Bored with bland food, consumers across the board have warmed up to hotter flavors, thanks to extensive traveling and exposure to new dishes in restaurants. Supermarket deli directors have responded with a variety of new dishes and products.
Wooster, Ohio-based Buehler's Fresh Foods has steadily built up a more robust prepared food program in its delis. The retailer has increased its selection of spicy ethnic foods and boosted the assortment of meats and cheeses with zestier flavors, said Dave Allen, director of deli merchandising for the 11-store chain.
"People are enjoying more spicy foods, so we're trying to get more into Thai and Mexican ethnic prepared foods, something we never would have considered a decade ago, and things like spicier types of sushi and several types of Buffalo wings with different levels of heat," he said. "We're still in the beginning stages of this and we're trying to feel out our customers as to how spicy we can make things. The demand varies greatly from store to store."
The chain's cheese and meat lineup has been enhanced with several new items, including cheeses flavored with spices and assertive blue cheeses, and deli meats such as spicy lemon turkey and Cajun ham. The chain sourced the new lineup through distributors with greater access to imports.
"A lot of our foods are getting more flavorful, not necessarily more spicy," Allen said. "We have an amazing central kitchen that prepares a lot of our foods, and they've been great at developing new recipes. We offer a lot of the standard deli fare, but we're definitely doing more tinkering."
food lineup to a new level. Entrees such as Mongolian beef, Taos chicken and spicy skewered shrimp carry extra kick, said Jay Volk, the chain's vice president of food service.
"The flavor profile of the foods has definitely been improved," he said. "Customers are expecting higher-quality foods from supermarkets and we felt growing pressure to compete with the quality of Chinese quick-serve restaurants in our market and match the kind of Asian foods we sell in other parts of the store under brands like Panda Express."
For the past three years, the chain has been on a mission to improve the quality of its prepared foods. A well-traveled chef with a keen sense of the latest trends in food service was brought on board to help guide recipe development, Volk said. Many of the entrees are prepared by a supplier and delivered frozen and ready to eat, though some preparation occurs at store level.
More than 50 recipes make up the chain's "chef's entree" program, Volk said. Three to four times a month, individual stores are able to offer selections from that lineup. All dishes were developed to deliver better flavor than what is traditionally found in supermarket delis.
"The broad food-service industry is going to bolder flavors, and being located in the Southwest, our customers are expecting foods with an even bolder profile," he said. "We're competing with the likes of Applebee's and their takeout program, as well as quick-serve formats, and we think there's room for growth in competing for their customers."
To successfully compete, however, supermarkets are learning there's a lot more involved than just sprinkling on extra spices to raise the heat, a la Thai or Mexican foods. The bigger challenge is preparing dishes that offer the subtle flavors that appeal to sophisticated consumers willing to try new foods, as well as baby boomers with aging taste buds.
It should come as no surprise that consumers crave flavor, said Andre Halston, vice president of food service and the corporate executive chef for Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.
"Nine out of 10 restaurant diners use the pepper mill," said Halston, who came to the natural food retailer from the food-service industry.
In designing the chain's deli prepared food lineup, Halston said he's concentrated on adding some flair to virtually every dish, either through the liberal use of spices and herbs, unique ingredients or preparation techniques. The effort has yielded dishes like rustico Romano chicken breast made with real Romano cheese and cilantro, and chipotle roasted chicken. It's also produced new takes on old deli standbys, simply by doing something a little out of the ordinary.
"One of the things we've rolled out is something we call Phenomenal Pot Roast. It's a twist on standard pot roast, in that we use our own seasoning blend and pan sear it to seal in the juices, resulting in natural caramelization," he said "It's a restaurant cooking technique that results in the ability to tweak the flavor profile a bit . . . Just because it's pot roast or meat loaf, it doesn't have to be the same old, same old."
How nimble delis are in boosting the flavor of their foods will become increasingly important as what some describe as the next big food crisis - sodium content - comes to the fore. Halston subscribes to the belief that salt will be the next food ingredient to be pilloried from a health standpoint.
"It's going to be important to move away from salt in prepared foods," Halston said. "Low-sodium diets are becoming more popular, and people are looking for alternatives. At Wild Oats, we're trying to look for ways to get around using salt, such as using things like capers, vinegar and Dijon mustard to mimic it."
While supermarket delis continue to borrow ideas from restaurants, many can encounter roadblocks that don't exist in food service. For instance, while restaurants can easily source unique ingredients in small quantities from specialty vendors, grocery stores that are part of large chains often can't, Halston noted.
At the same time, however, supermarket delis should have a built-in advantage that comes from being in an environment where people are exposed to foods of increasing variety and quality. "Supermarkets have a hands-down advantage over restaurants with respect to instant credibility and the ability to allow customers to see dishes being prepared in front of them," Halston said.
A drive-through lane packed with cars is an image most supermarket delis can only dream about. At Food City Supermarkets, a Phoenix-based chain that caters to the city's massive Mexican population with authentic foods from that culture, it's now a reality.
The chain, owned by Bashas' Supermarkets, Chandler, Ariz., recently opened its first store drive-through for customers of the deli prepared foods operation, Su Cocina Dos Ranchitos.
The new service is further testament to the chain's emphasis on delivering high-quality, flavorful foods that are true to Mexican culinary traditions, said Bill Harod, director of the chain's deli operations.
"We opened one at our top-of-the-line store and it will serve as a model for others that we'll do in the near future," he said.
While other supermarkets are just starting to discover the advantages of moving beyond traditional deli prepared foods fare, Food City has spent years perfecting the art of delivering authentic, flavorful foods.
The chain's offerings, which total 40 different items on any given day, replicate the regional food traditions of Mexico that the city's immigrant population has looked to Food City's grocery aisles to satisfy for years.
"Authentic foods is key to our success with our deli prepared foods program," Harod said. "Different states in Mexico have different food and preparation styles and traditions, and we've always tried to capture that authenticity. Our customers are mostly of Mexican heritage, and we're always looking to deliver the foods that are in demand in the neighborhoods we serve."
Hot peppers of all types help form the base for many of the prepared foods Food City offers. But preparation techniques also play a role. Tamales, for example, are prepared using lard, just as they are in Mexico. Shrimp cocktail takes on an authentic Mexican flair with the addition of celery, avocado chunks and pico de gallo hot sauce. Even the ice cream bears a distinctive Mexican recipe imprint.
As the chain's prepared food business has grown, more preparation has been outsourced to a commissary that specializes in accurately translating authentic Mexican recipes. Today, about half of the deli's offerings come through the commissary partner, Harod said.
"We're trying to replicate how foods are prepared in Mexico, and that's a challenge because in our markets we're surrounded by restaurants with some tremendous Mexican cooks," he said.