Supermarkets big and little are taking new interest in the role deli salads can play in sharpening their fresh image, setting them apart in the marketplace, and pushing up the bottom line.
They're giving them more space, adding zest to displays, creating sourcing efficiencies -- and they're telling consumers about their salads in new ways.
These days, sundried tomato/four-grain salad is apt to vie with Thai peanut linguine for attention in the service case, while the pale trio of standard potato/
coleslaw/macaroni salads has been moved over to self-service, retailers told SN.
But in the service case, even potato salad in an interesting, upscaled version, can command a decent retail price. Rudy's Market in Bend, Ore., is selling its own store-made "Groovy Potato Salad" for $7 a pound.
And Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, gets a premium price for its signature blue-cheese, baked-potato salad that is a destination year round. With the old tried-and-true salads, the idea is to grab their attention with new and exciting things, said Gianfranco DiCarlo, vice president, concept development at Marsh.
"We rotate something new into the salad case on a weekly basis. Also, if we have potato salad on the right side of the case this week, we'll put it on the left next week. We want the customer to have to search for it, because as their eyes keep moving around the case, she'll find something new," DiCarlo said.
"That's standard operating procedure with us -- to constantly create excitement in the case. People want to see something new. And last year, we started having 'floating demos.' An associate walks around the store with a tray of samples, actually taking the item to the customer and then directing them toward the deli."
Indeed, rotating interesting salads in and out of the deli case and constantly sampling them are keys to making the most of this category, industry experts agree.
"Rotating salads and adding seasonal variations are most important. They work to keep the consumers' attention and they also minimize shrink," said Marcia Schurer, president of Culinary Connections, a Chicago-based consulting firm.
At Lunds/Byerly's in Minneapolis, at least 10 to 15 new varieties of salad get a send-off in the service case every quarter, and the key message to consumers is "fresh, fresh, fresh," said Jennifer Panchenko, director, deli operations, for the 20-unit independent operator.
"About half of our salads are made in our central facility, and half are put together at store level from components made at the facility," Panchenko said.
"Using components especially works for our 'gourmet composed salads.' We take a lot of care with the ingredients. We add components and good, fresh herbs and greens at the store, and we make sure they're arranged nicely in the bowl. They have to look great. We all know customers shop with their eyes," Panchenko said.
"One of the best-looking, and a good seller, is one that has dried Michigan cherries, grilled chicken, pasta, and poppy seed dressing. We're real cognizant of color and texture."
While many delis have opted for crockery or china bowls and platters for displaying salads, one Midwest independent with an impressive menu of upscale, store-made salads, favors long, shallow trays because of their functionality.
"We feel they make sanitation and [daily] rotation easier. We use only 30-inch by 6- or 8-inch trays. It's a labor and safety thing," said Lori Russell, deli director, at 9-unit Riesbeck Stores, St. Clairsville, Ohio.
Russell explained that the shape of the tray makes it easier for associates to handle. They just pull the tray out, add fresh product, and turn the whole tray around so the freshest is then at the front of the case. Associates also indicate on a card at the back of each tray the time they added more product. The salads are all made from scratch, by a night crew, at the company's five traditional stores.
Few retailers these days are making salads from scratch, but many are putting them together from components they source from their own central kitchen or from manufacturers. Salad kits from third parties represent an emerging trend, industry experts told SN. They take some of the labor out of the process but also provide a measure of consistency and enhance the "fresh" image because the in-store assembly creates some theater.
"We tried kits from manufacturers, but we decided making our salads from scratch was the most profitable for us," Russell said.
Riebeck's way must be working because salads make up 20% of total deli sales, way above the national average of about 12%. And the company's signature turkey salad sells so well it was taxing the labor force until the company began buying de-boned turkeys.
"We were cooking eight 24- to 30-pound turkeys a day in each store, and having to debone them. This has paid off in less labor and better yield."
The turkey salad is second only to potato salad on Riebeck's best-seller list, Russell said.
Dierbergs Markets, St. Louis, meanwhile, has taken the all-time American favorite, potato salad, and made a big thing of it.
"We have five different varieties all made at our central kitchen, and they're top quality. We use only red potatoes, which have less starch and more moisture, and we use only Hellman's mayonnaise. For the sliced potato salad, we do it by hand. They're all made in small batches to keep the integrity of the texture," said David Calandro, the retailer's director of deli-food service.
The company believes its potato salads give it a definite competitive advantage, Calandro said.
"People love it, and nobody else around here is doing this. One of the recipes, Grandma Dierbergs' German Bavarian potato salad, has come down through four generations. All of them retail for $3.29 a pound, and we don't bring in any others."
One consultant who works with supermarkets and manufacturers said he thinks Dierbergs' showcasing its own carefully made potato salads is good thinking.
"That's such a smart move -- to take a customer favorite like that, make it their own, and offer it at a fair price," said Stephan Kouzomis, president of Meal Market Solutions Group (division of E.C.I), Louisville, Ky.
Some other retailers have put their own spin on potato salad with success.
"The store groups that I've worked with have seen customers switching up to the more exotic potato salads, especially when entertaining. Everybody wants to be a Martha Stewart, but most people don't have the time. So they will gladly pay $3.69 per pound for an upscale potato salad for the backyard barbecue with their friends," said Jim Sutton, president, Foodscape, a Seattle-based consulting firm.
This spring, Dierbergs launched a radio ad devoted to its potato salad. The spot doesn't mention price, but it reminds consumers that "homemade potato salads are a Dierbergs tradition." The radio ad also points out that Dierbergs potato salads "are hand-made fresh in our very own kitchen with the same care and fresh ingredients. Just like you'd make at home."
The company also for the first time will dedicate a large print ad, three quarters of a page, to its deli salads. The ad lists 16 salads, and points out that five of them are new. Running the week before Father's Day, the ad will reach 750,000 consumers via the St. Louis Dispatch, Calandro said.
Meantime, others are getting on the bandwagon to tell people about their deli salads. An official at a large Midwest chain, who asked not to be named, said marketing the salad category is part of this year's ad plan. The salad case is also shown in the background of all the chain's television ads to show the "wholesomeness of the store."
"Retailers have a great opportunity to improve their salad sales and I'm talking about high-end, value-added, profitable items. I've seen some great promoting with a large floor easel announcing a salad of the week. Also, I've seen cross merchandising with a protein. For instance, a sign that suggests the deli's own fresh broccoli-tomato salad goes well with its lemon pepper pork loin," said Dan Giacoletto, a chef, a veteran of both the food-service and retail industries.
But Giacoletto, who's based in Lancaster County, Pa., said that in his experience he has noted that most stores don't promote their deli salads on a consistent basis.
"And that's shameful when they account [on the average, nationally] for 12.5% of deli sales. And they're impulse buys."
While they may not be calling attention to them in any other way, some retailers are instructing their deli associates to talk about salads when customers come up to the deli counter.
"We have a 'buzzword program' to focus attention on a different product each week. This week, it's our Asian chicken salad, so anyone coming to the counter would be asked if they've tried that salad or would like to," said Panchenko at Lunds/Byerly's.
Even though the spotlight is on the service case, that doesn't mean the self-service case, or for that matter, commodity salads, have been neglected. In fact, self-service space allocated for salads has grown, SN's sources said. And family-size and picnic-size containers of the commodity salads are often featured. Riesbeck Stores, for one, takes special care to build attractive displays of these items on summer holiday weekends, Russell told SN.
But many chains have been trimming labor by bringing best-selling salads in prepacked, either from outside or from their own kitchens.
Dierbergs used to send their potato salads in bulk to their stores, and associates would pack them up for self-service, but a little over a year ago, the central kitchen began packing them in consumer sizes for the self-service cases. Lunds/Byerly's has gone the same route with three of its salads: potato, coleslaw and penne pasta. Previously, they'd been packed at store level, but now, for efficiency's sake, those three top sellers are packed in 1-pound and 32-ounce containers at the company's central facility.
Industry observers told SN fewer retailers are playing the price game when it comes to potato salad, even the regular variety they might source from outside, prepacked and prelabeled. Retailers, they said, are finding that people want potato salad no matter what, especially on summer weekends, and will pay a reasonable price for it, even if it's on the high side. So why deep discount it?
"Several retailers have tested the limits of what customers would pay for regular potato salad and found out that it is a lot more than most people would think. I shop stores that still sell potato salad at an everyday price of 99 cents and also stores that have no problem getting $2.69 to $2.99 a pound, and I'm not talking about gourmet stores," Giacoletto said.