Dorothy Lane puts larger-than-usual quantities of its stables near the front of its stores.

As retailers plan and gear up for the holiday season, a shift in thinking could be beneficial. Instead of trying to assemble the perfect pairings and numerous options for party platters and trays, Carrie Walters, corporate chef and culinary director for Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Markets, says focus on inspiration.

“Customers are mostly looking for convenience and ideas,” Walters says. “We have a lot of people who walk in and know that they can find what they need here, they just don’t really know how to put it all together. One of the things I spend a lot of time writing about is that, even though we have a catering menu and there are several areas in the store that highlight what each department does, customers still don’t really get it.” 

And while a consumer might walk into a supermarket’s prepared foods department looking for ideas and that perfect addition to their event, they also don’t want it to look like someone else has done all the work for them, especially around the holidays.

Dorothy Lane works around that by pairing ideas with options. For example, one of the store’s best-selling dips is its spinach dip. For the holidays, the dip is paired with a spinach bed and a hollowed-out Pumpernickel loaf. The spinach-dip-and-bread-bowl combo is packaged and ready to go. On the other hand, every component in that package is available in the store. Consumers can buy the prepared tray or use it for inspiration.

“You can alter it or customize that look at home while not having to use a lot of cooking skill,” Walters says. “Consumers are just looking for someone to walk them through it, an idea sheet if you will: come here and buy this bread, this produce item and put it together on this.”

The same goes for hors d’oeuvres.  Dorothy Lane kicks off the holiday season with a large food and wine show that attracts more than 500 people. There, one of Walters’ main jobs is to show customers how easy it is to put together attractive hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. This year, for example, the store is highlighting a new vanilla bourbon gouda and showing consumers ways to utilize it besides just cubing it up and putting it on a cheese board. 

Dorothy Lane gives consumers new ideas at its annual holiday kickoff event.


One option highlighted is using private label apricot preserves and a high-quality bread for a grilled cheese that is much more upscale and exciting than expected.

“Those are the things that kind of float my boat over the holidays,” Walters says. “I love showing people the stuff that we carry is not complicated. You can taste how good it is and the quality of it, and it’s relatively simple to do in your kitchen. Everything is available here. With some altering you can take a lot of the credit for things that maybe we provide and you can customize at home.”

Catering to convenience

The other half of the holiday equation is convenience. While many consumers are looking for ideas, just as many are in a last-minute rush and need the convenience of grab-and-go options that still taste high-end for their holiday guests. Walters says in recent years that has meant doing much larger quantities of dips, spreads and chicken salads. 

“Instead of customers having to wait in line at the deli counter, we’re packaging them up in 3- or 5-pound increments and putting them near the entrance. They don’t have to wait in the line and they can get a much larger quantity for their party. It has gone much better than we thought it would.”

This has also helped when catering to consumers who have family members coming back home for the holidays.

“If families are coming home, or kids are coming home from college, they always want to have those tried-and-true favorites that they feel they can’t get anywhere else,” Walters says. “For us, that’s our chicken salad. It’s a great opportunity to get them the classic taste of what they’ve been missing and then kind of up-scale it a little bit.”

The store also sees an increase in consumers looking for pre-packaged party trays instead of customized and pre-ordered trays.

“We’re doing much more pre-packing than we ever have,” Walters says. “Customers can get online and look at our catering menu and order a tray online, but we’re actually making space for the pre-done party trays so you don’t have to order them. The frantic customer can come in and get it immediately.”