There were tears in the produce section at the Hy-Vee in Savage.

As Martin Birgholtz, the store’s in-house “produce butcher,” ran his knife through a yellow onion, dicing it into uniform pieces, the vegetable’s eye-stinging fumes wafted up. An onlooker’s eyes turned red and tear-filled.

But thanks to Birgholtz’s talent with a blade, home cooks don’t have to cry anymore, especially the ones who detest the rinsing, peeling and mincing required before a meal can land on the table.

Facing slumping sales and stiff competition from online retailers and meal delivery kits, supermarkets are ramping up amenities to lure busy shoppers. They’re adding clothing departments, high-end cosmetics, full-service restaurants, and now, vegetable butchers.

For a fee, plant-based sous chefs armed with cutting boards and sharp knives will slice, dice or julienne whatever needs chopping.

New to Minnesota, the concept is taking hold throughout the country at select high-end supermarkets. A main target is millennials, who are more likely than the average shopper to skip the supermarket and buy groceries online, according to a recent Harris Poll.

Three grocery stores in Minnesota — Hy-Vee in Savage and Coborn’s in Isanti and Sartell — have introduced on-demand vegetable butchers. Many others have expanded their refrigerated sections with containers of pre-chopped produce that are easy to grab and go.

“It just saves time,” said James Northern of Prior Lake, who was buying pre-cut bell peppers and onions at Hy-Vee to keep in the fridge and throw into omelets and stir-frys. “I just flew in, just got home. So you stop by the grocery store, pick up the chopped vegetables and it cuts down on your cooking time.”

Healthy and fast

Roughly a third of Americans have purchased groceries online, with millennials (those born after 1980) more willing to get their food delivered to their door than older generations. Another Harris Poll found that 1 in 4 adults have ordered a meal kit from the likes of Blue Apron.

At the same time, interest in healthy eating is on the rise.

A Pew study found that 54 percent of Americans believe that people pay more attention today to eating healthy foods than they did 20 years ago. The convenience foods of the past — potato spuds, processed cereals, cake mixes — don’t hold the same appeal for younger shoppers as they did to their parents.

But there is still one important barrier to healthy eating.

“One of the problems with vegetables is that they’re really high maintenance,” said Traci Mann, director of the Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. “The smallest little obstacles stop people from eating vegetables: scraping a carrot, cleaning lettuce, chopping it.”

That’s where the produce butcher comes in.

During a recent Friday evening rush at the Hy-Vee, which opened in February, Birgholtz was slowly pulling apart sections of bright yellow jackfruit and handing samples to curious customers. It’s a job that used to keep him in the “backroom” of the grocery stores, prepping hard-to-cut items like butternut squash and pineapple. Now, he’s separated from customers only by a glass panel.

“Everyone’s always happy to see their food prepared in front of them,” Birgholtz said.

The idea can be traced back to a New York City dinner in 2010. Installation artist Jennifer Rubell was having a late meal with her friend Mario Batali, the celebrity chef and owner of Eataly, when Rubell suggested the store feature a vegetable expert who would be as helpful as a cheesemonger or traditional meat butcher.

Rubell became the world’s first official “vegetable butcher.” Last year, a member of her team, Cara Mangini, went on to write a cookbook on the best ways to slice and dice veggies, called, of course, “The Vegetable Butcher.”

But custom-cutting vegetables pre-dates the recent gourmet food renaissance, according to John Griesenbrock, Hy-Vee’s vice president of produce/HealthMarkets. He said produce staffers always prepped hard-to-cut veggies and fruits for customers on request. Now, custom chopping is out in the open, among the salad bar and another fairly recent addition, the juice bar.

Trend or staple?

For stores in this competitive climate, it’s part of an approach to throw anything at the wall and see what sticks.

“It’s the thing you have to do to stay competitive,” said George John, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “There are people who want it, and yet other people couldn’t care less. You’ve got to satisfy both.”

For $5.99 a pound, Hy-Vee’s Birgholtz will disassemble everything from a 14-pound watermelon to a shallot. Though it costs more than buying a whole vegetable or fruit, the skins, seeds and other waste are discarded, sending shoppers home with only the pieces they’ll use.

He also doles out tips for efficient vegetable chopping. “Don’t cut yourself,” being No. 1. Sharpen your knives. Use a cutting board. And trim the tops and bottoms of your produce so they’ll lie flat.

At Coborn’s in Isanti and Sartell, a “Chop Shoppe” functions similarly, for $4.99 a pound (and $6.99 for “premium” or organic produce).

The Isanti store’s Chop Shoppe debuted when the store opened in August 2016, and it’s taken a while to catch on, said produce manager Bridget Winkelman.

Most often, Winkelman will get customers who just need a stalk or two of celery, and will get that cut up rather than buying a whole bag.

But the store does have shoppers who are becoming regulars at the Chop Shoppe.

Winkelman often chats with them, which helps her get through the “monotony” of chopping a large pile of vegetables. Plus, there’s another benefit to keeping her head up, especially when she’s cutting onions.

“I’m not gonna lie,” she said, “I’m one of the criers.”

 

@SharynJackson