As the pandemic becomes more of a ‘normal’ part of everyday life for Americans entering the sixth month of a coronavirus-altered reality, consumers are looking for solutions to make their increased time spent at home easier. At the start of the pandemic, hot deli side sales took a hit as many consumers were cooking most of their meals themselves, but according to Brenda Donahe-Stevens, sales and marketing director of Albert Lea, Minn.-based Mrs. Gerry’s Kitchen, that’s starting to change.

“Slowly as consumers have tired of cooking at home and started looking for variety and options, they have started purchasing more of the heat and eat sides,” Donahe-Stevens said, pointing out that in the times of trouble created by the pandemic, consumers are seeking out comfort foods like Mrs. Gerry’s Country Style Mashed Potatoes and Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese.

With restaurants running in limited capacities, consumers are buying the bulk of their food and meal items at retail, said Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development at Schwenksville, Pa.-based Don’s Prepared Foods.

“Shoppers aren’t eating out, they're making more meals at home, but there's still a large segment of the population that is looking for meal solutions and ideas,” Cappelli said. “They may be cooking more, grilling more, but they also want more ideas.”

Exit hot bars, enter heat and eat

Cappelli noted that the pandemic has shifted consumer wants surrounding the fresh items they pick up at the grocery store such as fresh sides in the deli in three main ways: contact-free, convenience and pre-packaged.

When COVID-19 hit in March, hot and cold bars that allowed customers to dish up their own sides closed in supermarkets across the United States, and most have yet to reopen. Many grocers also moved to halt behind-the-counter operations. Although many made-to-order operations have been reinstated with new safety precautions, there’s still consumer hesitancy around watching someone else dish their food into a container and then hand it to them.

Donahe-Stevens said that many of Mrs. Gerry’s retail customers say they don’t have any plans to go to back to self-serve hot and cold bars, and are instead looking for ways to display as many grab-and-go options as possible that consumers can grab out of a refrigerated section, heat at home, and enjoy with their meal.

“We have strived to offer consistent, great tasting products that will hold up in a deli’s hot case and can also be heated easily by a consumer,” she said. “Mrs. Gerry’s offers free repack labels for delis to pack our salads and sides themselves. In addition, not only our side dishes can be heated, but many of our salads can be heated as well. This is a great dual-purpose option for delis.”

Mrs. Gerry’s offers all of the company’s side dishes in either 5-pound pouches for once-a-week shoppers or 2-pound packages for the grab-and-go customers, or retailers can choose to package the sides themselves and use the company’s free repack labels.

Many of Don’s sides and salads can be served either hot or cold as well, with over 40 prepared food varieties for retailers to choose from.

Healthy comfort foods

When the pandemic hit, there was a shift toward comfort foods, but there were also plenty of people still trying to eat healthy and months into the pandemic a number of consumers are trying to get back on the healthy track after weeks of comfort-food eating, Cappelli pointed out. Recently, Don’s released several new signature dishes that can check both the boxes of ‘comfort food’ and ‘healthy’ and also give consumers the tastes they’ve been missing out on from restaurant menus.


Just before the pandemic hit, Don’s released a slate of new sides including:

  • Green Curry Lentil and Quinoa – a mix of quinoa, lentils and chickpeas with pineapple and kaffir lime in a Thai-style green curry puree that pairs well with grilled chicken or shrimp in a lemon-mustard sauce.
  • Smoky Butter Beans – heirloom baby butter beans and Christmas lima beans mixed with vegetables and fresh herbs in a smoky vinaigrette that pairs well with BBQ ribs.
  • Adobo Rice & Beans – Basmati rice, red rice, kidney beans and black beans mixed in a Filipino-style Adobo sauce with vegetables that pairs well with chicken.
  • Southwestern Black Eyed Peas – black eyed peas mixed with roasted corn, bell peppers, onions and celery with a southwestern-style dressing that pairs well with a grilled steak.
  • Artichoke Romesco – Artichokes in a classic Spanish-style Romesco sauce with roasted peppers, tomatoes, garlic and almonds that pairs well with grilled swordfish.

“These are yummy, delicious, edgy and globally inspired and are all-natural with no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives,” said Cappelli. “These sides are comfort foods and yet, they’re healthy. Consumers want something good. We want comfort food, we want something yummy, but we don’t want 1,000 calories per bite. We want something that’s minimally produced and made with clean ingredients.”

The five sides released earlier this year build on globally-inspired side dishes that Don’s began rolling out in 2019. In the initial launch of new sides in 2019, Don’s introduced:

  • Beets with Tahini – Sweet, earthy, red beets, mixed with tahini, fresh lemon, garlic, chopped dill, mint and cumin.
  • Braised Italian White Beans – Great northern beans tossed with slow roasted garlic, fresh spinach, diced tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Carrots & Chickpeas with Chermoula – Carrots, chickpeas and capers blended with fresh herbs, North African earthy spices and lemon.
  • Coconut Rice & Lentils – Long grain white basmati rice studded with lentils, jalapenos and mangoes, dressed with coconut milk and fresh lime juice.
  • Korean BBQ Green Beans – Fresh green beans tossed in a sweet and spicy Korean BBQ sauce made with authentic Gochujang.

Cappelli noted that all the sides released in 2020 and 2019 are reminiscent of side dishes consumers might find on the menu of a local restaurant.

“These are cool, edgy flavors we got used to experiencing as we dined out in restaurants, which we don’t seem to be doing a lot of nowadays,” Cappelli said. “So that's going to attract different consumers.”

Cross-merchandise to highlight convenience

With the primary selling-point of deli side dishes moving away from hot bars and behind-the-counter to grab-and-go, placement of product and taking advantage of cross-merchandising is more important than ever.

“Consumers are gravitating toward meal solutions in the deli and our side dishes are a great component for this program,” said Mrs. Gerry’s Donahe-Stevens. “Delis can place a scoop or two of our mashed potatoes or macaroni & cheese in a heatable container and sell next to vegetables, and cooked meats for the consumer to build their own meal offerings for each of their family members.”

Shoppers are increasingly looking for new ideas and easy, convenient ways to serve their family high-quality food, at a reasonable price, Donahe-Stevens said. Retailers can remind consumers of the convenience the fresh departments can offer by pulling entirely prepared meals together from across departments complete with a protein, deli sides and dessert.

Cappelli suggested cross-merchandising deli side dishes outside of the deli department as well. Retailers can anticipate that shoppers are going to be buying chicken or beef from the meat department and trying to think of side dishes to pair with the meat. Cappelli noted that consumers are probably thinking along the lines of, ‘Do I start with asparagus or broccoli again? How many boxes of rice do I have?’

“They’re looking for yummy, all-natural, edgy, cool sides and that’s what we can introduce,” he said.

Donahe-Stevens pointed that grocers can remind online consumers that they’ll need sides to pair with a meal or dessert, too. Deli heat-and-eat items are often impulse buys, and retailers can encourage that by pairing side item suggestions when shoppers place specific items into their carts.

“The best option would be if a grocer’s online shopping portal offered suggestions when customers order certain products,” she said. “If the consumer orders a beef roast from the meat department, have the portal suggest mashed potatoes or gravy from the deli.  Any type of suggestive selling and cross-merchandising between departments could be beneficial.”

Kerry’s Chef’s Pass can elevate deli sides

Beloit, Wis.-based food industry solutions company Kerry recently released ready-to-eat seasonings designed to elevate flavor of other prepared foods behind the deli counter such as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken or pasta salads.

The seasoning line comes in 11 different consumer-preferred flavors:kerry

  • Beer Cheese
  • Bruschetta
  • Buffalo
  • Buttermilk RanchHot Honey
  • Nashville Hot
  • Pesto Seasoning
  • Spicy Chipotle
  • Sriracha Kick
  • Umami
  • Yellow Curry

Kerry also offers a Kettle portfolio that includes ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese, queso and sauces that can be combined with the Chef’s Pass seasoning for unique flavor varieties.

“We can provide menu and recipe concepts for the deli, like the pairing of Chef’s Pass seasonings and Kettle mac and cheese,” said Maria Alarcon, marketing manager – DTR for Kerry. “Kerry also has a variety of resources, including case studies and our blog, KerryDigest, so retailers can explore what is happening in the food and beverage industry. We’ve also created a COVID-19 content hub which provides information and guidance from Kerry experts on the ever-changing landscape of consumer behavior, the retail and foodservice industries and food manufacturing during the pandemic.” 

This story was featured in the September edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.