A. Elizabeth Sloan

Supermarket delis are going gourmet. With Blue Water Tuna Salad and Gourmet Artichoke Spinach Pizza available at HyVee, Russian Cabbage Soup and Gorgonzola Stuffed Filet Mignon-to-go at Bristol Farms, and Boneless Turkey Breast with Orange Apricot Glaze at Wegmans, in-store delis are going to give restaurants some stiff competition.

Among the many innovations that are making delis more competitive and convenient are take-out areas with their own register, beepers to avoid waiting in line, expansive self-serve hot-food bars, use-by deli dating, and hot and cold "to-go" bags that fit in car cup holders. And with rising gas prices driving Americans to buy more prepared foods at the supermarket, the growth potential is unprecedented.

According to the International Dairy, Deli, Bakery Association (IDDBA), sliced-to-order luncheon meat is the most-consumed deli item, followed by sandwiches, hot vegetables/potatoes, American/Cheddar cheese, fresh green salad, turkey breast, desserts, shaved meats, ham, and lean/low-fat meats.

While turkey, ham, lean/low-fat meat, chicken breast, bologna, roast beef, and salami remain the top sellers, it’s the healthier, natural/organic/free-range, boldly/ethnically-flavored, and gourmet versions that are grabbing customer attention, reports IDDBA.

Hormel’s Natural Choice Deli Sandwich Meats are preservative- and nitrite/nitrate-free. Carolina Turkey’s Just Perfect All Natural® line includes Black Angus Ranch Roast Beef and Organic Blossom Honey Ham. Pavone Deli Co. offers pre-sliced Mortadella, Pancetta, and Soppressata; and Patrick Cudahy offers Latin-inspired deli meats.

Sandwiches are going ethnic, too, from French-style with Brie, tuna, green beans, olive, and potatoes to Cajun with blackened chicken, bourbon glazed-ham, or catfish. Cobb Salad Ham Roll-Ups use roast pork as the tortilla.

Progressive Grocer reports that fried chicken is the most frequently purchased prepared deli item, bought by 63% of consumers, followed by sandwiches 52%, rotisserie chicken 46%, potato/wet salads 39%, bundled meals 22%, soup 17%, salad bar 7%, pizza 7%, macaroni and cheese 7%, potatoes 4%, and hot vegetables 4%. Rotisserie turkey legs/breasts, pork roasts, and shish kebabs are also fast-growing deli items, as are boldly flavored chicken wings, popcorn chicken, and tenders such as Purdue’s new Coconut Tenders.

IDDBA reports that one-third of customers would shop more often at delis if there were a greater variety of side dishes and 64% think deli sides are fresher than prepackaged options. Four out of ten customers like to try new foods in the deli; one-third are looking for unique ingredients.

Customers also want manufacturers to reduce the amount of dressing in salads and offer more natural preparations with fewer preservatives and emulsifiers, lower-fat dressings, and ethnic/bolder flavors. Reser’s Fine Foods has introduced a Fiesta Vegetable Salad with artichoke hearts and black olives in a wine-herb dressing, and Don’s Salads has introduced a spicy Mexican Bean Salad.

Premium salads with nontraditional ingredients and protein-based salads, such as chipotle or curried chicken, are showing strong growth. Fruit, hummus and other Mediterranean spreads, and Asian preparations such as Thai cucumber salad are also grabbing customer attention.

Spicy, all-natural, and "home-made" soups and soup bars are another explosive trend. With one-third of singles (now the second-largest household unit after Empty Nesters) using the deli for single-portion sizes, varying package sizes are a must.

Consumers are also increasingly turning to the deli for snacks, and with the exception of wings/nuggets and breaded appetizers their choice is limited. Delimex introduced mini Tamales to Go, and Fast Fixin’ is offering Party to Go! fully cooked wings in a grab-and-go lunch box.

Desserts and hot vegetables are still seriously under-menued. More deli operators are also entering the breakfast day part with wraps and sandwiches.

Take-and-bake pizzas are also enjoying exponential growth, as is selling pizza slices, super-large family sizes, and signature store pizzas. Asian and Chinese are fast becoming a deli take-out staple.

Sales of deli take-out/take-home foods reached $2.2 billion—hot foods $1.7 billion—according to Progressive Grocer. Ukrop’s is promoting Dining for Two and Delicious by Design, a program catering to those with special dietary needs. Lunds and Byerly’s offer special kids’ meals from the deli.

And with home entertaining on the rise, supermarket delis are offering unique party platters and dinner and lunch catering. HyVee’s lunch-catering program offers such entrees as beef Stroganoff and roast turkey, and its catered dinner buffet has dishes ranging from Crab Rangoon to Mongolian Beef.

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends, Inc.,
Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]