Sell The Deli Story

Whether the assortment is vast or narrow, most deli operations today don’t do a very good job of telling a culinary story. We all too often sell wonderful foods but as disjointed individual items to be appreciated or rejected as a consumer may choose.

That is not the consumer trend, though. Today, what is attracting consumer interest is issues such as where food comes from, what happens to it along its journey, how are the people who work the food treated, how are the animals we are eating treated, etc.

Today’s delis also do not follow the culinary trends. For example, the sustainability movement and a desire to reduce waste has turned chefs on to “Nose-to-Tail” eating, in which every part of an animal gets used. The movement is even spreading to produce, where chefs are focused on what to do with the broccoli stalks when the florets have been cut off, or similar challenges.

It won’t be hard for supermarket delis to play in this arena. Salinas, CA-based produce supplier Mann Packing started selling broccoli coleslaw to supermarket delis more than two decades ago. Others now sell similar products, but they are always marketed autonomously. The product stands alone, to succeed or fail based on taste or perhaps its health benefits. But which deli department has ever marketed broccoli coleslaw as part of a sustainable food movement where the world is a better place because the consumer makes choices that have consequences?

A modern deli/foodservice department is a pinnacle of western civilization that gathers incredible foods and flavors from all corners of the globe and brings them to communities all across the country. Yet we would submit that the marketing is of another era — a time when the opportunity for indulgence was viewed as a blessing. That is no longer the case. Perhaps it was the “great recession” that caused the shift — a longer and deeper recession than our country has ever sustained. Perhaps the internet has made clearer the impact of our actions and made it easier to know there are options.

Whatever the cause, if you talk to young people, they want variety, but they have other interests and they view themselves as actors in the great value struggles of our time. How they eat and what they eat does more than fill their bellies. Food consumption helps them leave an imprint on the planet; it helps them change the world. This, of course, means they feel differently about themselves depending on what choices they make.

This presents lots of opportunities. Companies can promote their own brands and products or arrange for retailers to promote their brands and products not merely as delicious but as contributors to a better planet. Yet the issue also pertains to retailers themselves, for private-label product obviously but, also, for the retailer’s policy on what branded product to procure and sell.

What values do the retailers reflect in their procurement? Are they willing to sell any product, or can consumers count on the fact that if they select their retailer carefully, the retailers will procure foods that reflect values in line with their own?

British retailers have engaged more deeply with this concept. Marks & Spencer puts it this way:

“M&S customers in particular want great tasting food they can trust, which has been ethically sourced and carefully produced. We have always aimed to source quality ingredients and we’re proud of the relationships we have with our many dedicated producers and growers.

Being a 100% own brand label gives us a unique ability to control the quality of our food. We also have an unrivalled team of experts — Agronomists, Farmers, Chefs, Winemakers, Animal Welfare experts and even a Marine Technologist — to help source the best tasting foods which are produced to the highest standards. Our new range of specialty foods — from Smoked Wild Salmon from Alaska to Oisín Venison from the Finnebrogue estate and Greek Halkidiki olives from Mount Athos — all comes from people who truly care about their craft, whether it’s our experts who source our food or producers who are passionate about the ingredients they use or grow.”

Since it only sells its own lines of product, Marks & Spencer has an advantage. It can more easily monitor and control issues such as animal welfare and labor concerns. But it is not as much an advantage as you think. Marks & Spencer doesn’t typically own the factories, butchers and whatnot that produce its products, so it still has to monitor private companies.

The difference is that Marks & Spencer has decided that there is a standard that shopping its stores should guarantee clients. This means it is not going to try to be everything to everybody – usually a good business move anyway – and it is going to try and not merely feed its customers calories, but feed their spirits as well and to help them not merely buy food that is delicious and nutritious but also food that they will be proud to consume.

If our customers think the same of us when they shop our stores, we will have achieved much in 2014.