Supermarket prepared-food programs across the country are being designed to meet consumers' needs for convenient meals solutions. But should meals merchandisers also be tapping into another important trend, by offering specific products to shoppers looking for ways to eat healthier?
Some operators say yes, and they are busy working "healthy" items, such as low-fat or low-sodium meals, into their programs. Others say they are considering adding healthy meals as a way to build on years of healthy sales logged by low-fat versions of their deli salads.
They have reason to be encouraged. Low-fat products, typified by the SnackWells line, became runaway bestsellers soon after hitting the dry grocery shelves. Better-tasting low-fat cheeses are making their mark in the dairy case. Sales of organics are rising in supermarket produce and meat and grocery departments.
But making a solid, lasting connection between fresh prepared food and healthy eating may not be so easy. For one thing, the "healthy" equation may add up to more than just low-fat alternatives, some retailers and experts in the natural-food business told SN.
For another, the supermarket deli has typically not been the first department that comes to mind when shoppers are thinking about "good-for-you" food.
Meals executives looking to tap this segment of the market are trying to deal with such issues, by offering more imaginative salads, dairy-free offerings and grilled -- instead of fried -- meat and poultry dishes.
And some, though not all, are putting deliberate marketing emphasis behind their healthier offerings. But to do so requires settling on what "healthy" ought to mean in each operator's meals program, and then finding or creating the products to fit that bill and also meet other criteria for quality and value.
Healthy salads have sold well for years at Waldbaum's, Central Islip, N.Y., a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J. Dan Cabbassa, deli director, said the chain is now preparing to launch a more comprehensive program.
"The healthy-meal solution is a growing category and we are working with a food consultant to develop a full line," said Cabbassa. "But the products shown to us aren't up to snuff yet. We've gotten them preservative-free, but the taste isn't right, and we don't want to enter the market with anything less than excellent products."
"We started to offer healthier meal solutions in our prepared-foods counter two to three years ago," said Tom DeVries, director of food service at D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich. "We create them with our house chef, and we know we have to meet three criteria: the food has to taste good, be a value to our customer and be nutritious."
Such criteria seem to have worked for the company; the category has grown 15% annually since the program began, DeVries said. However, it did not happen without marketing support.
"Nutritious and healthy are not what comes to mind when the consumer thinks of deli, while high fat, meat, cheese and lots of mayonnaise are. Also, the consumer assumes high fat equals high flavor. It's up to us to show them it can be different," DeVries said.
He said D&W is showing consumers just that, with a program that offers a large selection of meal items branded "Guiltless Delights." The variety includes no-fat, reduced-fat and low-sodium appetizers, salads, entrees and even dessert items like a hot apple crisp.
Besides using the Guiltless Delights name, the retailer identifies the healthier options with flags indicating such information as fat content. The flags' colors are the reverse of other in-case signage that is used for conventional products.
D&W also knows such items are not for everybody, DeVries said.
"You can find these in all of our 24 stores, but certain store clusters have more variety. The most popular item in the counter, from our tonnage point of view, is our baked potato salad with chunks of fresh vegetables, in a fat-free Dijonaisse, and it costs the same as our regular salad. Fat-free is not more expensive to make, it just fills a need for the consumer who is probably a baby boomer with a slowing metabolism and who is more interested in healthy, reduced-fat and balanced meals."
DeVries said that beyond the Guiltless line, D&W also offers a number of items that could be considered healthy, such as rice pilafs and herbed orzo with sun-dried tomatoes or items from the rotisserie. "These are usually items where customers don't traditionally question the nutritional value," he noted.
Some operators consider flagging specific items as healthy unnecessary. For natural-food supermarket chain Bread & Circus Wholefood Supermarkets, Newton Highlands, Mass., for instance, its bread and butter is a consumer base that already expects the stores' offerings to be good for them.
The Fresh Pond Bread & Circus in Cambridge, Mass., has a loyal following among the surrounding academic community, including consumers who came to the area here for education and stayed on into their professional and family lives.
"The Bread & Circus philosophy starts with health and good taste first," explained Joel Leonard, prepared-food team leader for the Fresh Pond store. He said the prepared-food case is set up with five main dishes and "anywhere from 30 to 50 side dishes," and that healthy eating underlies the entire offering.
The emphasis is broader than fat content. "Low-fat is not a main priority here, though many of our foods are, indeed, low in fat and sodium," Leonard said. "Newton is a community a few miles away, where low-fat is a big need, and so we offer them a complete fat-free line of foods. But in Fresh Pond, the low-fat, non-dairy, low-calorie, low-salt items are snuggled right next to the high-cholesterol ones. A list of ingredients is posted for each dish.
"If the customer has a question, they ask, and of course they can taste anything they want. The interaction is great for sales. Maybe one time a month, someone might ask to be taken through the low-fat options and we're happy to do that. When you have this many items, plus a hot case with 18 items, you can't overwhelm people with too much information," he said.
According to Stan Thoren, of S.A. Thoren, a natural-products consulting firm based in Kenilworth, Ill., the two consumer desires for convenient meals and healthy food are converging, prompting health-food marketers to respond but, again, in ways that go further than trimming fat.
"This segment is less fat-phobic, and more nutritionally aware than the mainstream. They are more interested in reducing calories than fat. There's been research linking an extremely low-fat diet to adverse health, and of course some fats and oils are highly beneficial," Thoren said.
"These shoppers know it. They may be interested in lighter food, but they're much more interested in using the right kinds of fats and oils, and, above all else, avoiding partially hydrogenated fats."
Retailers need to react, he said, advising even mainstream food markets always to have a vegetarian entree in their prepared-food case. "Families are becoming more fractional. There's usually at least one vegetarian in the household these days."
Wild by Nature, the natural-food supermarket operated in East Setauket, N.Y., by mainstream chain King Kullen, makes sure vegetarian meals are in the mix.
"We're not a vegetarian store, just a vegetarian-friendly store," said Bob Feuillebois, deli manager at Wild by Nature, which serves a university community with a lot of vegans and vegetarians. "All of the oils used in food prep are either canola, or extra-virgin olive oil. We never use partially hydrogenated oils. We also use nothing farmed with antibiotics and there's never any added salt or sugar."
Some of Wild by Nature's fat-reducing techniques come from a dairy-free inclination, he added. Many "cream" soups use soy or rice milk. The usual buffalo wings here turn into a healthful baked version called Bombay chicken wings.
However, while tofu lasagna and egg-less salad are displayed next to regular lasagna and egg salad, the department does little to focus on the low-fat characteristics of the former two. Plenty of items are identified as "heart-smart," but healthy, and not just low-fat, is the main emphasis, Feuillebois said.
A source at a large supermarket chain in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut said that items such as low-fat cheeses sell very well, as do a variety of low-fat salads. But while customers love the sun-dried tomato salad, "we don't do much to sell these other than have signs that describe the product," she said.
Low-fat salads are big winners at West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, but not because the independent retailer spends a lot of effort promoting their lack of fat, according to owner Russ Vernon.
Vernon said the store's low-fat chicken salad is very popular, and it offers a number of other imaginative, healthy salads, as well as steamed and grilled vegetables without salt.
Healthfulness is worth merchandising, he said, especially considering West Point's clientele. "We have a senior urban professional base," he explained. "These people are focused on healthy issues. We use a lot of extra virgin olive oil, and we use very little canned and frozen product, which, along with tasting better, reduces unnecessary or hidden sodium in food."
Nonetheless, "We don't flag our low-fat items, because of the management difficulty of dealing with 30 salads, which change daily," he added.
Vernon said he expects West Point's low-fat, low-sodium prepared-food business to continue to grow, and he will look into a suitable "dinner-to-go" program to broaden its appeal. There will be prepacked, ready-to-go selections: an entree, a couple of sides, salad and drink combinations, with one of the options being on the healthier side.
Ronetco Supermarkets, Ledgewood, N.J., a member of the Wakefern Food cooperative, Elizabeth, N.J., detected a need for healthy meals and installed a new program about a year ago, said Danny LeClech, supervisor of seafood, dairy and deli.
"We have lower-fat deli-type items and vegetables, and we switched from a high-fat to a low-fat tortilla wrap to give the customer a healthier sandwich," he said. "We want to do more with prepared foods."
LeClech said that developing recipes for such items is no harder than for full-fat ones. The hard part of merchandising them, however, is dealing with requirements for nutritional labeling, since the items diverge from conventional nutrition profiles.
Still, Ronetco is going through the process because "the customer is looking for these foods," LeClech said. "We help them with consumer-education seminars. For example, we sponsor supermarket tours where we feature our healthier items."
As LeClech sees it, for healthy meals in supermarkets "the future is low-fat -- but things like low-fat brie? That was a big flop. There are some foods that are meant to be about the fat, but there are plenty of ways of cutting it and that's where many profits are."