The future of brick-and-mortar grocery retail in the Age of Amazon remains hazy for many industry insiders. But one major supplier of instore deli couldn’t be more bullish heading into this new world.

“There’s still romance surrounding fresh foods,” says Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Fall River, Massachusetts-based Blount Fine Foods. “Our primary focus is instore deli — creating recipes for our retail customers that are their recipes, that help them create an experience and an atmosphere in their stores.”

Blount’s main instore business is heat-and-eat and ready-to-eat soups, but the company also makes packaged bowls, sides and entrees and hot prepared items. And its product roster is always evolving. In 2016, Blount launched a full lineup of organic deli soups and other products. That was followed a year later with the introduction of its Noodle & Rice Bowl products.  

Blount’s portfolio will continue to grow heading into the second half of 2018, Sewall says. This spring, the company is adding a new Beef Pho Bowl; a King Crab Chowder; two new Panera at Home-branded soups: Vegetarian Minestrone and Southwest Corn Chowder; and a Panera-branded Asiago Macaroni & Cheese Bowl. All will be front and center at IDDBA, the National Restaurant Association’s 2018 show and other shows.

Also on tap for this year’s show circuit, Blount will highlight its hot to-go offerings, Sewall says. Instore hot bars have seen big growth in recent years, and they’re poised for more. “Hot bars are really trying to compete more with foodservice,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more hot bars being put into stores.”

And with more hot bars has come more variety, Sewall says. For instance, Blount is currently touting the organic items it markets for hot bars, like its organic mashed sweet potatoes. “We like to push organic,” he says. “It’s part of an effort to get customers who maybe we don’t have yet. As hot bars mature, we want to try to have something that attracts every customer in the store.”

Blount formally launched a comprehensive organic soup line in 2016, after dabbling in the category for years. Emphasizing the importance of organics for Blount, the company ran a consumer promotional campaign — its first-ever — in addition to a trade promotional campaign at the time at the time of the launch. The line currently includes eight refrigerated soups and one refrigerated side, Organic Lentils & Chickpeas. Blount also markets several frozen organic soups and sides.

Clean label, meal solutions

Blount’s instore deli success can be attributed in large part to a dovetailing of current consumer trends with principles the company has long adhered to — clean label, for instance. “We are very happy with the move toward clean-label,” Sewall says. “It’s something that’s going to stay.”

That’s in contrast, Sewall says, with other “good for you” trends that come and go — sodium-free, gluten-free, fat-free, etc. “They fluctuate from year to year,” he says. “But I think clean-label is going to stabilize.” Blount has always prided itself on making great-tasting food that’s good for you, making clean-label a natural fit for the company, he says.

Another trend that’s strengthening Blount’s already-strong presence in the deli is increased acceptance of soup as a meal for the entire family. Robust sales of Blount’s 32-ounce family-size soup containers — available, and performing well, in all three versions: Blount-brand, Panera and private-label — provide ample evidence of that, Sewall says. “They’re selling extremely well — they’ve kind of taken center-stage,” he says.

With soups, many consumers, will take a “pick two” approach common in restaurants, he says, pairing the family-size soup with sandwiches or a salad to round out the meal. “Soup’s not just an appetizer — people are seeing it as a real meal. It’s kind of a perfect storm. It’s cost-effective, it’s easy to make happen at home and it’s good for you.”  

Private label also continues to grow at a rapid rate for Blount, Sewall says. Private label sales industry-wide rose 15 percent in the 52 weeks ending in early May, he says, citing data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI.

Private label, Panera, Blount’s own brand — the more variety within a given retailer’s deli department, Sewall says, the better. With all three, a retailer has the opportunity to run, say, an ad for Panera one week, one for private label the next, one for Blount the next. That builds momentum, he says, and keeps category sales rolling. “It drives more people to the deli,” Sewall says.

The benefits of the soup category for instore delis are many, Sewall says. A soup program is easy to execute, it’s not labor-intensive and the margins are good. Still, he admits it has its challenges, given the constant downward price pressure on retail foods. That explains Blount’s relentless drive to develop new products to give its retail partners an edge.

And to be successful, it’s critical to have a close partnership between supplier and retailer, Sewall says. For instance, customers in one part of the country may have seasonal soup needs customers in another part of the country, where they don’t even think in terms of “soup seasons,” don’t have. Working together gives you a better chance of keeping an edge on your competitors — and keeping your margins high.

“We’re working hard with our customers to help set them apart,” he says. “You have to keep continually providing quality to ensure that you don’t have to drop the price. We’re a firm believer in that. People will spend more for a better product.”

Demand for Blount’s new noodle and rice bowls, meanwhile, is “growing more and more each month,” Sewall says. “It’s outperforming what we thought it would do the first six months.” In addition to the new poke bowl introduced this spring, Blount will seek to expand the bowl line to encompass more ethnic flavors and to enhance its status as a convenient snacking option.

In addition to the new poke bowl, the line includes four products: Chicken Ramen, Hibachi Chicken & Rice (gluten-free), Coconut Chicken & Noodle and Asian-inspired Vegetable & Rice (vegan and gluten-free). The bowls bring together two strong industry trends, Sewall says: desire for innovative international flavors and recipes; and ever-growing demand for healthier and more convenient meals.

The growth in ancient grains is another trend Blount is capitalizing on. In the past two years the company has introduced an ancient grain minestrone refrigerated soup for retail, an organic vegan soup that features vegetables along with barley, farro and quinoa.

“Our primary focus is instore deli — creating recipes for our retail customers that are their recipes, that help them create an experience and an atmosphere in their stores.” Bob Sewall, Blount Fine Foods


Panera-branded retail products


Tradition by the Sea

 In 1880, Eddie B. Blount started an oyster packing operation in West Barrington, Rhode Island. His son Byron took it over the early 20th century, and Byron’s brother Willis opened an ice packing plant nearby.