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The Deli Looks Ahead

If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you get there? That question may seem like a philosophical riddle or a Yogi Berra quote, but in the ever-evolving supermarket industry, it’s a matter of business survival and growth.

In October 2015, Tyson Foods’ “Think Tank: The Deli of the Future” assembled food industry experts with retail, restaurant and marketing expertise to examine the best and brightest examples of grocery prepared food programs and discuss how to use the industry’s strengths to take giant leaps — not baby steps — into the future.

“It’s one thing to look at trends and to study the recent past for sales patterns, but our industry struggles with a forward-looking point of view,” explains Eric Le Blanc, director of marketing, deli/bakery at Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson. “We need to get beyond the usual inside-the-industry spitballing.”

Where to Invest?

Whether planning a fast-food menu or keeping a freezer case filled, everyone in the foodservice industry has to consider one of consumers’ basic needs, and that’s figuring out what’s for dinner. The “four o’clock crisis” is real, and the answer encompasses more than just food, it also involves convenience, solutions, inspiration and a whole lot more.

“Convenience” in particular can be seen as a magic word, but Le Blanc points out that it doesn’t mean the same thing in retail as it does in quick-service restaurants or even convenience stores.

Fast food will always own the drive-through; that’s its convenience. In retail, convenience means being able to buy dinner and make other purchases at the same place one can buy prepared meal options.

“Currently, we treat these conveniences as equal, but they are not,” Le Blanc says. “We need to take greater advantage of retail conveniences. We need to know what we are doing well and extend that to the next great idea.”

More retail convenience might mean more delivery, more help with meal planning or more speed-scratch, but in many cases, convenience needs reach beyond the store.

“Think Tank attendees agreed that the restaurant industry does a better job with the pre-selling. So, is this where grocery stores need to make a greater investment?” asks Joan Driggs, editorial director of Progressive Grocer and Think Tank participant. “Do grocery stores, and especially grocerants, need to keep up with the cross-media onslaught of restaurant ads? Or do we need to be more social media savvy and reach out with daily menus, food photos and meal ideas?”

Pre-selling, or reaching outside the store, might also mean adding more technologies that allow shoppers to pre-order via smartphone apps and opt for home delivery or quick, curbside pickup. Some worry that these advancements could come at the cost of in-store visits, notes Jeremy Johnson, director of education at the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA). In this case, the challenge is maintaining all sides of the business, both the digital and the brick-and-mortar.

Beyond the Brown

If the industry wants to ensure that the answer to what’s for dinner lies in the prepared foods from the deli section, Le Blanc observes that the industry needs to get beyond the “brown food syndrome” in people’s minds. Most prepared food programs offer far more than food from the fryer and the rotisserie, but the image of those types of offerings remains.

To move prepared foods to the next level, does the investment need to be in cooking and preparation platforms? “How else should we be cooking in these settings? What is the capacity beyond the rotisserie and the fryer?” Le Blanc asks. For an industry that can take years just to change the flavor profile of rotisserie chicken, a total equipment reset can seem daunting and may not be the answer. A chef can look at the typical prepared food model and not see restrictions, but instead how to be creative within a confined space, as food truck purveyors have proved.

“You don’t need to have elaborate kitchens to push out really good food. Some of the best restaurants have tiny kitchens,” notes Johnson. “If you want to look at what the industry does well, we can look at rotisserie chicken. Supermarkets own rotisserie chicken, and you can do a lot with them, but customers want help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a person walking around with a chicken, clearly trying to figure out what else to buy for a full meal. This is where shoppers need help.”

Le Blanc makes a similar point, noting that Charlie Baggs — chairman and executive chef of Chicago-based Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovation, a Think Tank participant — “can take a single rotisserie chicken and make 10 different dishes, all with on-trend flavors. That’s what customers need to see.”

Serving the Way Forward

“The way forward has a lot to do with more culinary expertise, and that could mean hiring more chefs, some trained cooks and just some foodies. We need to make the retail setting attractive to chefs and to the foodie crowd,” Johnson says.

“What if everyone in the store just loved food?” he goes on to ask. “What if the person ringing you out is really enthusiastic about the sauce you are buying and has a recommendation for using it? You feel that in your shopping experience. We need to convey that foodie experience.”

Le Blanc also sees great value in investing in more culinary expertise that can shop the store, see what’s about to go out, look at where there’s trim, and create soups and casseroles based on in-store resources. Such expertise may be hard to scale up, he notes, but good hiring needs to be about quality, and not quantity in more associates.

“Our studies don’t show a direct correlation between more staff and more sales,” says Le Blanc, “but skilled staff that can cook and help customers with meal planning and food suggestions is a different story.”

If the future lies in reframing the labor model, it might mean more culinary training, more service expertise, more curation of the shelves and more concierge-like treatment of customers, as a recent IDDBA report explored.

“What if the answer is giving store staff the freedom to be creative?” Driggs asks. “What does that look like?”

How to Renovate

Building a food-centric service culture is one way forward, but another way is to take an experiential view.

What if dinner is something completely different for each member of a family of four? Does the grocery store of the future look more like a food court than a retail space? If so, what does the rest of the store look like? How does a food court co-exist with retail aisles? Are the aisles replaced by display kiosks and merchandising that inspires meal ideas? Are complete remodels in order? How do we bring the best restaurant experiences together with the best retail experiences, for a new hybrid?

“More prepared food would need more cash-out kiosks, for starters,” Johnson stresses. “If we want to attract a lunch crowd to prepared food, we can’t expect people to park a car a few blocks away, walk to the back corner of a huge store, try to get a sandwich and then walk all the way to the front to pay.”

Furthermore, if grocerants are going to do more made-to-order options, what will it take to add Chipotle- or Potbelly-inspired menu construction, where customers pick the components of their meals from curated lists of ingredients while moving quickly through a line?

Johnson notes that this scenario also looks best when supported by skilled, food-loving staff. Like all good meetings of the minds, Tyson’s Think Tank might have arrived at more questions than answers, but the biggest theme to emerge was skilled staff.

“Our industry is great at moving boxes around. We make money on ‘the buy,’” Johnson points out. The future will mean making money on the sell.

“We need to know what we are doing well and extend that to the next great idea.”
—Eric Le Blanc, Tyson Foods

“The retail setting should be attractive to chefs and to the foodie crowd. What if everyone in the store just loved food?”
—Jeremy Johnson, IDDBA

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