Christopher Latta, marketing manager for Muskegon, Michigan-based Structural Concepts, says the biggest trend when it comes to soup and salad bars is clear: expansion vs. sustainability.

“For our customers, the two biggest issues facing them today in the prepared foods department is the desire to grow their programs and how to do so with minimal product shrink,” he says. “Customers are demanding variety and quality and a well-executed prepared foods program can be more than a profit center for a store but also a key differentiating factor that drives shopper loyalty.”

Shrink is a major issue in any prepared foods program and the best ways to combat that, Latta says, is having both a robust food program and reliable display equipment that holds product safely.

The role of equipment

As Latta says, the right equipment for your soup and salad bar isn’t the most important piece of a successful puzzle, but the wrong choice could prove detrimental.

“The bottom line is reliable, well designed and easy to use equipment is only part of what makes food bars successful, but get it wrong and it could jeopardize the entire program,” he says. “Structural Concepts has collaborated with the largest retailers in North America to design and develop our product lines, not only to be safe and reliable but change how consumers look at self-service food bars.”

What was once prominent at only a select number of supermarket locations nationally has grow to be the accepted norm for new stores and remodels, Latta says, and functional soup and salad bars are becoming a key factor in a consumer’s decision on what stores to shop.

“Loyalty is hard to come by in today’s ever-intensifying grocery market, but it doesn’t mean you can’t gain it, foster it and retain it,” he says.

Bridgeton, Missouri-based Hussmann produces multiple lines of self-service modules, including the IM-FH, which comes in center and end modules as well as in-line modules.

Available as in-line, back-to-back or 2-, 3- and 4-sided, the counters give merchandisers a number of options. They are also designed with clean, smooth countertops for easy cleaning, and individual heat-controlled wells help to increase product life.

Temperature control

Salad bars typically include foods considered Time and Temperature Control foods. According to Gordon Food Service — a Wyoming, Michigan-based foodservice supplier — the combination of foods that contain protein, are moist and have a neutral or slightly acidic pH makes for great bacteria-growing conditions.

And while it should be common knowledge, the company says it’s never a bad time to offer reminders for proper temperature control. Cold foods must be maintained at 41 degrees or below, while hot foods must be maintained at 135 degrees and above.

Furthermore, food must pass through the temperature danger zone quickly to reduce the growth of pathogens. The food must be cooled from 135 degrees to 70 degrees within two hours, then cooled to 41 degrees or lower in the next four hours.

“Reliable equipment is a pivotal link in the food safety chain, food safety is core to who we are at Structural Concepts,” Latta says. “Not only do we design all of our refrigeration systems to meet, and in most cases exceed, safety and energy standards, all of our units are NSF certified.”

He says every unit is designed with food safety in mind, which leads to better performance, increased reliability and easier cleaning and maintenance.

“If it’s not easy to clean and maintain even the best instore sanitary programs won’t help ensure food safety, as a manufacturer, we are committed to designing products with that in mind,” Latta says. “A retailer’s currency is trust, trust that the food is of high quality and is safe to consume, and we live that each and every day.”

Using islands correctly

When it comes to setting up a location for a soup or salad bar, Latta says it’s best to envision how it will be used.

While standalone units offer significant flexibility as opposed to counters, especially when it comes to venue creation for store planners, a major drawback can be the lack of planning around their use.

“So often we see spot merchandisers and standalone units being used for marquee sale items,” Latta says. “That’s a great use, but where we see them being most effective is in high congestion areas to solve convenience issues for shoppers.”

He says one of Structural Concepts’ fastest-growing products is its MI line of islands, which can be placed to attract busy, on-the-go shoppers. They can quickly get the same premium products that are being sold out of service cases without the wait.

“This, too, has to do a lot with food program design and training team members how, when and how much to stock to prevent shrink and ensure customer satisfaction,” he says. “So as a manufacturer we strive to tell that story when we are specifying standalone units like these.”

A little of both

If retailers have space concerns, or just a need for flexibility, combination units can provide retailers with the best of both worlds — convenience and a dynamic display.

Combo units that can accommodate both heated items, like soup, and chilled items can also help retailers with merchandising the complimentary commodity products that consumers sometimes miss.

“So often these items are separated from premium offerings, make cross-merchandising difficult,” Latta says. “A combination unit allows the premium service-oriented product to be displayed along with complimentary grab-and-go meal products to provide convenient meal solutions to customers right at their fingertips.”