Food Bars: The Gateway to the Deli

The rewards extend to the entire supermarket

The food bar is a gateway experience that brings consumers back to the deli and supermarket on a regular basis. 

When a deli puts together and maintains an inviting display, they attract a loyal clientele of people of all ages and ethnicities who share a desire for convenience and quality. 

“The demographic is all over the place but the great thing is the food bar customers come in three or four times a week,” says Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Blount Fine Foods, Fall River, MA. “Their frequency is high, and while they’re in the deli or store, they are picking up other things.” 

Blount Fine Foods offers gourmet foods from sourced fresh ingredients to hand-crafted recipes to foodservice operations, retail, club and convenience store customers. Their emphasis is on clean label sides, soups and sauces.  

“There are a lot of reasons to want the hot bar,” says Sewall. “Delis want food bars to compete with the restaurant trade and as a way to attract people into the store.” 

This frequency with which consumers return to the food creates both opportunities and challenges for the deli. 

“Because consumers shop these bars weekly, the challenge is keeping a constant rotation of top sellers, while offering new and unique items to keep the customer inspired and enticed,” says Giuliana Pozzuto, marketing director at George E. DeLallo Co., Mt. Pleasant, PA. “This is made even harder by limited space on the bars in stores.”

Consumers come to the food bar looking for convenience, and that gives retailers an opportunity to introduce them to new and interesting options. 

“Convenience, time and effort are the reasons why food bars are on the rise among consumers,” says Kurt Peters, sales representative at Farm Ridge Foods, West Palm Beach, FL. “Retailers can offer a variety of healthy products as well as introduce new items.”

Variety Is the Spice of the Bar

One of the attractions of the food bar is that it offers consumers an opportunity to experiment with new foods in a format that is both convenient and portion controlled.  

“There are many reasons for the success of food bars,” says Pozzuto. “They are loaded with possibilities for consumers, allowing them to select the items and how much [they prefer], they give the consumers customization at their fingertips. Shoppers feel like they are saving time compared to waiting in line at the service counter. In addition, self-service food bars encourage the customer to try new items, which can only lead to more favorites.”

There are, however, a few standard items that consumers expect to find when they travel to the food bar. 

“You have your obligatory chicken in every form and fashion,” says Sewall. “Most stores are already roasting chicken and frying tenders.”

Some producers have earned reputations for their food bar staples. 

“Stuffed cabbage and mac and cheese balls are some of the popular items offered at Farm Ridge Foods,” says Peters.

The olive and antipasti bar also has the usual suspects that are popular and expected by customers. 

“Our core items are still wildly popular—pitted, marinated and stuffed olives, preserved/pickled vegetables, etc.,” says Brandon Gross, vice president of marketing at Foodmatch, New York, NY. “We’ve also seen some new twists really capture consumer interest; items such as our Calabrese antipasti salad with pitted olives, Asiago cheese and Calabrese salami, grilled artichokes or roasted garlic from California.”

But while there are olive and antipasti traditional standards, Gross agrees the bars also play a special role in offering customers an opportunity to look over and purchase new and interesting items in small portions. 

“Ultimately, I think food bars are popular because it’s an opportunity for customization, product trial and portion control,” he says. “Looking at the olive and antipasto bar, for example, where else can a shopper get the opportunity to taste so many interesting ingredients at once without having to make a long-term commitment to any single favorite? Additionally, if you’re hosting friends or cooking from a recipe, it’s a great place to control exact quantities needed. Food bars are a land of opportunity when executed successfully.” 

One area many consumers are looking to explore is new dishes and flavors from around the world. 

“As more global flavors become mainstream, I think product expansion will move to include a lot of new spices from regions such as North Africa, South America, India and more,” says Gross. 

A variety of Asian foods are coming to play more important roles in the globalized food bar. 

“Sushi is becoming one of the more popular bars within the grocery store,” says Breana Jones, director of marketing at Hissho Sushi, Charlotte, NC. “It’s the ultimate grab and go solution. It’s a healthier option with lots of alternatives for everyone. Poke is hot right now. It has existed in Hawaii for years, but is now catching on in the Mainland. We have grab and go poke salads right next to the rolls in our cases. In select locations, we even have Make Your Own Poke bars.”

While the food bar has gone global, it also still features many products from its birthplace in the Mediterranean. 

“We are seeing continual growth in our olive and antipasti bar programs all around the country,” says Pozzuto. “These are gaining more and more popularity, as the trend of good-looking, great-tasting gourmet entertaining continues. Olives and antipasti are exquisite features for such popular presentations as cheese boards, charcuterie trays, wine and cheese pairings, etc.”

Olives and antipasti can stand alone, but they can also transform the salad bar into something special. 

“Along with the growth of gourmet entertaining opportunities, we’ve noted customers displaying some select olives and antipasti items at salad/cold bars to upgrade their fresh salads with colorful, crunchy pickled vegetable mixes, marinated peppers and olives,” says Pozzuto. “It’s an easy way to bring some new life to ordinary offerings, taking salads from basic to extraordinary.”

Another recent trend is toward cleaner label dishes that only have ingredients consumers understand. 

“What’s more popular these days is to have cleaner label dishes,” says Sewall. “We have about 20 hot bar items. They are all clean label – organic, non-GMO, you name it. The smart food bar operator has cleaner, fresher items. Retailers need to do a better job of labeling the food in the hot bar.” 

While clean label, high quality items rule at the food bar, convenience is a key megatrend driving growth of the category. 

“Food kiosks are popular, because people are looking for convenient solutions,” says Jones. “With increasingly busy schedules, people are looking for good food options that fit into existing schedules. If they’re already at the grocery store, this is a chance for them to pick up something for lunch later in the week or a quick dinner option that can be ready within minutes.”

Keep It Stocked and Clean

A successful deli food bar program takes a commitment to keep the display inviting—well stocked with food that looks and is fresh. 

“The most difficult thing is how I get it up with less labor than I used to have,” says Sewall. “The challenge is getting them set up and kept fresh. We have products in a 4-pound bag that fills one tray. We also do sauces like Alfredo or scampi.”  

There is a question of how important the program is in the overall scheme of the deli and of the entire market. 

“Retailers face many challenges that aren’t just specific to the fresh bar, like maintaining points of differentiation, innovating, servicing customers and labor,” says Gross. “These are universal challenges that all retailers face. What’s important at the end of the day is identifying what programs the customer considers ‘musts.’” 

If the food bar makes the short list of high priority projects, the reward is a high level of customer loyalty. 

“Through all our research and data, one thing we know about olive and antipasti bar customers is that they are fiercely loyal about the products we provide in the format of the fresh bar,” says Gross. “Our team’s job is to provide great product and work with retailers to mitigate their challenges, be it through our merchandising team that can help in-store or our marketing team that can design custom merchandising and in-store graphics.”

While food bar customers may generally skew a bit younger, this gateway to the deli has universal appeal. 

“We believe the bar is truly ageless; however, it’s true that Millennials are very interested in the idea of ‘self-serve,’ where they get to mix and match their own selections,” says Pozzuto. “They are more independent shoppers who like to take their time and not have to engage much with the store associates.”

Offering the Options

The growth of food bars comes as some of the deli’s competition is also stepping up their game, as well. 

“Retailers are faced with an ever expanding list of options,” says Jones. “There is no shortage of choices for consumers, from fine dining to QSRs. The challenge is to get shoppers to think of the food within grocery with the same trust and consideration that they have for outside establishments.”

Once a successful food bar program is established, it is worth going the extra mile to let consumers throughout the store know what is available. “The goal should be for stores to be considered a strong option, rather than something that shoppers are settling for,” says Jones. “That’s why it’s important to offer the right options for each location. And it’s imperative that they let shoppers know what they have. There are certain people who never go into the delis, so they may not know all the food that’s available. Stores shouldn’t assume that people will stop by and try things. They need to let shoppers know what’s available and encourage them to try something.” DB