OPINIONRetail Foodservice

What's Ahead for Grocery Hot Bars and Salad Bars?

Staying relevant for the customer amid pandemic challenges
Photograph: Shutterstock

For at least the past few years, the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) has emphasized the importance of creating a dynamic in-store experience for shoppers. Our fresh departments are the centerpieces of the in-store shopping experience, and much of this has to do with the personalization it provides.

The real strategic benefit and customer draw of in-store delis and bakeries are how they deliver true customer customization. The shopper gets to choose what they want and when they want it, which varies by the occasion and the frequency of that person’s shopping pattern, whether it be daily, weekly or hourly.

The options are seemingly endless: Do you want one cupcake or 32? Do you want a green witch or an orange witch topper on your cake? Do you want two slices of thinly-sliced turkey or do you want enough shaved ham to make 64 sandwiches? Do you want your order placed in a pan, on a platter or wrapped in deli bags?

Our departments’ strength is filling the customers’ current needs that they define, regardless of the meal occasion. 

Coronavirus' Impact on Food Bars

In addition to its array of packaged products, the in-store deli and bakery departments let customers choose—hand-pick, essentially—and customize their lunch, dinner or snack at hot food and salad bars. These cases play an important role in a store’s prepared foods program, while giving consumers a quick and delicious dining option that they personally create.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic brought this segment of the store to a complete halt. Hot food and salad bars at many retail locations have been closed, at least in terms of offering the products they’re designed for. This has created a dilemma for the in-store deli departments, where many of these bars are located. Every inch of floor space is critical in a retail operation, and since these cases can’t easily be moved, retailers have been tasked with finding alternative ways (and products) for these bars.

Some have filled them with packaged deli meats and cheeses, a trend that IDDBA has reported on in its COVID-19 Impact Reports. Others have used the space for non-deli products, such as beer and wine. While these might offer a temporary stopgap, the question remains: What does the future hold for hot and salad bars?

What Is the Industry Saying?

To help educate our members and the industry, we teamed up with the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) on a series of webinars that delved into this issue, from a case manufacturer, retailer and culinary viewpoint. Among the trends and suggestions shared by panelists representing the aforementioned groups were:

  • Modifying existing hot and salad bars to better accommodate pre-packaged and grab-and-go products, including the use of risers, sneeze-guard extensions or complete removal of sneeze guards, removing pans and divider bars from the cold wells, and installing hot tiles.
  • Offer packaged do-it-yourself meal kits and/or pre-packaged items sold individually to create meals at homes. Consider seasonal themes and products used to create them, such as summertime grilling.
  • Convert all or part of the bar into a made-to-order service area, whereby associates can take orders and deliver the meal container hands-free via an attached chute.
  • The customer will determine the future of salad and hot food bars, based on their shopping habits and comfort levels.
  • Continue to focus on the benefits of packaged items while thinking of other creative ways to utilize the bars.
  • Devote half of the bars to pre-packaged items and the other half to bulk items.
  • More single-serve, packaged options.

As you can see, the industry has certainly been focused on the subject. And given that the industry hasn’t faced these hurdles when it comes to operating salad and hot food bars—at least not to the current extent and duration—it’s encouraging to see the ideas and suggestions flowing.

We’ve all experienced the ebbs and flows of this pandemic since it began, both as individuals and as an industry. Time will tell the future of salad and hot food bars in our stores. However, with the combination of consumer shopping preferences and industry ingenuity, this important sector of our fresh departments will continue to play a role in attracting shoppers to the fresh perimeter.

Knowledge and communication are keys to success, especially during challenging times, and I encourage you hear what our industry professionals have to say. You can access all three of “The Future of Salad and Hot Bar” webinars here.

Mike Eardley is president and CEO of the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).

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