Real World Delis

Growing up in Brooklyn, my weekly trip to the Waldbaum deli counter (although we called it the Appetizing Department) was always much anticipated. Every Sunday morning I would go with my dad to pick up lox and nova, baked salmon, sturgeon, sable, whitefish (some chubs and a big one), sometimes smoked butterfish and always scallion cream cheese.

I would watch the man slice each piece of fish. If they had some wings of the smoked salmon – we called them fleagles – we would grab those as well, and sometimes the guy didn’t even charge. If my grandfather was staying over, we also got some herring in cream sauce with onions and some Greek olives.

We would stop at the bagel store to buy bagels, bialys, salt sticks, onion rolls, an onion board and pick up a New York Times, a Daily News and later when we moved to Long Island, a Newsday. By the time we got home, my Mom had already sliced the tomato and onion. She had coffee for my Dad and orange juice for us all.

For the next several hours, we would read the paper and eat the smoked fish – my favorite was sable, which I was always told was very expensive and very fatty, so I shouldn’t eat too much. Neighbors and friends often came over, and there was always plenty to share.

I’m not yet forty years old, yet my lovingly remembered scene might as well be ancient history. One can scarcely find baked salmon, much less the smoked butterfish that I remember in a contemporary supermarket deli. To find a fleagle – that’s Yiddish for a wing – would really be hard as even where they sell smoked salmon, they are not slicing it, so there are no wings to cut away.

To decry change is a fool’s game. And whatever the sweetness of memories, the fact is that delis would have remained in ethnic enclaves had they not been homogenized to serve the broad taste preference of the American consumer.

For a deli director to stand athwart history yelling “Stop, we must sell smoked sturgeon!” would have been at best, a romantic gesture. Yet, in the burst of expansion that put a deli in almost every supermarket, the need to innovate the product line was recognized. Is it possible that we may be on the cusp of a need; to reinvent the deli once more?

The National Restaurant Association just came out with a study that focuses on the rise of ethnic cuisine in the U.S. and its findings are telling. The prime finding is that certain cuisines – particularly Italian, Mexican and Cantonese-style Chinese food – are so common as to be the mainstream. Over 90 percent of consumers are familiar with these foods and have tried them.

Yet, the offerings of these categories often belie the research. One supermarket chain in the Midwest doesn’t have any Mexican items at its deli operation. When asked why I was told that the chain had once attempted an extensive Mexican food bar operation. When the sales didn’t support such an effort the program was closed and Mexican food was removed from the menu.

What a mistake! Just because consumers don’t want the deli to become Mexican restaurant doesn’t mean that Mexican food can’t be merchandised profitably.

A Southern chain made the same mistake with Asian food. The chain went from selling no Asian food in the deli to a full-blown wok program with dedicated wok personnel all day and into the night.

Today, there are big chip displays where the woks used to be and once again not one single Asian food item at the counter. What a shame.

In both cases, the chains installed the Mexican and wok programs because of the popularity of Mexican and Chinese restaurants, respectively in each community. In some vague way, the deli executives knew that there was a market to be seized, but they were at a loss as to how to grab hold.

There may be a few deli departments that will really score with a more adventurous cuisine – a nice Indian food offering or a Vietnamese dish or two. But, for most, the model deli that I remember as a youth, where the deli department was primarily viewed as a destination for certain key foods, is a model gone forever.

This means that supermarket delis have to mirror the real world eating patterns of consumers. So if Mom fixes burritos on Tuesday, chow mein on Thursday, and lasagna on Friday – well, that pretty well should be on the menu at the deli department.

In a sense, to reflect the diets of a community simply mirrors the competition. This is so much weaker than consumers perceiving delis as the preferred source of a product category, as my family perceived Waldbaum as the preferred source for Appetizing so many years ago.

Yet, even then, there were other sources. Specialty appetizing stores and bagel stores that brought in guys to slice the nova were options. Waldbaum got the business for all the usual reasons: They carried the right product, merchandised if effectively, priced it right and had stores in neighborhoods where people bought such products.

Yet, the stores were very dependent on the loyalties of Jewish consumers. In this sense, Waldbaum was simply micromarketing to its neighborhoods, and when my family sold Waldbaum a supermarket in New Jersey, outside of the area Waldbaum knew best, that supermarket failed.

Today’s post-consolidation retailer would see strength in echoing America’s meal choices in the deli department. If it weakens the positioning of the store with any group, it also creates the potential for growing business with every group of consumers.

The challenge is in making sure that the product offering accurately reflects the changing eating habits of today’s consumer. That won’t happen by looking at last year’s movement reports.