With a little time and investment, some supermarkets are still experiencing great success with olive bars, despite the recession
Olive bars are by no means new to supermarkets. During the past decade, many retailers installed olive and antipasto bars to give their deli departments an upscale flair. But while it might seem that a decadent, discretionary product like specialty olives would suffer during an economic downturn, there is evidence that some retailers have enjoyed steady sales as of late by giving the category some extra attention — and that retailers are continuing to include olive bars in their new and newly remodeled stores.
“The olive bar has become an expected fixture at most grocery retailers, from Whole Foods, who gave the trend momentum, to Safeway,” said Melissa Abbott, trends and culinary insights manager at the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
“Today, a grocery remodel invariably includes the addition of an olive bar.”
Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, is in fact putting olive and antipasto bars in its new stores and adding them to existing stores as it remodels, according to spokesman Paul Simon.
And, retailers like PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, and Mollie Stone's, Mill Valley, Calif., have had olive bars in stores for years now and have not seen a decline in interest from their shoppers since the recession hit, according to company representatives.
“We haven't seen any big difference of volume or anything with the recession. They're still very popular,” David Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's, told SN. “It's pretty stable business.”
In December, Publix Super Markets' Greenwise store offered handpicked Lucques olives from the South of France at $9.99 per pound. They sold out each day for over a week, a published report on the chain's natural-food store said.
Regardless of olive bar performance, many new stores continue to install them, said Alan Hiebert, education information specialist, International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association.
“Like all of the perishable departments in-store, olive bars are a place where stores can differentiate themselves from the competition,” Hiebert said.
“For some stores, an upscale image promoted by perishables departments may be worth taking a lower margin. Each chain needs to look at the demographics of its own customers and decide what to include in its deli departments.”
At Jungle Jim's International Market, the olive bar business is taken seriously, and it's paying off.
“We're having our best year ever,” Eric Goedkoop, deli manager for the Fairfield, Ohio, retailer, told SN. “We sold an average of 1,300 pounds off the olive bar last fiscal year, and so far, we're ahead of that this year.”
Jungle Jim's carries over 60 varieties of olives, even though it doesn't have room for all of them in the bar at one time. The retailer's website informs customers of this and encourages them to ask if they don't see a type of olive they're looking for.
The specialty retailer offers many marinated and stuffed olives, but its primary focus and the majority of its selection are varietal olives from around the world. Top-selling olives include kalamatas and pitted kalamatas, and Castelvetranos from Sicily have also been very popular. The antipasto salad has always been the biggest thing at the olive bar though, Goedkoop said.
Beyond just olives, Abbott added that more and more retailers are offering new and unique items like preserved lemons or caramelized garlic in their olive bar sections.
“Retailers offering hard-to-find ingredients or time-saver ingredients help the consumer increase the quality quotient of their everyday meals and even encourages the less experienced cook to try new recipes with the bulk approach of ‘as little or as much as you need’ as inspiration,” she said. “The olive bar is an excellent example of the continuing movement toward fresh, real and high quality.”
Jungle Jim's likes its olive bar to be predominately olives, but it does supplement the selection with other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods.
“We feature preserved lemons, caperberries, capers in salt, roasted and marinated garlic, roasted peppers, bulk feta, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts and a variety of salads,” Goedkoop told SN.
The retailer also has a salsa bar, and while it doesn't do nearly the volume that the olive bar does, it is growing, he said.
“We make the salsas fresh in our kitchen, so the salsa bar is a nice way for our chefs to exercise some creativity and have a little fun with some of the ingredients available in our store,” he said.
Jungle Jim's self-service bars emphasize its commitment to freshness, quality and variety, Goedkoop said. He added that the retailer's goal is not only to have the best quality but also the most choices and the most interesting things, which requires an investment.
“We often choose products that cost us more but make the olive bar more exciting,” he said. “For example, our Cerignolas are unpasteurized and were sourced by our supplier specifically for us; they are far more interesting and flavorful than the canned, pasteurized Cerignolas found on most olive bars. We only sell true kalamatas and pitted kalamatas from Greece, not the lower-priced substitutes from Turkey.
“We put some olives on the bar — like Lucques and Cassees des Baux — that cost us more than we sell them for. Customers who are knowledgeable about olives are always thrilled to find them there, and those that aren't have an opportunity to discover something new.”
Abbott also suggested mixing it up with Cerignola olives.
“Olives tend to be rather mute in color — from black to army green — so balancing with brighter tones appeals to consumers,” she suggested.
“Look to sun-dried tomato halves and tapenades, jumbo butter beans in rich tomato sauce, bright green or red Cerignola olives, and giant stemmed capers to surprise and delight consumers with ingredients not found in jars in Center Store. Seattle's Metropolitan Market is an excellent example of these expanded offerings.”
The current interest in olives is partly due to the restaurant boom in the early and mid-2000s, which introduced diners to tapas and small plates, including many olive varietals, Abbott said of consumers' interest in the fruit.
“Fast-forward a few years and we have a drastic reduction in restaurant sales and an increase in take-away and supermarket foods, many of which are meals cobbled together with deli and homemade items,” Abbott said.
Offering a good variety and knowing your customer is half the battle. Even though it's a self-service bar, it doesn't mean retailers don't need to service it, industry experts agreed.
For Jungle Jim's, the olive bar has increased its sales every year since its 1993 debut. Five years ago it was averaging about 600 pounds a week, Goedkoop said.
Two things were changed to boost sales to their current level, he told SN.
First, Jungle Jim's did away with marinated and seasoned versions of the same types of olive in favor of a wider selection of varietals, grouped together on the bar according to their area of origin. Second, full-time staff were dedicated to the area.
“We built our olive bar to be manned, and having staff present at all times makes a huge difference,” Goedkoop explained. “The bar is maintained — it's full, it's clean, the spoons are in the right places and there's somebody there to help all the time, no matter what day of the week it is or what time of the day.
“Our sales increased 50% immediately when we made those changes, and within three years they had more than doubled. We do so well with it because we work it like any other department. We work as hard at the olive bar as we do at the deli or cheese shop.”
IDDBA believes that training and sampling are two of the best tools for increasing sales with olive bars, Hiebert said.
“Retailers should make sure that all associates working in the deli are familiar with the products they offer in all areas of their departments,” Hiebert explained, adding that IDDBA provides a range of training products for supermarket deli and bakery associates, ranging from free podcasts and printable job guides to a full range of video training to an in-depth video/workbook training and certificate series.
“It's one thing to have associates that are able to describe their offerings, but quite another for customers to be able to taste the products they are looking at.”
Jungle Jim's samples all day long.
“It's how we sell the olives,” Goedkoop stated. “First-time visitors are often overwhelmed by the selection, and offering samples gives them an introduction.”
The olive bar is staffed from open to close, so there is always someone available to answer questions and offer samples.
“It's almost a continuous active demo,” Goedkoop said.
Having staff available to hand out samples ensures food safety as having ready-to-eat food open to the public subjects it to the possibility of contamination, he said.
“Our staff is available to give out samples in a proper and safe way, to ensure that our olive bar is safe. Our customers recognize and understand this, and we get a lot of comments from shoppers who appreciate the effort we put into protecting the integrity of the bar.”
Maintaining the bar well and keeping it stocked is crucial in upholding the upscale and high-quality standards of the store that an olive bar should create, Abbott agreed.
“As long as the retailer maintains strict hygiene and keeps the bar looking clean and ample — avoiding at all costs the sad six olives bobbing in a tub of brine — consumers will perceive the retailer to be of higher quality, and even a partner in overall meal solutions,” Abbott said.
“Failure to maintain the olive bar is, in the consumer's mind, a reflection of the store's overall approach to quality standards.”
Ultimately, the key to doing more business at a self-service bar is the same as it is anywhere else, Goedkoop said.
“You need to take care of the customers you have so they come back, and you need to attract new customers all the time,” he said.
“It's actually pretty easy at the olive bar — on a busy weekend, we get up on a stepstool at the front of the bar with a few bowls full of olives and ask everybody who walks by if they would like to try one. It works great!”