Retail Culinary Executives

The quest to provide restaurant-quality food in a supermarket deli setting has been something of a Holy Grail for retail deli executives ever since the HMR boom a few years back.

Reasonably enough, supermarket executives did not like the statistic that started floating around couple years ago indicating that over 50% of all expenditures on food is being spent in foodservice. These top supermarket executives looked to deli departments to hold onto and increase their “share of stomach.”

In truth, the numbers were never quite as scary as they appeared. Retail still had (and has) a solid majority in the volume of food sold; it was the fact that foodservice pricing included not only food but also service and atmosphere that warped the scale. And, truth be told, retail could never compete for an awful lot of that foodservice business no matter what retailers did – those foodservice numbers include, among other unreachable markets, prisons, hospitals, hotels and gangly teenagers desperate to get out of the house and away from their families.

Be that as it was, the imperative was still laid down by management to battle against foodservice for business. And survey after survey indicated that consumers found the quality of dishes better at restaurants than at supermarket delis.

The response was often to try to make supermarket delis more like restaurants – in some cases, they actually operated restaurants. In a few stores, this panned out. The restaurants did well. But mostly they flopped. One vice president of perishables took me on a tour as he was ripping out all the restaurants the chain had to build a few years back. They were disasters, he explained, as retirees were the first thing in the morning and stayed all day for the price of a cup of coffee – while they held the very best parking spaces all day.

Most stores, though, didn’t add full restaurants, but in order to achieve restaurant-quality food, they began to ape foodservice practices. Supermarket chefs, once few and far between and relegated to stores in only the most affluent areas, became far more common.

Yet the chef in the deli was always a rather odd appurtenance to the existing establishment. The chef obviously couldn’t cook everything a deli might sell, so typically the chef prepared some kind of daily menu – shrimp scampi one night, a rolled flank steak the next. Yet, even a chef in each store could never change perceptions of deli food en masse. It would just make consumers say: “On Thursday that chef over there really makes a nice scampi.”

Today we are seeing a much more sophisticated use of foodservice personnel in the supermarket deli. Progressive chains are bringing in people with foodservice experience and culinary training not to put on a show in each store nor to be some kind of consultant without portfolio (and without authority) hired to gussy up the board presentation on the earnestness of the HMR effort. Instead, foodservice experience and culinary training are beginning to be seen as important components of a deli executive’s background.

What exactly does a foodservice background bring to the supermarket deli on the headquarters management level? Mostly, it is a question of approach. The traditional retail approach is to accept products developed by food manufacturers, put them out for sale and then keep selling the ones that are successful while dropping the failures.

A foodservice perspective is quite different. It starts with product development. While a restaurant chain might use a manufacturer’s new product if it fits the bill, any large foodservice operator will work collaboratively with food producers to create products targeted to a given operation’s consumers.

When evaluating commercial food products, all foodservice operators evaluate the product for the quality and taste. This is because the foodservice operator sees himself as the consumer’s proxy, entrusted by the consumer to select good tasting items.

Finally, foodservice operators are accustomed to the idea of nurturing an item along. It may start as an occasional special, then move to a regular rotation of specials and finally win a place on the regular menu. Waiters are often encouraged to try a new dish and to describe specials in luscious terms to a restaurant clientele.

At the supermarket deli, an integration of foodservice expertise leads to similar practices. Supermarkets will start to sit down with food suppliers and encourage the development of products right for the retailer’s markets. In evaluating products, deli directors and their staff will express hesitation at the idea of putting out some product because someone pays a fee or just because it is new. “Is this product any good?” will be a question asked more and more as foodservice expertise permeates management ranks at headquarters.

It is a slow process, and hiring somebody who went to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park will not transform a deli overnight. But step by step, the rise of the food service and culinary influence in the supermarket deli will give rise to habits and practices that will lead to a better product, better presented.

And that is the only way for restaurant-quality food to be associated with the deli, when not some chef’s nightly special, but every product, is selected because it is good.