While the permanent demise of salad and hot bars was prematurely declared at the start of the pandemic, as many now make a triumphant return, how will increasing normalcy in grocery influence the future of grab-and-go?
For the past 16 months, pre-packaged prepared foods were the only game in town. With supermarket retail foodservice operations fully reopening, some grocers are looking to create a strategic mix of offerings that emphasize choice and include full-serve, self-serve and grab-and-go options.
As California readied for its full reopening on June 15, WGB caught up with Rachel Shemirani, SVP of San Diego-based Barons Market, to get her take on the state of retail foodservice and the evolving role of grab-and-go.
“There’s going to be a transition,” says Shemirani of the return of Barons’ salad and hot bars. “We’ll have to wait and see what customers are comfortable with. The transition won’t be a light switch, but gradual, and we’ll still offer grab-and-go. People want to get back to normal.”
During the pandemic, Barons introduced nine new salads to its grab-and-go repertoire, and all have been wildly popular. Three of the pre-packaged salads—Barbecue Ranch Chicken Salad, Antipasto Salad and Chicken Caesar—were already fan favorites on the salad bar pre-COVID.
“People tag us all the time on Instagram,” says Shemirani. “They’ll say, ‘Just got this great salad at Barons.’ ”
Not only do customers find the salads at Barons post-worthy; they find the prices tempting too. At just $6.99 a pound, Shemirani says the portions are so ample, it takes her three days to get through one salad. “Shoppers go to the register and pay $6.99 for a pound of salad that would be $11 at other stores. That price is accessible to anyone. Price is exactly where shoppers can see value and that’s probably dinner and leftovers for lunch,” she says.
A Return to Simplicity
When it comes to grab-and-go that resonates with consumers, seeing is believing, says Shemirani, who notes that Barons struggled with pre-wrapped breakfast during the pandemic. Like many grocers, Barons converted its hot bar to heated grab-and-go items. Early in the day that meant breakfast, but the fact that shoppers couldn’t see the pre-wrapped items for sale, adversely impacted sales.
During the pandemic, grab-and-go items for dinner were No. 1, she notes. Pre-packaged lunch items were a close second. Soup became a full-service operation. And pre-packaged chilled entrees sold better on the deli wall than in the hot bar because there, the lid clouds up, making it more difficult for shoppers to see what they’re getting, Shemirani says.
As Barons’ nine locations in Southern California fully reopen, Shemirani has witnessed a return to old shopping habits. “People are done coming up with recipes for meals made at home. They want super simple meals. Lunch is coming back full force, as is grab-and-go dinner.
“They grab a salad, a rotisserie chicken and a baguette—that’s how people used to buy, and they are going back to it,” continues Shemirani, who also sees customers coming into buy more frequently, as in three to five times a week.
Barons is finding vegetarian/plant-based offerings are also strong sellers. Here again, the grocer has found success in offering quality grab-and-go items at amazing prices. It currently sells two sides for $5, and the sides include everything from pasta salad to olives, along with the ability to mix and match.
In spite of inflation, Barons is committed to keeping the price right on staple items. “We’re going to keep our prices at $6.99 on pre-packaged salads,” says Shemirani. “As you know, prices are going up on everything, and it’s not by 10 cents—our costs are going up $1 or $2 on things. It’s shocking how much prices have gone up. But we continue to offer an 8-ounce cup of soup at around $3.”
Listen and Learn
As retail foodservice reopens, staying attuned to the wants, needs and comfort levels of customers is critical.
“Always listen to your deli staff,” says Shemirani. “Our team told us about increased demand for plant-based, vegetarian meals and snack packs.
“What’s great about grab-and-go is that we can offer a lot of options: keto snack packs, comfort foods like short ribs and mashed potatoes, barbacoa and carnitas,” adds Shemirani, who sees demand for grab-and-go continuing even with the added excitement of retail and restaurant foodservice reopenings.
Always listen to your deli staff. Our team told us about increased demand for plant-based, vegetarian meals and snack packs."
While some predicted grocery would never go back to self-serve, Barons’ numbers have doubled since reintroducing the category.
“We wanted to grow our grab-and-go before the pandemic. We’ve always wanted to answer the question: What are we going to have for dinner tonight? As soon as shoppers walk into the store, we’ve answered it,” says Shemirani, who adds that Barons strives to ensure that grab-and-go shoppers are in and out in five to 10 minutes.
Another key to Barons’ success with grab-and-go is its continuous reassessment of what’s selling and what isn’t, along with introducing new on-trend items. It routinely drops slow sellers to make room for something fresh and exciting. “Have a customer’s eye,” Shemirani advises. “Ask yourself, would I buy this? If not, get rid of it.”
The Bakery Is Back
Deli/prepared foods wasn’t the only area of the store to make significant gains in grab-and-go during the pandemic. Shoppers sought the same convenience, breadth of selection and contact-free experience from the in-store bakery.
At Lunds & Byerlys, Bakery Category Manager Susan Stillman sees huge growth in dessert options for lunch and dinner in every category, even as pandemic restrictions lift and self-serve options return.
“Upscale European pastry and cake are our specialties. Any dessert in a half or slice option has seen significant sales increases,” Stillman says. “During shutdowns—at the height of COVID—we depended on this model since customers wanted limited interaction at service counters.”
For Lunds & Byerlys, the pandemic fueled both new shopping habits in bakery for customers as well as new merchandising strategies for the Edina, Minn.-based grocer, says Stillman. “Now with all service cases reopened not only do we see our impulse sales return with more in-store traffic, but the demand for easy pre-pack options remains strong. Pre-pack is also essential in making these previously difficult service case purchases executable for e-commerce.
“After reinforcing these pre-pack buying habits for the past year plus, they are now common expectations for our guests,” continues Stillman. “Our in-store teams have seen first-hand how successful this merchandising has been.”
What are the new keys to success in grab-and-go bakery for 2021 and beyond? Plan ahead, says Stillman.
“Pre-packing requires both labor and supplies. It also requires an increase in freezer space [and] building stock to replenish your front-of-house fixtures,” she says. Choose desserts that can be executed well and kept in-stock. “Plan-o-gram your space [and] have a clean and clear presentation for your guest. Having a well-planned grab-and-go is a key ingredient for a great-merchandised bakery.”
When it comes to display, while mobile units allow in-store bakeries to play with cross-merchandising the entire store, refrigerated space is always at a premium, says Stillman, so be realistic with menus and simplify where necessary. Non-refrigerated space is also important, she adds.
“As the deli department regains momentum this year, lunch-time favorites are great cross-merchandising opportunities next to the salad and hot bars. Single cookies, brownies, baked pie slices and mini doughnuts are great lunchtime favorites,” says Stillman. “We see these items rebounding nicely.”
For one lunchtime favorite, Lunds & Byerlys recently turned to Baker Boy of Dickinson, N.D., and its pre-made mini doughnuts, which the grocer pre-packs itself.
“Doughnuts are a constant in the bakery world,” says Dustin Monke, marketing manager for Baker Boy, who finds grocers have had success with individually wrapped doughnuts in the bakery and at checkout.
To address grocery labor issues and to provide a self-serve, grab-and-go option for a bakery mainstay, Baker Boy recently introduced a line of individually wrapped doughnuts under The Donut Hole brand. The packaged and fully finished retail-ready doughnuts also feature branded packaging that includes nutrition facts, ingredient information and scannable UPCs for each doughnut.
Bringing Home the Bacon, Double-Time
As suppliers increasingly look to assist grocers in streamlining deli/prepared foods labor, Hormel of Austin, Minn., recently introduced a labor-saving version of a popular ingredient that plays well in a multitude of dayparts.
“With operators and grocers looking to save on time and labor, giving them the products that make it easy to prepare items like sandwiches and burgers is more relevant than ever. For grab-and-go, takeout and off-site assembly, we have our Hormel Bacon1, a cooked half-slice product that is perfectly designed to deliver on flavor and performance, while still saving time in the back-of-house,” says Annemarie Vaupel, VP of marketing for Hormel Foodservice.
With Hormel Bacon1, there’s no need to cook, cut or fold the bacon strips, which serves to reduce labor, adds Vaupel. It can be prepared in just five minutes.
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