KANSAS CITY, MO. - When it comes to deli sides, consumers are looking for indulgence, authenticity and connectivity, said Melanie Skloff of Schwenksville, Penn.-based Don’s Prepared Foods.

“Consumers are increasingly looking to connect with a brand or company on a more personal level,” Skloff said. “They want to understand where their food is coming from, who is making their food.”

Skloff points out that consumers are increasingly interested in knowing if their food is mass-produced by a large company or by a family-owned business that makes their food offerings in small batches by hand. Buyers want to know if the ready-made food they’re putting on their tables at home was made with local ingredients and they want to know how those ingredients were grown and raised. “A good story behind a company or brand is a trend we don't see going anywhere any time soon,” she added. 

Skloff said that it’s important for grocers to feature and source more products from local or small-family businesses. She suggested that retailers tell their shoppers where their products are coming from with signage and demos.

Nathan Roe, senior manager of deli strategy and customer marketing at Beaverton, Ore.- based Reser’s Fine Foods also highlighted that customers want to know more about the food they are eating.

“Consumers have increasingly looked to ingredient statements to feel good about what they’re eating and buying,” Roe said. “For the most part, they don’t want to sacrifice flavor or taste (or convenience), but we think there may be some flexibility on price.”

Over the last several years the importance of health and nutrition in foods across all food categories including deli sides has been on the rise. Skloff also noted, however, that while consumers are looking for healthier options, they aren’t willing to sacrifice good taste, indulgence, or nostalgia. Consumers still want all of that, she said, just without the artificial flavors, colors and preservatives that many of them grew up with.  

Skloff said Don’s Artisan Deli line of clean deli salads, new gourmet sides and Melanie’s Medleys cream cheese dips meet the need created by this year’s top trends:

  • Classic Tuna Salad
  • Chicken Salad
  • Italian Style Tuna Salad
  • Seafood Salad
  • Green Curry Lentils and Quinoa
  • Southwestern Black Eyed Peas
  • Korean Green Beans
  • Smoky Butter Beans
  • Artichoke Romesco
  • Adobe Rice and Beans
  • Raisin, Apple & Cinnamon Cream Cheese
  • Vegetable Cream Cheese
  • Cinnamon Toast Cream Cheese
  • Blueberry Cream Cheese
  • Plain Cream Cheese

Made in small batches with clean ingredients and antibiotic-free protein, Don’s Artisan Deli line comes prepared in 10-ounce grab-n-go containers. The company’s newest gourmet sides are also made without artificial flavors, colors or preservatives and are vegan and vegetarian. Skloff also noted that the cream cheese spread belonging to the company’s Melanie’s Medleys line are non-GMO and gluten free.

Skloff said that in addition to Don’s new gourmet sides, grain salads such as Wheatberry and Mango Lime Quinoa which are also made without artificial flavors, colors or preservatives are top sellers this year for the company.

Younger generations want new and ethnic flavors, convenience

While baby boomers consistently go for the chopped chicken liver and traditional deli salads such as tuna salad, chicken salad and seafood salad that Don’s Prepared Foods was known for as they were growing up, Skloff said that younger generations like millennials and Gen Z are interested in new flavors in their deli sides.

“Speaking to trends and newer generations,” Skloff said. “We also offer more innovative items such as Korean BBQ Green Beans and Adobo Rice and Beans.”  

Skloff also noted that Don’s newest deli sides such as the Southwestern Black Eyes Peas and Green Curry Lentils and Quinoa take advantage of flavors from all around the world.   

For sides popular with all age groups, Skloff pointed to Don’s Artichoke Asiago and Buffalo chicken dips.

Skloff noted that convenience is another factor that’s increasingly popular both with younger and older generations. She said offering more grab-and-go options and advertising deli sides as part of a meal component hits the convenience factor customers are looking for without sacrificing quality or taste.

William Andersen, chief executive officer of Spring, Texas-based Fresh Food Group said that he’s noticed a decline in deli sides that are behind-the-glass. 

“Younger consumers favor grab-and-go and foodservice-style options,” Andersen said. “As a result, we see growth in items that can be offered in a variety of applications.”

Andersen noted that Fresh Food Group’s salads can be used in mixed application — served behind the glass in hot or cold bars for older generations that still like to order their deli sides from the counter or packed in store for grab-and-go options.

Fresh Food Group has also taken advantage of the ethnic flavors trend. Andersen said the company offers a Mexico-inspired street corn salad and a pea and edamame based Asian salad. He noted that Mediterranean flavors consistently perform well in the deli side category.

A combination that families can share

Roe said that Reser’s top-performing products are items that families can enjoy together. This year, Reser’s best-sellers include meal kits, premium dips and traditional and great-tasting comfort foods such as the company’s macaroni and cheese and scalloped potatoes.

“There is growth in upscale prepared salads, too,” Roe noted. “As well as single serve items sold in multipack configurations.”

Some of Reser’s latest product innovations include roasted potatoes for bulk case and meal programs, deli salads with ingredients like turmeric and shrimp and seasonal dips that combine sweet and savory flavors.

“We want to keep the Reser’s, Main St Bistro and Stonemill Kitchens brands relevant to consumers, and product innovation helps these brands continually stay interesting and relevant,” Roe said.

Currently, Reser’s Main St. Bistro offerings include:

  • Baked Macaroni & Cheese
  • Baked Scalloped Potatoes
  • Baked Shredded Potato Casserole
  • Baked Zesty Au Gratin Potatoes
  • Baked Four Cheese Macaroni
  • Roasted Sea Salt & Black Pepper Potatoes
  • Roasted Garlic & Rosemary Potatoes
  • Signature Mashed Potato
  • Signature Macaroni & Cheese
  • Steakhouse Mashed Potatoes
  • Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
  • Pepper Jack Macaroni & Cheese
  • Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Reser’s Stonemill Kitchens lineup includes:

  • Creamy Spinach Premium Dip
  • Spicy Pepper & Three Cheese Premium Dip
  • Spinach, Artichoke & Parmesan Premium Dip
  • Artichoke, Jalapeño & Parmesan Premium Dip
  • Artichoke & Parmesan Premium Dip
  • Pimento & Sharp Cheddar Premium Dip
  • Creamy Cranberry Jalapeño Premium Dip
  • Creamy Onion Premium Dip
  • Buffalo Style Chicken Dip

Andersen pointed out that Fresh Food Group’s line includes freshly prepared vegetable side and salad kits that families can share.

COVID-19's impact on the category

The onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the United States has had a significant impact on deli prepared foods. By the first week of April, data from 210 Analytics and IRI showed that sales for deli prepared foods were down 43.1% for the week ending on April 5 compared to that same timeframe in 2019.

The International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) noted that sales in early April were virtually off on all deli offerings and meal occasions whether it was sides, breakfast items, combo meals or deli pizza.

“As the first waves of panic buying are over, measures to curb the number of people going in grocery stores combined with a slowdown in trip frequency is really hurting the deli prepared area,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator of IDDBA.

The decline in deli sales is also likely a direct result of many grocers being forced to close down or severely limit operations of made-to-order counters, self-serve buffets, salad bars and hot bars.

“During this crisis, many delis have shifted all or a portion of their bulk, freshly prepared salads and sides to prepacked items in order to reduce labor and prioritize needs for the sudden shift in shopping behaviors,” Roe said.

Roe said that while it’s difficult to predict exactly what the future will bring, he expects that in the long term deli cases will return to having a wide variety of ready-to-serve deli side options with an emphasis on value. He noted that showcasing the deli sides category online to help consumers consider the deli as part of their everyday meal solutions will also be a long-term opportunity.

Don’s Prepared Foods’ Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales & business development, said the company did three major things to prepare for the escalation of COVID-19:

  1. Enhanced steps to ensure food safety, plant safety and employee safety through protective gear.
  2. Increased measures of cleaning and sanitizing.
  3. Emphasized how sides from Don’s can be components in Meal Kits/ Meal Solutions as more people are eating from home.

Cappelli said that grocers have been creative and quick in coming up with alternative ways to sell deli sides as made-to-order and self-serve bars shut down.

“Retailers mobilized quickly to put Don’s sides and salads into cups to meet consumer demand,” he said. “As labor was stretched and retailers faced risk of less employees due to COVID-19, Don’s was there to offer up ideas on which items to cup. Don’s even offered to pre-pack salads during this crisis on key driver items.”

Cappelli highlighted that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the category has seen a consumer shift from health and wellness items to comfort foods. As a result, Don’s is offering retailers with Comfort Food Meal Solutions. While the health trends are still relevant and likely to keep relevancy into the future, Cappelli does anticipate that meal solutions will become a long-term player in retail deli.

“As all retail deli continues to meet consumer demands during the quarantine periods, Don’s Prepared Foods stands ready to support them and ship all orders in full,” Cappelli said. “Providing solutions and innovative items, Don’s delivers value to retail deli.”