EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The key to a successful in-store food-service program is having a clear idea of what and how shoppers today really want to eat.
Supermarkets must think beyond "fried chicken and tired corn on the cob."
That is according to Jack Allen and Tom Pierson, professors of food marketing at Michigan State University here, who were recently interviewed by SN about the state of food service in supermarkets. Allen and Pierson are scheduled to lead a panel discussion on successful food service operations at the annual Supermarket Food Service Conference later this month in Rochester, N.Y.
The conference is jointly sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute and the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association.
To prepare for their presentation, and as part of their general research, the professors have visited and analyzed supermarket food service and food court operations across the United States.
"Where there's top management commitment and a long-term strategic plan, we see deli- food service departments contributing up to 15% of total store sales," said Pierson. By comparison, the average deli-food service department's contribution to sales is no more than 6%.
"Food service is definitely the future in the supermarket. The challenge is to figure out how to grab a fair share of the business," said Pierson, adding that the potential is there to make it "a real profit center." But it takes patience as well as planning, both Pierson and Allen pointed out.
"The nature of food service is so different from the traditional grocery business, it stands to reason you have to have top management's understanding of what it takes to nurture a program along. There has to be a tolerance for error. Everything can't be a howling success," Allen said.
"But it's a two-way street. Deli-food service managers have to inform and stimulate and encourage top management."
Recently, more chains are wising up to the fact that long-term commitment is necessary, and they're giving their deli directors more leeway to experiment.
Other trends Allen and Pierson have seen emerging in the last year are: retailers offering more cooked, chilled foods, in addition to hot items; hiring more full-time staffers to be dedicated to the department; deli-food service departments being moved toward the front of the store; installation of separate entrances for sit-down eating areas; an upscaling of food that reflects a high level of interest, in color, taste and even the spice level, and an increasing concern about offering food that's nutritious.
"There's still catching up to be done with signage," Allen said. "Retailers could be telling customers more clearly that they're using olive oil, for instance, or that food is freshly prepared every day."
The panel at the food service conference will put a tight focus on the different facets of running a food service department in a supermarket.
"A lot of programs up to now haven't gone into the subjects deep enough, but we'll attempt to," Pierson said.
Topics will include how to manage a food service department, including techniques and philosophy, food preparation and sourcing for quality and effectiveness, customer service and sales, merchandising and displaying to better communicate to customers what's being offered, training, optimizing product mix, food integrity and safety, and creating top management involvement.
Panelists will be Michael Eardley, senior director of fresh foods at D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cliff Smith, director of deli at Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., and Phil Masiello, director of food production at Sutton Place Gourmet, Rockville, Md.
The conference is set for Sunday, Sept. 18, to Tuesday, Sept. 20, at the Hyatt Regency Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.
The two-hour panel on the first day will be interactive, Allen said.
"After the panelists have addressed each topic, we'll ask for participation from the audience," he added. "It really will be an exchange of ideas."