While the pandemic has driven consumers to both eat and prepare more meals at home, in some cases, it’s also driving them crazy. Nearly a year into COVID, people are experiencing kitchen burn out. And with so many restaurant closures, they’re increasingly looking to retail foodservice to satisfy their craving for a chef-prepared meal that’s fresh, tasty, affordable and restaurant-reminiscent.
WGB looks at three grocers, from California to Canada to the Midwest, offering shoppes next-level retail foodservice experiences.
California Kitchen King
“We have seen a real influx of customers looking to diversify their family’s meal choices,” says Hal Levitt, SVP of retail store operations for The Save Mart Cos., Modesto, Calif. “Especially now, with months of working and learning from home, many people are feeling cooking fatigue. Our culinary and foodservice teams constantly refine and update our ready-to- eat prepared meal solutions, as well as the ready-to-make offerings, with inspired healthy choices.”
Save Mart features a variety of options—from a bit of prep to no prep—for customers looking to create an elevated in-home dining experience. Its Cadence Kitchen flash-frozen meals offer more than 20 varieties ranging from seafood paella to prime rib beef and broccoli to chicken and sausage jambalaya—all ready to eat in about 15 minutes. Its Ready Chef, Go microwave meals include lean proteins such as shrimp, salmon or chicken, plus an assortment of vegetables and spices.
When the pandemic first hit, grocers across the country partnered with area restaurants to offer local signature dishes in-store. The efforts both lent a helping hand and allowed grocers to offer customers restaurant cuisine they could not otherwise access. Save Mart’s forward-thinking program spotlights local chefs, as well as its own in-store fast casual Tipping Point restaurants.
“We developed a program to assist local chefs and their restaurants and will pilot it on Nov. 7 and 8 with a ‘pop-up brunch’ from Surla’s, a well-known and respected restaurant in the Modesto area,” explains Levitt. “Surla’s will have use of our entire kitchen at The Tipping Point fast-casual restaurant in our Save Mart flagship Modesto store and will serve their beloved recipes and meals with all proceeds going to help them and their employees.
“Restaurant-quality foods are resonating now since many restaurants remain closed or are operating under strict occupancy restrictions,” Levitt continues. “Certainly during this pandemic period we are all living in, these trends will likely carry on for the foreseeable future. However, it’s speculative and premature to say which of the shopper habits resulting from the pandemic will really convert into long-lasting behaviors.”
Consumer demand for variety, however, is one trend that Save Mart sees continuing indefinitely. At many of the grocer’s locations, the store’s meat and seafood departments offer spice and marinade options and grilled-to-order meats by the “Grill Boss.” “Customers can also purchase fresh, custom-made sausages from an in-store smoker,” he says. “This makes it easy for customers to pick out their choice of fish, poultry or beef and have the Grill Boss cook each to suit and then package it up for dinner, all while they shop.”
The Price Is Right
“We are absolutely seeing more demand for foods that resemble something you could get at a restaurant that can easily be made at home or warmed up at home,” says Joey Bernaudo, senior director of merchandising, retail foodservice, bakery and deli for Longo Brothers Fruit Markets Inc. (Longo’s) in Ontario, Canada. “But as the Canadian winter begins to set in, we’re seeing more and more demand for foods that are conveniently available, and also priced accessibly.”
Photograph courtesy of Longo’s
While seasonality is always top of mind, Longo’s has adjusted the availability of products in its stores to, as Bernaudo says, “better reflect the changing tastes of our guests, especially as more people are now cooking at home than ever before.” Its ready-prepared items are often inspired by its culinary teams’ favorite meals, as well as the preferences of its guests. The grocer finds that dishes, including its barbecue rotisserie-style chicken; heat-and-eat meals like veal parmesan with penne pasta; and its chicken pad Thai stir-fry kit have been very popular throughout the pandemic.
Pricing is so critical in retail foodservice in part because most shoppers aren’t willing to spend as much on prepared foods from the grocery store as they would in a sit-down restaurant. And in the age of COVID, which has dramatically accelerated online ordering, customers increasingly want their meals delivered.
“A lot of Ontarians are choosing to eat at home more, and when they can spend the money on a nicer meal, they want to stretch their dollar,” Bernaudo says. “Not everyone can afford a $100 bill for a nice meal right now, but they’re certainly more willing to pay $35 for a dish that will feed the family and is prepared with quality ingredients.
“We recognize this change in behavior and spending and expect it to continue well into 2021,” he continues. “We’re combating this by ensuring our prepared meals are easily accessible and have begun to offer them through delivery and takeout platforms like Longo’s Takeout, UberEats and Ritual. So far, we’ve seen the momentum starting to build with these and continue to expand our delivery menus to accommodate the demand.”
Longo’s further entices shoppers with its value meal deals available for pickup in-store daily. While they vary from week to week, Bernaudo says some of the grocer’s most popular pairings include whole barbecue rotisserie-style chicken with a choice of two fresh side dishes for $20 Canadian dollars, and its made-in-house, hand-stretched, 16-inch stone baked pizzas available for $10 Canadian dollars every day.
Long before the pandemic, Longo’s was partnering with area restaurants on integrated campaigns. Each quarter, it selects a different restaurant along with its chef to do a full campaign that includes cooking classes, magazine integrations, in-restaurant events and in-store integrations. Some of the restaurants it has partnered with include Baro, Cherry Street Bar-B-Que, Goa Indian Farm Kitchen and Don Alfonso 1890.
“One of our most recent partnerships prior to the pandemic was with Fresh Restaurants, a well-known chain of plant-based restaurants based here in Ontario, who also have a location in Los Angeles,” Bernaudo says. “Together, we created four Fresh-inspired salads based on some of their most popular items at their restaurants. These were offered in-store and for purchase online through Grocery Gateway, and we saw great success, especially from Fresh’s very loyal fan base.
“Due to the pandemic and the stresses that many restaurants are facing, much of the research and development of the in-house product has been put on hold,” he continues. “In the new year, we absolutely plan on revisiting these concepts and bringing even more restaurant-inspired dishes to our guests.”
Smokin’ Hot in the Heartland
Martin’s Super Markets, a SpartanNash-owned banner, is dishing out a saucy menu at its newly opened Elkhart, Ind., store’s Signature Smokehouse BBQ in its Side Door Deli.
Here, complex sauce recipes meet slow-roasted ribs, brisket, chicken and pork that spend plenty of time cooking over cherry wood logs. Shoppers can choose from a menu of four signature sauces as well as sides, including Corn Muffin Tops, Hoosier Fries and Gourmet Cole Slaw.
“Our Signature Smokehouse BBQ is the latest innovation at Martin’s Super Markets, adding a new dimension to our larger market area,” says Amy McClellan, SVP of Martin’s Super Markets and VP of retail for SpartanNash. “Our goal is to provide an experience like no other as we meet the ever-changing tastes of our store guests. We do so by continually evaluating the offerings in our stores and introducing new and exciting destinations like the Signature Smokehouse BBQ. From classics like smoked chicken and creamy coleslaw to new favorites like our loaded backed potato with pulled pork, there’s something for everyone at Martin’s.”