Making Delis a Culinary Mecca

jim prevor

Deli departments in supermarkets have been in a strange place throughout the pandemic. On one hand, the delis never received the enormous boost in sales that grocery did at the beginning of the pandemic. It is not surprising. If you are stocking up for who knows what, for who knows how long, you buy canned goods, not fresh ham-and-cheese subs. And many open foodservice offers, such as salad bars and olive bars, were closed down entirely.

Still deli departments benefited as restaurants closed down and as consumers focused their shopping on supermarkets—both in person and delivery. If you are already online making a supermarket order, why not order lunch, too?

With Omicron out in force, there may be a period, once again, of consumer hesitancy to go to restaurants and to lots of stores instead. They may go back to working remotely, etc., and so the deli departments may do well.

But, long term, this is not a recipe for success. Building a business on the idea that one’s consumers are afraid to go elsewhere, or will already order from the rest of the store for online delivery, is an expression of a kind of weakness in consumer appeal.

We want to have the kind of deli operations where consumers will want to go out of their way to eat our food and where they do special delivery orders even if they are not buying groceries. Indeed, we want consumers to want our deli and broader foodservice operations to be so appealing that they drive long distances to visit or order from our operations, and the rest of the store benefits from the ancillary business picked up from consumers who really love our subs, pizza, Chinese food, fresh salads, etc., and just happen to order their groceries at the same time.


Indeed, the quantum leap of consumers into online ordering makes the deli operation extraordinarily significant. In the past, even great deli operations were constrained in their ability to be the customer magnet for the store by the unwillingness of consumers to go out of their way for their groceries. Partly this was a matter of convenience, partly practicality; one doesn’t want to be far away and have the ice cream melt in the trunk.

If you are ordering online, however, none of this matters. As long as the store is in delivery range, one doesn’t care if the store is near, far, en route or in the opposite direction. This becomes someone else’s problem. You just get to order what you want.

So, the challenge and the opportunity become clear. The challenge is to have fresh food so good and so unique that consumers want your deli products and prefer your deli products so dramatically that they will pass over their usual en route supermarket just to get the incredible dishes and products your deli department can offer them!

The idea is clear. Of course, this is far easier said than done. If the goal is just to have sufficiently good products to satisfy the customers already in store, that is one thing. If the goal is to make the deli department a Culinary Mecca that will draw customers to order from the department and drag along a lot of grocery orders, that is an entirely different proposition.

All too many deli departments are mundane. They offer sliced meats and cheeses, some salads and perhaps a few foodservice basics, such as rotisserie or fried chicken, maybe pizza.


That is all fine, but it is not the kind of offer that serves as a magnet to attract consumers, and consumer dollars, to a store.

Start with the basics. Whether using a national or regional brand that covers a broad line of meats and cheeses or curating a selection of different producers on different products, we have to be prepared to sell consumers on our choices, to persuade consumers that the products we sell are superior to what they could get elsewhere.

When it comes to salad selection, what makes your deli the place to buy? Is it a broader selection? Is it what constitutes the salad? Maybe the brand of mayonnaise or oil or vinegar?

What makes your prepared foods different? What makes the dishes better? There aren’t many supermarkets that do a great job selling these attributes.

And how do you sustain consumer interest? Are there specials of the day? If so, are they just based on price? Or are they “you can’t get this anywhere else” prepared foods?

Do you do anything special for a consumer? How about always sending home a sample of a new dish with every order? The idea of a Baker’s dozen can be applied to every item in the department. Do you always give a little extra?

Eddie Fisher, the well-known singer and once husband of Elizabeth Taylor, used to tell the story of how, as a boy, his mother would send him to a bagel shop. The one he was directed to was further away, so he went to one that was closer. The bagel shops both put the bagels in plain brown bags, so he figured his mom would never know. When he returned with the dozen bagels she had requested, she chastised him for going to the wrong place. He found out that the other bagel shop always gave a baker’s dozen and that was why his mother was loyal. He told the story to explain how he, as a singer, thought about audiences, that he always tried to give a little something extra. As the pandemic fades, but delivery remains at an enhanced rate, this is a lesson every supermarket deli would be wise to internalize.              DB

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