Who would think supermarket deli, dairy and meat departments would be the ones to gain when it seems the whole world has gone on a diet?
That's what's happening as dieters come looking for all the good-tasting things they can eat even as they trim inches off their waistlines. With copies of the Atkins or South Beach diets tucked under their arms, they're seeking all kinds of cheese, ribs, corned beef and steaks -- even bacon.
"It's a tremendous boon for the industry. I've been defending deli for years, and now all of a sudden, women are getting up at six in the morning to make bacon and eggs for breakfast, and wrap up stacks of ham and cheese to take for lunch," said one supplier.
Deli finally has its day in the sun. Retailers, without investing a lot of money, are making the most of it.
Handwritten signs and orange, fluorescent stickers that say "Low Carb" are being put to work. Something as simple as corn tortilla wraps with deli meat and cheese and low-carb salads in a self-service case with stickers and shelf strips that say "lowcarb-lowcarb-lowcarb" are part of the effort at Quillin's, LaCrosse, Wis.
Other retailers are signing up customers for low-carb cooking classes they've scheduled for January and February.
Right now at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., Michel Bray, manager, specialty cheese, for the 105-unit chain, is asking his department clerks to quickly get signs up -- whether handwritten or done on a computer -- that say, "Lose the carbs, not the cheese."
He'll also probably use that phrase or something similar in the chain's Jan. 4 ad circular when he'll feature some of his top-selling cheeses, Bray said.
"It's actually surprising that so many cheeses have zero or very few carbs, and that's for a two- or three-ounce serving. Fresh mozzarella, Brie, gouda, Jarlsberg -- just about everything."
The signs, too, create another way to engage customers, especially since some of his cheese clerks are on the Atkins diet and like to talk about it, Bray said.
"I told them that, 'Hey, here's an opportunity to get the customer who used to walk on by us.' Now, we can get them back."
Bray said customers occasionally had asked about the Atkins diet before, "but it was right after the [Food and Drug Administration] said [the Atkins diet] works, a few months ago, that it really popped."
Quillin's got on board in a big way right after that with a series of Low Carb Nights, orchestrated by Jenny King, natural foods manager, for the nine-unit independent.
"It was early in July. We wanted to establish ourselves as a source of [low-carb] recipes and a place to exchange ideas. We just picked a night and put out an invitation to our customers, and about 60 to 70 came to that first one," King recalled.
For the most recent one, the retailer attracted close to 100 people. That event was promoted through radio ads all week and a full-page ad highlighting that Quillin's had a low-carb, grab-and-go case in the deli, she said.
In fact, senior deli manager Tony Doering is devoting eight linear feet to low-carb sandwiches and sides in that case. The items carry rectangular, orange, fluorescent stickers that say "low carb."
King pointed out that the Low Carb Nights serve to bring customers in and, more important, take them to all parts of the store.
"For example, at the Nights, we give out coupons for 50 cents off a pound of sliced cheese in the deli, and coupons for 50 cents off any steak. The response has been very positive. I'm surprised that more stores haven't picked up on this. Any store could do these things. It's not a big investment."
Low-carb workshops and cooking classes at all its stores, beginning right after the holidays, are on the calendar at EarthFare, a natural foods supermarket chain based in Ashville, N.C.
"Right now, we're also experimenting with low-carb sandwiches. We have an extensive custom-made sandwich program," said Michael Cianciarulo, president and chief executive officer of the seven-unit independent.
Cianciarulo said the low-carb diet trend is one of the strongest movements he's ever seen in the food business. He said he first recognized the trend earlier in the year as he tracked his own sales.
"I could tell it was low carbs that people were looking for, and they pay high prices for them. We have a low-carb pancake mix for $9, and we sell a lot of it. I've looked at sales, too, for example, of our salad dressings, and I've seen it's the ones with the least amount of sugar that sell best. We'll see how our low-carb sandwiches [on low-carb bread] do."
Items that are naturally low-carb, like whole-muscle meats, are pushing deli sales up at Morton Williams Associated, Bronx, N.Y., according to Richard Travaglione, vice president, deli-meat operations, at the 10-unit chain.
Not only are sales of grab-and-go sandwiches designated as "low-calorie" continuing to grow at a brisk pace, but some store-roasted deli items are also fast sellers.
"It's unbelievable how rotisserie chickens are selling at our 57th Street store," Travaglione said, as he gave much of the credit to the low-carb diet trend's acceleration.
"Also, about eight months ago, we started carving [store-roasted] turkey off the bird in our delis. When it's cut off the frame like that, I guess people feel it's natural, and they like that. That's selling extremely well," he added.
What's safest and least expensive is to spotlight those naturally low-carb items either with stickers like Quillin's is doing, or simply build bigger and more prominent displays of items like cheeses and rotisserie chickens, sources told SN. That way, there's no big money going into reformulating products.
Some retailers, however, will be creating some of their own low-carb deli items to attract attention.
While Jewel-Osco, a Chicago-based division of Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, has been carrying a large variety of Atkins-brand products in a special grocery section, and has just rolled out low-carb shelf tags to other parts of the store, it hasn't as yet spotlighted low-carb items in its fresh departments. That's about to change, at least in the deli, according to Kim Kirchherr, corporate dietitian for the division, which has 200-plus units in the Midwest.
"We're looking into a low-carb salad [for deli] right now," Kirchherr said.
Even Dallas-based EatZi's, the hybrid grocery-restaurant concept best known for its chef-prepared, gourmet entrees and its huge array of baked on-site treats -- from crusty artisan breads to triple-chocolate tarts -- is responding to the low-carb diet trend and to consumers' focus on healthy eating in general. As it gets ready to expand into new areas of the United States, the company is at the drawing board right now, specifically reshaping its menu to give consumers what they want.
"We are in the beginning of the R&D process on healthy-lifestyle menus and products. We're revisiting all areas of the market from the chef case to the grill, as well as our signature bread products to either reengineer or refocus on specific trend-responsive products," said Terry Roberts, EatZi's vice president, brand management.
Everybody SN talked to said they think the low-carb trend is here to stay, or at least will be around for a long time.
"There's never been a time, that I know of, when the deli could take such advantage of a trend, and I think it's going to have a long run," said Ron Walser, chief operating officer of Hansel & Gretel, a Glendale, N.Y., deli meat provisioner that supplies supermarket delis and other retailers with several lines of low-calorie and low-carb items. "Statistically, there's such a low percentage of customers who shop the deli. Think about it. We could get them in with the low-carb opportunity. Right now, we're working on a zero-carb ham, which we'll have ready for January."
While certain deli items and dairy products, including Bel Kaukana's Laughing Cow cheese, are experiencing a low-carb-related sales surge, supermarket meat and seafood departments are getting their due, too.
"I personally have seen customers carrying the Atkins book into retailers' seafood departments, asking how many carbs an item has. We're addressing that in a new program," said Evie Hansen, director of National Seafood Educators, Richmond Beach, Wash.
Hansen is working with Schnuck Markets in St. Louis on a program to educate its customers about seafood. Part of the program involves informing associates about the number of carbs in the fish, as well as how the products fit into the WeightWatchers point system and into the American Heart Association's guidelines.
"We give the folks behind the counter the information they need to answer customers' questions. A lot of customers are coming up to the counter there, saying they're on the Atkins diet -- and that's St. Louis, the middle of the country. Generally, you think of people on the West Coast or in New York dieting, but [low-carb dieting] is all over the country."
In fact, in LaCrosse, Wis., at Quillin's flagship store, a sign on the front door calls attention to the fact that "We are a Certified Atkins Retailer."
"We have people driving here from 60 and 70 miles away because of that and our Low Carb Nights," King told SN.
Meanwhile, Costco, a mass merchandiser based in Issaquah, Wash., has seen a significant increase in meat sales.
"Our meat sales are strong, stronger than we expected. I don't think you can really identify [the reasons], but it can't have hurt [that the low-carb diet trend has accelerated]," said Doug Holbrook, general merchandise manager for the chain, which has more than 300 units across the United States.
EarthFare also is experiencing unexpected, hefty increases in meat sales.
"Despite higher [retail] prices, our meat sales are way up. Tonnage [in fresh meat] is up 15% from last quarter," Cianciarulo said.