KANSAS CITY - One of the biggest trends in the food industry in recent years has been consumers adding protein to their diets, whether it’s a center-plate or a side.

A new item from Beaverton, Ore.-based Reser’s Fine Foods — a four-pack of single-serve Rotisserie Chicken Salad — was created with just that in mind, said Nathan Roe, Reser’s senior manager of deli strategy and customer marketing.

“Single portion serving sizes are extremely popular because they offer convenience, pre-portioning and portability,” Roe said. “Consumers are often on the lookout for ways to add more protein to lunches or snacks, and this packs 13-grams of protein into every serving.”

The salad has a robust, roasted flavor that's combined with a creamy mayonnaise dressing, crunchy sweet pickles, celery and onion, and no artificial flavors or colors, Roe added.

Reser’s is excited about another new side in its lineup: creamy scalloped potatoes in a heat-and-serve package format. Again, it’s a product, Roe said, that meets customers where they are today.

“Satisfying, fully-prepared side dishes that require minimal prep or heat time continue to be popular with busy consumers.”

Reser’s top-selling deli sides continue to be its potato salads – both the original and deviled egg varieties. There’s something quite comforting, Roe said, in the familiar tastes and flavors of deli salads, and Reser’s is seeing that a whole new generation of consumers are discovering classic deli salads and family favorites.

 What has changed, however, is how consumers increasingly want their old favorites delivered.

“There’s been a shift away from the deli case and toward pre-packaged versions of the same or similar recipes,” Roe said.

And while its old standbys remain top sellers, Reser’s is also seeing sides with lighter dressings (vinaigrettes, yogurt-based, etc.) and grain and pasta salads growing in popularity. Sides inspired by ethnic cuisines are another growth category for the company.

Ethnic and regional inspirations

Albert Lea, Minn.-based Mrs. Gerry’s Kitchen introduced three new side salads in April:

  • Calico Beans. A classic Midwest comfort food containing navy, butter, lima, and kidney beans in a sweet and tangy BBQ tomato sauce.
  • Banh Mi Salad. A popular sandwich originating in Vietnam is the inspiration for this creamy and colorful salad consisting of rice noodles, carrots, cucumbers, jalapenos, yellow peppers, and roasted red peppers in a traditional mayonnaise and soy dressing.
  • Egg Roll Salad. Inspired by one of the most popular appetizers on restaurant menus, this salad combines cabbage, rice noodles, carrots, edamame, red bell peppers, and water chestnuts in a soy vinaigrette.

In addition to being excited about these new products, Mrs. Gerry’s is promoting its customizable retail ready 2 lb. bags of Premium Mashed Potatoes and Premium Mac & Cheese, which are the perfect size for meal deals and special events like grilling ad themes, rib fests, and smaller graduations and summer holiday parties, said Brenda Donahe-Stevens, the company’s sales and marketing director.

The bags make store-branding easy, she added. The printed film on the bags includes nutritional and ingredient information, UPC, cooking instructions and use-by-date on the back.

“All retailers have to do is add their logoed label to the plain front,” Donahe-Stevens said.

Mrs. Gerry’s makes it even easier by offering repack labels for free on its website, mrsgerrys.com.

During COVID, it’s been all about comfort food for Mrs. Gerry’s, Donahe-Stevens said. The company’s best-selling Premium Mashed Potatoes and Premium Mac & Cheese, the company’s top two sides sellers, are the perfect match to meet that demand.

“We’ve also seen an increase in our potato salad, macaroni salad and coleslaw categories, as they are simple addition to any center of the plate option.”

With hot bars closed for a significant portion of the year, stores had various strategies to market Mrs. Gerry’s sides. Most repacked sides with proteins and/or by themselves.

Stores also marketed Mrs. Gerry’s full 5 lb. bags in their grab ‘n go section. As for cold salads, sales increased double digits on retail packs (1 lb. and 3 lb.) as stores did not have the labor for repacking and customers were demanding retail ready products.

“We think repacking or retail-ready demand will continue for some time,” Donahe-Stevens said. “It’s all about the comfort level of the consumer. Every geographical area we service has had a different timeline for reopening.”

Bowl bonanza

New bowls, both hot and cold, are among the new side dish highlights for Schwenksville, Pa.-based Don’s Prepared Foods, said Carl Cappelli, the company’s senior vice president of sales and business development.

Five bowls were launched in late winter. This is the third straight year, Cappelli said, in which Don’s has rolled out five new side dishes. Gourmet sides were the focus in 2019 and 2020. For 2021, Don’s decided to tap into the nationwide craze for everything bowl-related.

The bowls include:

  • Chicken Pesto Pasta
  • Honey Sriracha Chicken
  • Unwrapped Grilled Chicken Burrito
  • Korean BBQ Style Chick’n
  • Mexican Style Chorizo and Rice

The bowls are versatile, meeting the demand of today’s consumers. The new southwestern chicken bowl, for instance, can be turned into a meal by adding lettuce, tomatoes and a tortilla.

“What we’re seeing is, consumers are fatigued trying to figure out meal prep,” Cappelli said. “And with millennials eating smaller portions multiple times a day, demand for sides is going up.”

All five of the new sides are all-natural and globally inspired, and two are plant-based. Asian and Southwestern foods are two of the hottest cuisines Don’s is tapping into for new products. And, Cappelli said, they also meet the aesthetic needs of many homebound consumers looking for something different.

“Families need different, more colorful, healthful sides,” he said. “And after retailers and consumers hunkered down in 2020, in 2021, everyone is looking for new items. People want to see new, innovative stuff.”

Commitment to innovation

Reser’s is constantly on the hunt for new sides to offer its customers, Roe said.

“Our chefs and R&D teams are always excited to use new flavors and ingredients to spur innovation. Sometimes we focus on a single herb or spice that’s trending — dill, parsley or cilantro, for example — or a primary ingredient, like deviled eggs, to give a quick cue to the consumer on what to expect.”

Ingredients like wild rice and pepitas, combined with creative techniques — roasting, spiralizing or caramelizing, to name a few — are some of the new flavor combos Reser’s has introduced that have tapped into surging trends.

Because of COVID and the shift in consumer shopping behavior, many delis have shifted all or a portion of their bulk, freshly prepared salads and sides to prepacked items to reduce labor and adjust to the shift in shopping behaviors, Roe said.

While no one knows exactly how things will evolve going forward, Reser’s expects that in the long term, deli cases will return to having a wide variety of ready-to-serve choices that consumers are looking for, with an emphasis on value, Roe said.

When it comes to merchandising, Reser’s subscribes to a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy. There’s no reason, Roe said, that a strong brand like Reser’s can’t coexist nicely with non-Reser products.

“Reser’s items perform particularly well on a shelf alongside store brand salads, maximizing growth for the entire category,” he said. “With purposeful promotions planned throughout the year, a combination like this gives retailers trade funding, the power of brand marketing and a degree of own brand control, all on the same shelf.”