A peek inside the food-demo world.

Exhausted from my search for olive oil in a container smaller than an oil drum, I took a break and had an enlightening chat with a food demonstrator at Costco yesterday. Here is what I learned:

–People will eat anything if it’s free.

–It is universally agreed that kids do not need to say please or thank-you anymore.

–The words “organic” and “no added sugar” work best early in the day to reel people in. The later it gets, the better something like the phrase “We have a coupon for half off” works.

–If you want to sell to the retired crowd, all you need to utter is a reference to calcium or improved memory. You could get a Woman of a Certain Age to eat a rock coated in motor oil if she thought it meant she’d quit losing her keys. (I include myself in this observation.)

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that the demonstrators are coming from a wider age pool, and many obviously have spent time in some very different work settings. Once you start checking these people out, you too will notice the ones who were very clearly whip-crackers in an office somewhere. As economic indicators go, this is a good one. Another year of our present fiscal nightmare and Costco’s food demo team will look like a Presidential debate. I for one would pay real money to see Newt pushing chocolate-covered cuke slices.

Many folks spend a full week in a “real job” and do the demo work on weekends and days off. The hourly wages are decent ($11-$15 in places where Macy’s starts workers at $8.50) and there’s relatively little contact with bosses, said the dried-fruit snack demonstrator who chatted with me.

The no-boss part has obvious appeal, but might not be quite the way it works for most folks. A job bulletin board on Indeed.com (“One search. All jobs”) had some enjoyably blunt observations about demonstrator work. The view, especially in the West, tends to be that Costco, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (all big users of this sales technique) are decent outfits, but some demo companies that hire in the field are less so. Opinions are mixed for Wal-Mart demo work…no surprise there.

For all the press that bullying is getting these days, word has apparently not yet reached demo world, where several veterans of the demo circuit complain of supervisors who revel in lording it over the turkey jerky-carrot rollup-tofu gravy pushers on their sales teams.

You know the mean kids who used to taunt you in gym class in 7th grade? Apparently these are the people who end up in jobs where they can berate someone old enough to be their parent, asking in a loud, stern voice about improper paper-cup procedure in dispensing the Turkish apricot puffs.

My Costco guide told me to search online for a video from Scotland with a couple of enthused food-demo types discussing their work. She said it was charming and “shows you that this is real work.” She’s right. Check it out by clicking here: Och! Scot foodies!

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett



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