the Washington state Liquor Control Board with helping to get things flowing. "They were very helpful. They came out and gave us the rules and regulations, made sure we had everything set up."

The store launched the enterprise last February, the store featuring local wineries and breweries. It also brought in music groups for occasions such as St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo.

The community response has been overwhelming, she added. "Especially for the music events when we get 70 or so people in here."

In-house entertainment is not your usual bowl of chips, noted Harold Lloyd, a national grocery and retail consultant. Not in a grocery store and not in smaller markets.

"A few stores may have a piano player who responds to customer requests, but to have a concert is highly unusual."

The Walla Walla store is ahead of the curve in marketing, Lloyd said. "Ultimately, our goal as grocers is to drive customers into the store."

Traditionally retail businesses manipulate customer count by sales and gimmicks, which is only effective short term, Lloyd explained. "One week you are the winning sales store, the next week you're not."

Walla Walla's Harvest Foods, he said, is creating a unique treat for shoppers, "a pleasant and positive experience. Down the road it may mean more sales."

Enhancing the shopping trip not only can build customer loyalty, but it keeps people inside the store longer, Lloyd said. Data show shoppers keep loading the cart during special events and stay longer. "And for every minute in the store, it's about $2.50 in the drawer."

In general, buying groceries nears the top of the list of most hated chores, the consultant said. "Anything stores can do to make it less undesirable means people coming more. And when they do, they spend more."

The store doesn't mind rewarding that behavior. It took jumping through numerous hoops, but Nolan was able to get a restaurant license, allowing the store to morph into a cafe during the wine-tasting hours, Sheryl said.

Which means participating customers can feast on Brie with figs, chicken tarragon salad and chocolate-drizzled brownies, for starters.

This month celebrates Oktoberfest and the store's deli will turn out slider burgers, onion rings, homemade potato chips, hot wings and more to go with the Oct. 15 tasting, which features the micro brews of the Laht Neppur Brewing Company of Waitsburg and the music of Whitman College jazz instructor Pete Crawford.

Until recently, Walla Walla's store stood alone among the 35 or so other Harvest Foods in the Northwest, Sheryl pointed out.

"But interest started growing, they were asking, "How can we do this?' Now there's about eight stores doing this," she said.

The move is coming at the right time, Lloyd said. "We are in deep trouble as an industry, we are not liked."

Overall, retail grocery stores have few tools available to bulk up their popularity status, he feels. "We have no menu change, no decor change. While the restaurant industry is ever changing, we are static and vanilla and 'same ol', same ol'... we have to stand out, we have to change."

Here in Walla Walla, Harvest Foods is working on it.

If you go:

All events are 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Where noted, live music at 4:30 p.m.

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