Retailers

The Pandemic Pivot at Barons Market

Independent grocer makes changes in salad, soup bars
Photograph courtesy of Barons Market

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic led to rapid changes in grocery from stringent new cleaning procedures to strict new rules for self-service departments. Grocery operators, like Barons Market in the San Diego area, had to make some quick decisions to adapt to the latter challenge.

“Our grab-and-go areas of the store and even our demo kitchen were hands down the most popular parts of our store and what I felt really differentiated ourselves from typical independent retailers,” said Rachel Shemirani, SVP of Barons Market during an interview with WGB. “Our shoppers shopped [with us] from three to five times a week, were in and out and under 10 minutes and then everything changed. Those habits really changed. We had to shut down the bars immediately. My friend mentioned the term pandemic pivot. We’ve just been constantly pivoting.”

The salad bar at Barons’ eight locations (a ninth store opened after the pandemic started) is “hands down the most popular areas of the store,” Shemirani says, but said she quickly made the decision to shut them down even before the being required to. “Because there’s a pandemic happening and just psychologically, you have to assume everyone could be sick and people don’t want self-serve food, at least in the beginning,” she says.

In addition to shortened store hours, putting up plexiglass at the checkouts and ensuring social distancing in the stores, Barons quickly pivoted to move its self-serve cold bars to prepackaged offerings with a few modifications to the unit. The stores removed the serving trays from the salad bars so more packaged salads could be displayed and still be kept refrigerated as well as removing the sneeze guards to allow easier access for customers to grab the packaged salads.

Reworking the Salad Bar

As for what’s on offer, Barons created a menu of nine new salads priced at $6.99. The selection includes barbecue ranch, chicken, and Cobb salad. The variety is a mix of unique combinations along with some very traditional favorites, Shemirai says. “We found the people were buying three to four salads at a time, they would just buy them for the week. So that was very successful.”  Customers are even thanking the store for offering the grab-and-go salads, especially as their shopping habits have been altered by the pandemic, she added.

“People are now buying multiple at a time instead of making their one salad and taking it home because the customers' habits have changed. We no longer have the customer that comes in three to five times a week to grab their lunch. They’re working from home. They shop once a week, and they’re here for 15 minutes to half an hour, and cooking fatigue has set in,” Shemirani says. “People are looking for healthier grab-and-go options that they can just stock up on, take home and feed their family. So surprisingly the salad bar sales have not been affected.”

The stores have even packaged the olives from the olive bar and the items from the olive bar continue to sell well even though customers can’t make all of their own selections.

However, Shemirani is quick to note that as soon as it’s safe to have self-serve salad bars again, the stores will reinstall them because while customers are happy for the option to keep buying fresh salads, they are looking forward to making their own again.

“If we had an option, if tomorrow they say, ‘Okay, you can open your salad bar again,’ we would absolutely. There’s nothing more exciting than making your own salad and it’s fresh and people are particular about it.”

But she does not see that re-opening of salad bars happening any time soon. Barons is going to be remodeling its oldest store in Point Loma, and the salad and olive bars are being replaced by standalone refrigerated units. “If in a year or year and a half later, we have to, we can change back. We will, but we are taking it that seriously that when we do remodel the store, that’s how we’re going to kind of change up that area.”

Hot Soup Made Service Item

When it came to the hot soup bar, the prepackaged solution wasn’t going to work. Barons Market had offered its soup prepackaged and sold in the cold deli case before, but it never really took off and even though the stores are located in the warm climate of San Diego, hot soup has always been extremely popular.

Instead, the stores kept the hot soup stations but now have a deli employee who mans it and ladles the soup out for the customer, who stands behind a counter at a safe distance. “It’s almost like cafeteria style. And our customers have really appreciated that,” Shemirani says. “It’s the confidence that the customer has that we’re taking all the safety measures. Someone is in front of them putting the soup in the cup, hand wrapping it and handing it to them. That’s been huge.”

The service soup station has proven so successful that Barons is now planning to add a small hot food bar to the service area. The stores had turned the hot bar offerings into prepackaged entrees sold out of a cold case, but Shemirani plans to offer a select few items in a hot bar that also will be doled out by the same employee who oversees the soup bar.

“When we do start doing the hot bar, it’ll be again [like the soup bar], limited items in the hopper. It’ll be a specific cuisine. So whether it’s Indian or Mexican, it’s not more than six items in the bar,” she says. “We’re going to try it, see how the customer responds to it.”

Bulk Goes Full Prepackaged

In addition to the salad and hot bars, Barons Market also made changes to its self-serve bulk department. The stores removed all of the gravity-fed bins and replaced them with shelving to place the packaged products that had been in self-serve buckets. Some store had previously experimented with packaged bulk items before the pandemic and those sold well.

“Offering both [packaged and self-serve] did very well for us before the pandemic. But we were still probably 50/50,” Shemirani says. After switching to completely packaged bulk items due to the pandemic, “I think our sales have doubled if not tripled in the bulk departments… Sometimes when you’re tasked with finding a new solution, it’s better than what you had before.”

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