Home Again

It is said you can’t go home again and yet, somehow, we do. Today, as the industry gathers in Minneapolis to attend the IDDBA convention, it is fitting to note that it is also a homecoming. Five years ago, in the very same city, at the very same convention, a new industry was born – the very magazine you hold in your hands today, DELI BUSINESS.

It was a different industry then, younger, perhaps more earnest, or was it just more naïve? In any case, it was an industry in the throes of dealing with a nascent trend called HMR or Home Meal Replacement. The articles in the launch issue were filled with reports of supermarkets hiring foodservice consultants, establishing foodservice teams and generally joining in a quest to deliver restaurant quality food through the supermarket deli. The holy grail: To beat the then-seemingly unstoppable Boston Chicken, which was just then morphing into Boston Market with a broader menu and more stores – all seemingly destined to steal the business of the supermarket deli.

In our second issue, DELI BUSINESS identified Boston Chicken as a stock market promotion destined to collapse. It eventually staggered into Chapter 11. The remnants are now a wholly owned subsidiary of McDonald’s and don’t seem like much of a threat to anyone.

The journey of the deli industry in the last half-decade is neatly encapsulated in the cover stories of the first issue and the anniversary issue you are reading now. Back in 1996, the cover story was trumpeting: “New Ideas Drive Meal Replacement,” and the current issue reminds the deli industry: “Don’t Forget the Meat!”

Put another way, the journey the deli industry has trod in the last five years is back home, back to basics, back to a recognition of core competencies in selling meats and cheeses, smoked fish and salads. Other product classifications are important and growing – pizza, sushi, prepared foods. But they are now seen as products, not alternative business models. And our limitations are now being recognized: That most deli managers have neither the training nor the interest to run restaurants and cafes, that expansion requires new approaches to staffing and management.

Five years ago, many “experts” were certain that deli departments would simply disappear, that grand interdepartmental meal centers would eventually service consumers. In fact, supermarkets themselves were not seen as the end game in HMR, as fawning over Eatzi’s and similar concepts seemed to project an army of chefs in our neighborhoods – each one subtracting from deli sales. The founders of DELI BUSINESS were roundly criticized for missing the boat, for not knowing what was so clear to so many – that the deli was not going to last. We were berated for not understanding that instead of DELI BUSINESS, we should have launched hmr business or some such thing.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the whole HMR fantasia was the necessary growing pains of an industry about to seize its place in the pantheon of commerce. Like the college student who needs to try acting before settling down to study accounting, the HMR movement was born and died just as the national deli industry was really forming.

But the transformation is both an event and a process and the transformation continues apace. If some of the excesses of the HMR euphoria has been shed, the basics we return to are different than before. The food safety standards are higher. The merchandising options are more extensive. The competitive environment continues to fracture into more and more formats. Equipment, food production and packaging technology create new options for product selection, preparation, and display. Even HMR continues as a part of what delis offer, just now offered to the extent it makes money.

So, as an industry, we go to Minneapolis to meet old friends and new, to remember how it was done in the past and to explore how it will be done in the future. We celebrate our successes and learn from our failures, and we take solace from the fact that we needn’t face it all alone.

And, of course, for as long as there is a DELI BUSINESS magazine, no one in the industry is ever truly alone. For, from our very first issue we have tied together disparate elements of the industry – buyers and sellers, the geographically distant, the experienced and the novice, the upscale and the mainstream.

All of us here at DELI BUSINESS wish to take this occasion to thank everyone associated with the birth of this magazine, to thank our own associates for their tireless dedication and brilliant imagination, to thank our advertisers for so bravely supporting a new idea and to thank those who provided counsel and allowed themselves to be quoted in our articles, for joining us in our commitment to help our industry grow. And, especially, thanks to you, our readers, for taking our ink and paper and breathing life into the pages by using this magazine, this DELI BUSINESS, to do your own job or build your own business.

Our careers may lead us to travel widely. In the course of a professional lifetime, any one of us may work on the supply side and buy side; we may specialize in old standards or be working on the cutting edge. A life in business will take us along many paths, but wherever we may travel, whatever we may be called upon to do, if there is a DELI BUSINESS near, then you know that you haven’t traveled all that far and that, in a sense, you are home again.