The instore deli is the very definition of “evolution” in the retail food industry.

It has transformed from a fresh department that shoppers gravitated toward to purchase deli meats and cheeses for their family’s lunch needs to a prepared food destination for multiple meat solutions for many consumers. 

It was once a place to formally place a catering order from a preselected menu. Now, there are so many grab-and-go options that shoppers no longer need to order in advance and can still entertain at multiple scales, whether it’s potato salad or coleslaw for a family gathering or a cheese tray for a work function.   

This evolution continues to this day, as the concepts of “experience” and “entertaining” become more and more important to brick-and-mortar stores. Consumers are looking at their local supermarkets and grocers not only as purveyors of fresh and delicious food, but also as educators and sources of knowledge and diverse offerings. This is especially true when it comes to ideas for entertaining, and one trend that has gained much traction over the past few years is charcuterie.  

Why charcuterie draws consumer attention 

For those unfamiliar with the term, charcuterie is a technique of preparing, preserving and showcasing meat products, especially cured meats.

This is now done most commonly through pairings with such items as cheese, bread or toasts, fruits and sauces, particularly the growing category of mostardas and other vinegar-based condiments. The items are then appropriately placed on a board, which then becomes a focal point of the “entertaining” component that the individual is sharing with others.  

Charcuterie encompasses a wide spectrum of meat types, including, but not limited to:  

  • Whole muscle dry (e.g., prosciutto di Parma, jamon serrano, bresaloa) 
  • Whole muscle dried or smoked (e.g., speck, Virginia ham) 
  • Whole muscle cooked – unsmoked (e.g., prosciutto cotto, roast beef, capicola)  
  • Whole muscle cooked – smoked (e.g., pastrami) 
  • Ground fermented – unsmoked (e.g., hard salami, soppressata, nduja) 
  • Ground fermented – smoked (e.g., pepperoni) 
  • Ground cooked – unsmoked (e.g., salami cotto, bologna, mortadella) 
  • Ground cooked – smoked (e.g., wurst, andouille) 

Most varieties of charcuterie fall within the specialty deli meats category, which has seen significant growth. Nielsen Perishables Group reported that the deli meat segment accounted for $200 million of the total meat department and deli counter sales. Overall dollar sales grew 3%.

The wide variety of meat types, flavors and textures suits most palates, as well as creates seemingly endless opportunities for pairings, as well as increased rings and strategic upsell opportunities. In some instances, consumers may be drawn to a certain variety based on its name and texture, as they’re familiar with similar meats that share similar characteristics.  

While flavor and texture has—and always will be—the number-one driver of sales and consumption, other product characteristics and traits are also important considerations for today’s consumers, who are increasingly attentive to ingredients, the manner in which the food was produced, and the story behind it.  

Here are some of the traits that draw consumers to the concept of charcuterie:  

  • The “storytelling” component. As reported by the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) for the past few years in its resource publication, What’s in Store, the story behind the food has become an important selling point. Consumers want to know how the food they’re enjoying was made. Charcuterie is as near a perfect example as one can find. The history of curing meats dates back thousands and thousands of years, and there are many examples of cured meats available today with historical origin. This is a trend resonating in other fresh departments as well. For example, there has been an increase in interest of ancient grains for baking bread. It’s about the ingredients and the way the food was prepared. And telling the story and the history behind the food can make it appealing to both exploratory shoppers looking to try new charcuterie and more casual shoppers intrigued about the food’s sources.  
  • Protein, protein and more protein. As an industry, we’ve seen the push for more protein-rich options from consumers. But the way protein is offered is also important. Consumers are increasingly looking for foods that are intrinsically rich in protein, rather than foods that contain added protein or are non-animal-protein alternatives. Charcuterie is a perfect option for these protein-seeking shoppers.   
  • Ingredient simplicity. IDDBA research and findings show that consumers are increasingly seeking natural food products. While the definition of simplicity varies, it can include products free from artificial flavors and coloring, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), artificial preservatives, or substitute ingredients. Depending on the meat type and its preparation, salt could be the lone ingredient (for cured meats). Messaging the ingredients (or lack thereof) of charcuterie on instore displays, signage, menu boards, packaging, advertising and digital channels can engage consumers looking for foods produced with a minimal number of ingredients.  
  • New tastes and flavor pairings. The ever-growing palate of today’s consumer is growing. You don’t have to look far to notice this “here-to-stay” trend. Driven by the diverse younger generation of consumers—but still applicable to older generations—the inclusion and experimentation of ingredients as international cuisine becomes mainstream and new takes on traditional comfort food become more common can be seen throughout the fresh departments. Younger consumers—many of whom are food experimental in nature and come from multi-cultural households—are looking for variety beyond traditional deli offerings. Older consumers are stepping out of their comfort zones to try new products.  
  • Additionally, food pairing has become more popular and widespread nationally. Beer and wine pairings with cheese, chocolate and even desserts such as donuts. Charcuterie boards are the pinnacle of food-pairing experiences, as they provide endless opportunities for consumers to taste a multitude of flavor combos.   
  • An international experience (and a closer-to-home one, too).  A factor that has contributed to many new food trends is international travel. Individuals vacationing in Europe, South America, and other global destinations dine on local and regional cuisine, ingredients, and flavors, and once they return, some may seek out these delicacies closer to home. This certainly applies to charcuterie. And it’s especially true of those visiting Italy, France and Spain, given the variety of charcuterie in these countries. Upon their return, these individuals want to relive the experience as well as share it with their family, friends and colleagues.  
  • And it’s not just international travel. Individuals from certain regions of the United States visiting cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago may find charcuterie varieties not available in their hometown or surrounding area.  
  • As we all know, consumer demand drives variety. Listen to your shoppers. Get a sense of the types of meat varieties they’re searching for. Doing so will help create a growing and loyal group of charcuterie customers, as well to expand your offerings.   

Consumer engagement is a must  

The “experience” that charcuterie brings to a store also can bring consumer questions. Regionality can play a role in how educated consumers are on cured meats.

For example, shoppers in the Northeast, Chicago, and West Coast cities might be more familiar with certain types of cured meats (and cheeses, for that matter) as they grew up eating them and seeing them sold in local businesses. Consumers in other regions may not be as familiar with them, which is why sampling is the first step in enlightening them. Don’t just offer the product, encourage the consumer to taste it.  

In many ways, the state of charcuterie today is very similar to the growth the specialty cheese market was 10 or 15 years ago. At first, many consumers probably felt overwhelmed and unknowledgeable by the sheer variety of cheeses becoming available at retail. Now, this category is very approachable. Engagement and education played major roles in accomplishing this.  

Instore pairing classes and dinners are another way to engage consumers on charcuterie. If your store or chain already has on-site cooking classes or chef-inspired dinners, consider adding a charcuterie angle to some of these sessions or, perhaps even more effective, develop charcuterie-specific classes, complete with large charcuterie boards and an itinerary of pairing combinations.  

The importance of knowledgeable store associates  

Consumers have questions about food they’re unfamiliar with. And if they don’t receive the answers they’re looking for, they’ll either not make a purchase or shop another store where associates can answer their question. 

Therefore, knowledgeable employees play such a critical role in the success of a store’s charcuterie program.  

Charcuterie is a new concept for many shoppers. Cured meats with names like sopressata and saucisson sec may be unfamiliar and intimidating to consumers unfamiliar with them. This very likely could lead to hesitation about tasting and purchasing them. A knowledgeable associate can help bridge the gap between consumer reluctancy and enjoyment of charcuterie.  

As stated above, sampling is the most effective way of engaging shoppers. But some individuals may want to learn about what they’re trying, before biting into it. Telling the story behind the meat—its origin, flavor, texture, what it pairs well with—is essential to developing and expanding a charcuterie program in your instore deli. The associate providing the charcuterie sample to the consumer should also be able to provide details about it, as well as answer questions.  

This is where associate education comes into play. Knowledgeable staff is the key in driving shopper engagement in a store’s charcuterie program.  On-going training should be a component of any charcuterie program, whether newly launched or existing.  

Additionally, many distributors and vendors are willing to go the extra mile to talk to staff about their products, and many have helpful resources to address both storytelling and ingredient concerns.  

A commitment to education can go a long way in delivering a successful charcuterie program that entices and connects with shoppers, as well as drive sales. 

To learn more about IDDBA’s new charcuterie certification program and other training tools for store associate’s, visit  

Eric Richard is industry relations coordinator for the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).