Put Locavore Enthusiasm Into Delis

The local phenomenon is not just a produce industry issue. To some extent, we can see this at farmer’s markets all over the country, where we find not only fresh produce but also locally made artisan and farmstead cheeses, locally raised and butchered poultry and meat as well as jams, jellies and jarred foods of various types.

For the most part, supermarket delis have done a pitiful job of acting to seize consumer interest created by the buzz over local. In fact, many loathe doing so since handling lots of local product complicates procurement, merchandising and marketing and can pose food safety challenges.

Yet we don’t get to choose what intrigues our customers, and a failure to understand what is behind the locavore enthusiasm is a form of marketing negligence.

This approach — viewing local through the prism of a marketing challenge — is a bit different than assessing the substantive claims for local that advocates often make. The claims purporting local as more flavorful, more sustainable, better for the local economy, etc., are all interesting issues. Whether true or false, a certain zeitgeist that leads people to think and react in certain ways exists. These reactions — not the substantive facts — are what interest us most as marketers. In understanding these reactions, we can often find paths to the more successful conduct of business.

The best way to think about the search for local is as a reaction to the success we have had in the food industry in bringing the most distant products to the most humble corners of our nation. One doesn’t have to be in a particularly upscale supermarket to find wine from France and Chile, cheese from Italy and the Netherlands and an assortment from every state and nation rounding out the list. Even domestically produced foods are often in the style of cuisines from around the world.

It is sometimes hard to remember that within the lifetime of working members of the industry, many foods were “exotic” and not available in whole swathes of the country. Even in big cities, they might have been available in a few upscale carriage-trade shops but were more oddities than food to the bulk of the population.

There was no sliced nova, no pastrami, and no Feta cheese in most grocery stores in 1950 or even 1970. It is really only in the past quarter-century that we saw a great boom in grocery store delis and the explosion in specialty, ethnic and fresh foods.

The impact of this was substantial, and one unanticipated impact is what was once unimaginably exciting and exotic has become something of a bore. In every city, in every market, seemingly everything in the world is almost always available.

The impact of continuous access to everything affects deli no less, for it is hard to get excited about what one can always have. Food, like clothing, plays a role in one’s sense of self-identification and efforts to impress others. Not all that long ago, attending a dinner party where one dined on an assortment of specialty cheese, perhaps purchased from one of a handful of specialty stores in cities like New York, was highly impressive. How impressive is it when a trip to the local grocery store yields all that variety?

So local is now the new exotic. Perhaps the item is an heirloom variety produced in low volume or maybe its provenance from a specific farmer or butcher makes it unique…perhaps one has to order a subscription months in advance or go to the farm or farmers market. Whatever the case, it is more interesting and requires more effort. It both satisfies the longing for something different and imparts prestige through knowing of the product and the effort to get it.

Evidence shows consumers who use words such as local can mean many different things. Sometimes it is an expression of nationalism; sometimes it speaks to the desire to see food produced “correctly,” by which they mean authentically — by people who know the proper way to do so.

So one answer for delis is to make sure products tell their story. It may be via labeling, packaging, pamphlets, websites or social media, but it means something to consumers to know the great-great grandfather came from the old country and passed down the method of curing the meat from generation to generation.

The yearning for local also tells us consumers value things that are different and exciting. If you can’t offer that with the core assortment, do it with recipes and specials, do it by cycling products in and out, do it with tastings.

Think of how a consumer must have felt 100 years ago when he or she first was shown a mango. Now ask if your customers ever get that experience — of the unimaginably exotic — at your deli counter. If not, the locavore movement is telling us of an opportunity.