Pasta in a plethora of shapes has long enjoyed a place at mankind’s table. According to the National Pasta Association (NPA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., there’s evidence that the Chinese made a noodle-like food as far back as 3000 BC. Thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo is often credited with introducing pasta to Italy following his travels to the Far East.
Fast forward, and it was founding father Thomas Jefferson who history tells introduced pasta to the U.S. when he brought a macaroni maker back from Europe. By the mid-1800s, French immigrant Antoine Zerega had opened the first pasta-making factory in New York.
Today, Americans eat some 20 pounds of pasta annually, based on NPA data, with 86% of participants in the association’s recent consumer survey saying they ate pasta at least once a week. What’s more, the comfort food factor of a warm plate of pasta has made it a pandemic favorite. In a June 2020 released survey by the Grain Foods Foundation, over one-third (36%) of U.S. consumers named pasta as comforting food during stressful times.
“Pasta consumption has been increasing and is expected to grow significantly through the next several years,” says Larry Montuori, vice president of sales for Nuovo Pasta Productions, Ltd., based in Stratford, CT. “All segments of dry and refrigerated pasta are expected to enjoy these increases in consumption. Residential consumption will have the largest impact. The pandemic has been a catalyst for families to sit down and enjoy meals together at home.”
Here are five ways deli operators can capitalize on pasta’s popularity.
1. FOLLOW THE TRENDS. There is a lot of potential for the growth of pasta in the deli, according to Rosario Del Nero, the NPA’s chef spokesperson. “For example, people are starting to get more and more interested in fresh pasta and stuffed pasta as well as in different fresh cuts.”
Indeed, “there has been a large increase in all categories of refrigerated pasta, and especially with filled pasta like tortellini and ravioli,” adds Carl Zuanelli, the NPA’s chairman and president of Nuovo Pasta Productions. “This is largely due to the pandemic and consumers looking to enjoy restaurant-quality meals at home. A premium lobster ravioli or prosciutto and provolone stuffed tortellini has a higher quality flavor profile that one might get in a restaurant.”
Refrigerated pasta has an image that promotes freshness and is purchased by consumers who want the pasta to be the star of their plate, says Marc Eisenson, senior business development manager for Swiss Chalet Fine Foods, a division of the Atalanta Corp., headquartered in Elizabeth, NJ. “Today’s culinary trend is fresh, with a clean label. Consumers are also drawn to authentic Italian pasta.”
Authenticity is important to shoppers. Case in point, almost all (90%) of consumers said authenticity is important when deciding which brands they like and support, according to a 2019-released study from San Francisco-based visual content marketing firm Stakla.
“Not all pasta is alike, and the Italian pasta is certainly exceptional due to its natural, healthy qualities and ease of use,” says Mirella Menglide, senior trade analysis, food and wine, at the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) office in New York City. “For instance, there is no added gluten in the Italian pasta. The American consumer must understand why the Italian pasta is just better and, because of that, more expensive sometimes. It is important to present the Italian pasta as a unique product and promote it as such.”
2. OFFER BEST SELLERS. The most popular cuts of pasta are still the long ones, such as spaghetti, vermicelli and linguine, according to the ITA’s Menglide. “Within the short ones, it’s the penne, rigatoni and ziti. The more particular cuts, like orecchiette, strozzapreti, cavatelli, gigli, etc. that require more than the usual meatballs and tomato sauce are available on the U.S. market, but they need time to arrive on Americans’ regular shopping list.”
Consumers buying refrigerated pasta are drawn to filled pasta, especially with cheese, says Atlanta’s Eisenson. “Our bestsellers are our tortellini from Antica Pasteria, specifically Tortelloni with Cheese, Tortelloni with Parmesan and Basil, and Tortellini with Ricotta and Spinach. Tortelloni, tortellini and ravioli are by far the most common types of refrigerated pasta sold in the deli section, and this has remained a consistent trend.”
Eisenson notes that the difference between tortelloni and tortellini is that tortelloni is a larger-shaped pasta with more filling.
3. TRY SOMETHING NEW. There is a trio of trends in new product development. First, the pasta itself.
“As the demand for plant-based products has increased, we’re seeing more demand for those types of pasta, as opposed to just traditional durum semolina products. Those plant-based pastas, such as chickpea or lentil pasta, are more often dry pasta than fresh. We’re also beginning to see a trend for ancient grains. Some of those ancient grains have a lower glycemic index that are a lot more digestible for people who are trying to reduce their gluten intake,” says the NPA and Nuovo Pasta Productions’ Zuanelli.
Secondly, are different shapes.
“With COVID, what we’re really seeing is a renaissance with shape products. People are becoming more adventurous and looking for sauces that marry well with a particular shape. We saw last year that bucatini with an Amatriciana sauce was really big. Shapes like cavatappi or corkscrew-style shapes are really starting to be in demand again, as people have re-embraced pasta,” Zuanelli adds.
Third, new refrigerated filled pastas are expanding in flavor profiles.
“The evolution of stuffed pasta has been really interesting, as more foodstuffs are used to fill pasta. Seasonal products are big trend-setters for fillings, such as butternut squash in fall, mushrooms in winter or vegetables in spring. People want to be inspired by the season and use those flavors in cooking,” says the NPA’s Del Nero.
He adds that there is now more specificity in cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Asiago and burrata, as opposed to generic ‘cheese’ ravioli or tortellini. Plus, interesting combinations of vegetables are appearing in fillings such as artichokes, kale, Brussels sprouts and a variety of winter squashes and root vegetables.
Good examples are recently introduced lines from Nuovo Pasta Productions, such as Crab & Lobster Ravioli and Cauliflower Red Onion & Pea Ravioli. The company has introduced other formats such as Potato Gnocchi and Cauliflower Gnocchi.
“Cauliflower Gnocchi is just hitting the market now. We will also soon have more seafood varieties available, such as Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp Scampi Ravioli,” says Montuori.
4. CREATE A DESTINATION SELECTION. Make sure customers don’t miss seeing pasta in the deli.
“We incentivize our retail customers to carry the whole pasta line so there is a greater presence in the deli case,” says Swiss Chalet’s Eisenson.
“When I go to Italy, I see about 10 times the amount of fresh pasta in the deli section of supermarkets as I do in American ones, so there is still a lot of room for the fresh pasta segment to grow and expand in variety. That said, you’ll see some of the larger grocery stores, like Whole Foods, typically have several rows of fresh pasta in their deli section. One row is often dedicated to local pasta producers, then there might be a row of organic pasta, then a row of imported pasta, and finally, a row of specialty products like gluten-free or dairy-free, which represent the dietary concerns of certain consumers. Other stores, like Trader Joe’s, may have less overall product, but they still separate items like imported from gluten-free,” says the NPA’s Del Nero.
Consider regionality, too, Del Nero adds. For example, in the Northeast, lobster and lobster-filled products are big. In the Midwest, there are more requests for beef and comfort food.
5. SERVE UP MEAL IDEAS. Pasta is a wonderful product, but pasta needs to be paired with something. The deli section is a great place to find foods that perfectly pair with pasta.
“Our retail partners carry an assortment of our antipasti items in the deli department that are great, bold, flavorful ingredients to pasta,” says Giuliana Pozzuto, director of marketing and product innovation for the George DeLallo Co., in Mt. Pleasant, PA. “One of most popular antipasti items is our Italian Roasted Tomatoes; they are lightly marinated and taste just like fresh summer tomatoes. They are the perfect ingredient to add some interest to hot and cold pasta dishes. A creamy cheese sauce pairs well with short cut pasta and roasted tomatoes, topped with herbed breadcrumbs. For the summer months, we suggest pairing our roasted tomatoes with penne pasta, tuna and oil-cured olives and a light vinaigrette.”
Recipes are a useful tool to sell more pasta, but these should be simple and easy to execute with a ‘wow’ picture, recommends Swiss Chalet’s Eisenson.
“Bundling or cross merchandising increases basket ring and helps consumers create a full meal solution. Delis can create menus like restaurants to show consumers all the necessary components to create memorable eating experiences with pasta as the center of the plate or as a side dish. This is particularly easy for online ordering, as consumers can select all the components for a meal solution from the comfort of their home based on the retailer’s suggested menus, then go for curbside pickup,” says Nuovo Pasta Productions’ Montuori.
Finally, the deli can create its own signature meal kits featuring pasta.
“The prepared food section is where someone might be able to purchase a tray of pre-cooked dry pasta with a restaurant-style sauce and protein added and put this in the oven or microwave when they get home. For example, pre-cooked penne with vodka sauce and Italian sliced sausage is a ready-made meal that can be easily popped in the oven at home,” says the NPA and Nuovo Pasta Productions’ Zuanelli.
All that’s left to add is a wine pairing and perhaps tiramisu from the bakery to put pasta from the deli in customers’ carts even more often each week. DB