The olive bar of the '90s is not just olives anymore -- and for a growing number of operators, it's not unprofitable anymore, either.
an increasingly popular section in supermarket delis.
Part of it is that olive bars play well into the hot food trend in Mediterranean cuisine.
What's more, some retailers interviewed by SN said that they've been adding variety to the bars, broadening their appeal as condiment sections. They are also paying more attention to quality.
The low labor and easy maintenance of olive bars are also big pluses, nudging the bars toward better profits, deli operators told SN.
But the real trick is bettering sales. In some cases, going from service to self-service is helping, but not always. Some operators said more careful tending is doing the trick, and so is frequent sampling to make the unfamiliar a little less so.
"Everybody is trying to find the mystery of sales," said Paul Margarites, senior vice president merchandising at Waldbaum's, Central Islip, N.Y. "This sort of merchandising can create impulse sales when displayed right."
Walbaum's, a division of A&P, offers more than just an olive bar -- the stores have broadened the fixture into a condiment bar, said Margarites.
Artichoke hearts, mushroom caps, pimentos and roasted peppers fill out the complement of olives from around the world, he said. The program also expands beyond Waldbaum's to other A&P banners across the country. The chain is putting them in new and remodeled units -- but not all new stores and remodels.
"These condiment bars are an attempt to put a European flair into the deli department and romance into the store," Margarites said. "However, these bars are not appropriate in all stores. They have to meet the marketplace."
That appropriateness does not necessarily hinge on the specific ethnic makeup of the communities around each store; but it more likely will relate to factors such as income levels, education and worldliness of the clientele, said industry sources.
Fortunately, olive bars tie in well with the ascendancy of Mediterranean cuisine, a trend in lower-fat, high-flavor foods that started at the food-service end of the spectrum and has since worked its way into the fresh and packaged goods sections of more and more supermarkets.
"When it started off, customers would pick at it," said Gary Piazza, owner of Piazza's Fine Foods, a gourmet supermarket operator in Palo Alto, Calif., speaking of the olive bar in his deli.
"We encouraged sampling and the interest was stimulated. Interest was also stimulated by the amount of publicity olives and other Mediterranean foods have gotten with the food editors."
Jungle Jim, in Fairfield, Ohio, is another retailer that has seen the olive bar concept rise from relative obscurity to importance as a segment of the deli business. In Jungle Jim's case, that transition has been happening over eight years.
Phil Adams, deli manager, said the idea to install a bar was spawned when a group of executives from Jungle Jim visited retailers in New York City, and witnessed firsthand "the power of olives."
At first, Jungle Jim offered specialty olives out of the service case. This met with mixed success, Adams said.
The retailer then shifted to a 14-foot L-shaped bar featuring self-service. More than 20 varieties can be accommodated in the refrigerated stainless steel self-service case.
"The first year we had the self-service olive bar, we sold more olives off it than in the service case," Adams said. "But we still did not sell very much.
"Then all of a sudden, along about the first anniversary of the olive bar, sales took off. Sales are now between $2,000 and $2,500 per week."
Adams said the self-service bar offers low-labor and low-maintenance costs. "This, with the fact that we have a high-volume bar in a small floor area, adds to its profitability."
Margarites of Waldbaum's said that the costs are more than manageable, given a well-shopped section. "Just as with salad bars, costs are balanced out by variety," he said.
Jungle Jim stocks the bar with about two-thirds olives and then offers artichoke salad, pepperchini, mixes with dressings and marinates that are made in the store.
Signature Italian-style marinates in sweet and hot flavors are very good sellers, but the most recent "hit" has been bulk feta cheese, according to Adams. Going from service to self-service could sound like a risky proposition to some retailers, especially if a store's clientele is less than intimately familiar with the products on the bar.
In a tactic typical of that operator's tendency toward showmanship, Jungle Jim uses infrared censors around the olive bar that detect when a customer is approaching the display; when he or she gets close enough, the bar itself greets the customer and offers a specialized merchandising message.
One such message at the olive bar greets the customer in Greek first, and then proceeds to describe the olive bar and several of the offerings.
At Piazza's Fine Foods, the olive bar is now "a growing area of the deli," after two years of refinement.
Initially, Piazza's olive program was comprised of 12-ounce retail containers of imported and specialty olives. The first expansion beyond that into an olive bar at Piazza's was a small refrigerated coffin case with four to six containers.
"There was not enough variety," said Piazza. "The refrigeration also congealed the oils."
Since then, Piazza's olive program has shifted to the current configuration: a two-deck 13-foot walk-around display with clear covered containers.
The retailer carries up to 15 olive items on the bar, priced at $7.99 per pound. In addition to a wide variety of olives, Piazza's has antipasti, fire-roasted peppers and capers, items rotated in and out of the assortment.
The No. 1 sellers are the pimento-, garlic- and jalapeno-stuffed varieties, and also the Greek Klamatas, said Piazza.
Draeger's, Menlo Park, Calif., is another operator committed to olive bars. The company plans to expand its olive bar concept to triple the size in a new location.
"The olive bar is an intentional part of the new store's design," said Richard A. Draeger, vice president. "This has been an extremely successful category for us."
Draeger's has been operating olive bars for almost two years. Initially, only olives were offered, but the retailer has diverged from that more recently, with occasional merchandising of some other items such as capers. The bars carry 18 to 21 varieties of olives depending upon the particular store unit size.
"We focused on the more rare Tuscan, Spanish and Greek olives," Draeger said. "We sought to carve out a specialty niche with olives throughout the bar. "We did not offer mushrooms, peppers and other pickled items because we wanted to be deep in the category," Draeger said. "From our store's image standpoint, if we don't represent the end-all in a category, we shouldn't be in it at all."
Draeger's extends its overall fresh image to the olive bar. All items are out of the package, in bulk form, placed uncovered in crocks on the merchandiser, which has a sneeze guard.
"Retailers have better control over freshness of the product and customers can buy the amount they want with bulk displays," Draeger said. "We are also able to merchandise with much more flourish."