Mixing it Up with Salads

Classic, globally-inspired and health-forward salads have become deli staples.

As U.S. consumers’ palates have become more adventuresome, so have today’s deli department salad offerings.

Alongside the traditional potato, mac and slaw—potato salad, mac- aroni salad and coleslaw—are offerings incorporating ingredients like grains, dried fruit, nuts and innovative spices.

Sales are looking up. In the 52 weeks ending April 18, 2020, salad dollar sales totaled almost $4.3 billion, a 4.3 percent increase from 2019, according to New York City-based The Nielsen Co. Unit sales were close to 950 million, a 2 percent increase from a year prior.

“Today’s consumers are seeking con- venience and variety, as much as they are looking for quality and value,” says Nathan Roe, senior manager, Deli Strategy & Customer Marketing, Reser’s Fine Foods, Beaverton, OR. “Retailers nationwide are mixing up the status quo, from delis that are expanding to demonstrate a retailer’s prepared foods expertise, to departments that are moving to packaged-only, freeing up behind-the-glass labor costs.”

What’s Selling

Classic, comfort foods remain staples in the deli department.

“Traditional, great-tasting deli sal- ads such as potato salad, macaroni salad and coleslaw continue to be our top-sell- ing products,” says Roe at Reser’s. “We’ve also seen growth in upscale, prepared sal- ads with ingredients such as turmeric and shrimp as well as single-serve items sold in multipack configurations.”

The company also is closely watching the meal kit trend and looking for insight into why some consumers want a min- imal amount of preparation, and some prefer a few cooking and heating steps. Consequently, fully-assembled meal kits, as well as those with just a few assembly steps, are on Reser’s horizon.

This is because all demographics, from Baby Boomers to Millennials, are looking for convenient options that not only taste good and are of high quality, but also are more sustainable.

“Most folks don’t know what to make for dinner; they start thinking [about it] around 3 p.m.,” says Carl H. Cappelli, vice pres- ident of sales and business development, Don’s Prepared Foods, Schwenksville, PA. “They go to retail delis searching for solutions.”

Don’s Prepared Foods’ offerings are following the trends of globally-inspired, clean, edgy, unique, plant-based options.

The company offers protein salads under its Don’s Artisan Deli line that have clean labels.

“The current trends being driven by Millennials and Gen Xers are they want to feel good about sourcing delicious food,” says Cappelli.

The classic potato salad, coleslaw and macaroni salads remain staples for Winter Gardens Quality Foods, Inc., based in New Oxford, PA.

“These types represent 75 percent of all salad volume with our customers,” says John Cummins, Winter Gardens’ R&D/ culinary sales specialist. “We’ve definitely seen sales and trends coming down and shifting in other directions.”

This includes more healthful choices towards grains and vegetables as well as oil and vinegar-based dressings as opposed to mayonnaise-based.

“We’re updating these salads with more healthful ingredients to improve the nutri- tional value and clean up labels with regard to ingredients,” says Cummins. “This means no more shelf stabilizing preserva- tives, along with a more fresh and healthful presentation.”

The Innovations

Reser’s Fine Foods works with retailers in several ways—from innovating products within traditional segments, to pushing boundaries with creative line extensions, to opening up new salad segments.

“A focus on a single herb or spice, such as dill, parsley or cilantro, or a primary ingredient like deviled eggs, gives a quick cue to the consumer of what to expect,” says Roe. “Our culinary R&D chefs are also introducing appealing ingredients, such as wild rice and pepitas, with creative tech- niques that include roasting, spiralizing or caramelizing for new and delicious flavor combos.”

Consumers are increasingly scanning ingredient statements and want to feel good about what they’re eating.

“For the most part, they don’t want to sacrifice flavor, taste or convenience, but we think there may be some flexibility on price,” says Roe. “There is a perception that fresh deli sides are already ‘clean’, so in many cases, we see the industry simply catching up with consumer expectations.”

Don’s Prepared Foods has added 25 clean salads and sides to its roster. The All Natural Deli Salads include Clean Grains, such as wheatberry, mango lime quinoa and roasted corn salad. Other varieties include Seven Grain Salad, Cranberry Grain Salad, Island Grain with Beans and Spicy Black Beans with Corn.

Cummins at Winter Gardens Quality Foods also is seeing more innovation in healthier salads in the deli, along with cleaner labels and ingredients with a higher nutritional value.

“The focus is on health without sacrific- ing flavor and appearance,” says Cummins. Winter Gardens has several quinoa-based salads and Asian varieties that incorporate sesame oil, soy sauce, coconut, edamame and soybeans. Its 4 Grain salad incorporates nutritious ingredients including brown, white and wild rice and wheat berries with diced vegetables, Parmesan cheese and a vinaigrette dressing.

“The grain category is where we see the most requests for updated recipes and innovation,” says Cummins. “Also, seafood is not so much an ingredient but an entire category.”

Twists on old favorites are trending. For example, Winter Gardens’ popular variet- ies are Amish-style macaroni salad with shrimp and seafood seasoning. Its classic tuna salad is offered in a Mediterranean style that is mayonnaise free. This includes a lemon flavor with artichoke hearts, kala- mata olives and roasted pepper strips.

“Stores came to us to develop a salad that uses seasoned rotisserie chicken for a lighter option that fits in with the trends,” says Cummins. “With the prevalence of rotisserie chicken, what used to be a rescue program with leftovers turned into chicken salad.”

As a fresh-cut manufacturer and sup- plier to grocery and deli sections across the Midwest, Pearson Foods Corp. headquar- tered in Grand Rapids, MI, strives to find the balance between innovation and tradi- tion behind the glass.

“While loyal consumers may pick up the classically loved old-fashioned coleslaw, they may also be drawn to the enticing Blue Cheese Coleslaw, with refreshing bursts of crisp cucumber and creamy blue cheese,” says Ruta Pearson, vice president of sales and marketing. “We do this by constantly analyzing food trends and leveraging our high-quality fresh components to create flavors that excite and engage consumers in the deli section of grocery stores.”

Pearson salad kits are made with the deli buyer, retail associate and consumer in mind. Deli kits come in small one- to two-kit cases to help the deli buyer control inventory and shrink.

“For the associate, there is no prepara- tion required for the salads,” says Pearson. “They simply mix all of the pre-cut compo- nents provided by Pearson in a mixing bag, set it out in the display case and serve.”

Marketing & Merchandising

Salad freshness continues to be a key component within the deli—from the look and appearance of an item, to its prepara- tion and assembly.

Resers’ recent successful launch of a turkey recovery dressing kit, which includes separate components for dressing, dried cranberries and mixed nuts, helped solve a deli operator challenge of utilizing extra meat from a deli hot case program.

“Utilizing an existing program also extended the appeal of turkey, creating an efficient deli alternative for consumers out- side of the carving station,” says Roe. “The cranberries and nuts added visual appeal, with flavors reminiscent of holiday meals.” Marketing salads should focus on flex- ibility, as these are not only sides, but also components that can complete a meal. “For this reason, delis should allocate more space to these items,” says Cappelli at Don’s Prepared Foods. “They also should include plant-based options and meal kits as solutions.”

Pearson Foods has been collaboraing with deli retailers to meet consumer trends, such as the move toward con- tact-less service.

“The current consumer climate favors the ever growing fast-paced, ready-to-eat market, and now new public health concerns stem from person to person contact,” says Pearson. “With the retailer’s dilemma in mind, Pearson Foods has taken the initiative to develop solutions for ready-to-go salads. This allows the retailer to maintain the private label experience and relation- ship with their consumer while meeting the consumer need for independence, variety and quality fresh food.”

Shelf life should be top of mind when merchandising salads, especially with the move away from preservatives.

“As we move toward cleaner labels and preservative-free products, there does remain a real challenge with shelf life,” says Cummins at Winter Gardens Quality Foods. “But for some time, we’ve been using natural shelf life extenders that are not synthetically made and are considered clean label.”

These natural antimicrobials have not only become more affordable, but also more available.

“Classic deli style salads have incor- porated antimicrobials for cleaner labels without jeopardizing shelf life,” says Cummins. “The performance of these are improving all the time.”

He adds that if trends are any indication, delis are moving away from bulk behind the deli counter merchandising to prepacks.

“The initial reason was due to added convenience, but now it’s more about safety and security,” says Cummins. “Well- merchandised prepacked containers with updated and eco-friendly packaging is what we see customers moving towards.”

This includes smaller 5- and 6-ounce containers as well as the larger 1-, 2- and 3-pound sizes.

“We’re not only seeing delis request reduced packaging, but also materials that are more eco-friendly,” says Cummins. “This includes compostable and recyclable packaging. Although added cost is typi- cally built in for these materials, and there could be resistance for customers, that will decline as this packaging becomes more popular.” DB