During the height of the pandemic, when bars, restaurants and offices shut down, so did most hot bars (and salad bars) at grocery stores across the country. As a result, retailers had to—you guessed it—pivot in order to continue to offer their customers both convenience and quality, albeit in a slightly altered fashion.
“Even if you live in a state or area where remote work is still the norm today, you don’t necessarily need a hot bar to succeed,” says Jonna Parker, principal of third-party research firm IRI’s Fresh Center of Excellence and a frequent speaker on the fresh-foods market. “Now it’s more important than ever for retailers to evaluate their local market and—if there’s a less steady lunchtime work crowd—to consider prepared foods that customers reheat and enjoy later.”
In short, grab-and-go is an important complement to hot and cold bars and a key element in a compelling prepared-foods experience.
“We’re seeing more growth in deli/prepared because people are starting to get tired of cooking from scratch,” Parker says. “Our most recent survey from October shows that we’re still eating 80% of our meals at home, but now people just want to heat something up rather than romanticize over making sourdough.”
The closing of the self-serve stations at Barons Market, in particular, caused a major shift in planning. “Our hot food bar, salad bar, olive bar and soup bar were such key features in all of our stores, so when the pandemic hit and the local health department said we had to close down all of our self-service stations, we had to rethink everything, “says Rachel Shemirani, SVP for Barons Market, a regional grocer based in San Diego, Calif.
In the past, Barons Market’s hot bar customers consisted of those mostly stopping in for lunch or dinner to enjoy at the store, or at least soon thereafter. “Now, many people will go to the deli wall and pick up a bunch of prepared meals for the week and warm then up at their convenience. This was especially the case when we saw recipe fatigue start to settle in,” she adds.
In the spring of 2021, Barons began reopening its hot bars. “Much to our pleasant surprise, when we reopened our hot bar, people loved it,” Shemirani says. “Seeing empty hot bars and salad bars actually seemed to induce more panic for the customer.
“What’s so great about hot bars is that they engage all the five senses,” Shemirani continues. “Especially if we have something aromatic like Indian or Asian dishes, the smell hits and people get excited about the food. It’s a key piece of the customer experience.”
Parker says today’s consumers want more complete meal-to-go options. “When it comes to what foods are selling so much more than before pandemic, what really sticks out is rapid growth in entrees, or full meals for families and individuals,” she notes. “People want an oven-ready meal that’s maybe chicken Parmesan with a vegetable or other side included.”
The numbers don’t lie: A recent study conducted by IRI in September showed a 34% increase in sales for prepared deli entrees versus 2019 and “quarter-over-quarter, astronomic growth after a weak 2020,” according to Parker.
“These oven-ready, turnkey meals seem to be the evolution of the meal-kit phenomenon,” Parker says. And even though these meals are refrigerated, “they’re typically found along the perimeter of the store or in the deli case—not just in frozen—so there’s a perception of freshness.”
Bay Area-based The Save Mart Companieshas also capitalized on the trend. “Our hot bar menu offerings are always evolving to meet the tastes our customers look for, especially as they’ve been homebound over the pandemic,” says Josh Zodikoff, senior category manager, service deli. “We have created single and family meal deals for our hot bar menu and created grab-and-go single and family meals in an effort to satisfy our customers’ desire for hot, healthy and quick meals. Innovation is at the center of The Save Mart Companies, so our offerings will continue to evolve to meet our shoppers’ wants and needs.”
Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, has also responded to this growing need for at-home convenience.
“We all need easy meal solutions—and a break from our over-worked home kitchens—so our prepared foods department has sought to meet customers where they are with a variety of meal solutions,” says Molly Siegler, Whole Foods senior program manager for culinary development. “At locations across the country, we’re offering comforting family meals, entrée salads for easy lunches, nourishing snack boxes, hot pizzas to go and fully prepared meals and dishes to add to established holiday traditions.”
The retailer also plans to launch a new and expanded line of prepared food offerings in 2022, including lasagnas and quiches for easy reheating, Siegler says.
Health and Balance
A mix of both comfort/indulgent and more-healthful options as well as offerings that combine both for a more balanced approach are the name of the game when it comes to both hot/cold bars and prepared foods sections today.
While the self-serve hot bar offerings at Save Mart and Lucky California stores throughout California and Northern Nevada closed as a result of the pandemic, the retailer’s full-service hot cases remained open, and they have been expanded to offer additional healthful offerings to include items like baked-chicken and vegetable sides.
“Our customers want simple, easy meals that are balanced with a protein, starch and vegetable, and that also taste great and are affordable,” says Zodikoff. “Our most popular meal is our tri-tip dinner, which is served with roasted red potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts, all made in-store. Another one of our customer favorites is a combination of our grilled chicken, lemon linguini pasta, and roasted broccoli medley.”
Whole Foods has expanded its line of healthful prepared foods, both on the reopened, self-serve hot bars as well as in the refrigerated cases for reheating later.
“We have focused on special diet offerings and comfort dishes, as we’ve seen demand for both from our customers,” says Siegel. “Our hot bar menus consistently offer paleo- and keto-friendly options as well as vegan options, so there’s truly something for everyone.” For example, a mac-and-cheese is made creamy with a butternut-squash puree in lieu of dairy.
Parker says that in addition to healthful and comfort offerings, it’s crucial for retailers to include items that offer “taste exploration” for customers in the prepared foods section.
Barons Market has long capitalized on its customers’ penchant for Indian and Asian offerings, says Shemirani. “Every day we showcase a different theme—it may be Indian, Asian or Mexican, all of which are super aromatic and offer a lot of variety for our customers.”
Most recently, Shemirani says customers have been “very excited” about the barbacoa on the hot line, which is served alongside tortillas for make-your-own tacos. The chow mein-themed hot bar also continues to do well, as do “American” favorites like ribs, mashed potatoes and wings for game days.
“Right now we are having some supply issues, so we do have to get creative and try new things we might not have tried before, but our customers are enjoying the variety,” Shemirani says.
Going forward, the secret to hot (and salad) bar success will continue to lie in this balance of ready-to-heat and heat-and-reheat offerings. For Barons, “the hot bar is the last frontier of touch and feel and visual and smell that is the complete customer experience in grocery,” Shemirani says. “Food is so community-oriented and literally brings people together.”