Reaching The People

Make sure you catch Paula Deen’s guest column in the newest issue of Deli Business. Paula, of course, is the Food Network TV star, founder of The Lady & Sons and other restaurants, author, magazine personality, endorser of cooking products.

Her closest collaboration is with Smithfield to encourage families to eat their meals together.

Perhaps, the most important thing the deli industry can learn from Paula is not based on anything she is or has done — but on what she is not and has not done. Paula is a good cook, but she never went to culinary school and is not a chef.

There has been a shift in how the food culture intersects with popular culture. For a while, the Food Network was making celebrities of chefs, such Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Legasse. This still happens, but there is a shift to more approachable meals made by people more like Paula.

The most popular star ever to come out of the Food Network is Rachel Ray, who cut her eyeteeth working at Macy’s, first at the candy counter, then as manager of fresh foods. She became a star not by showcasing elaborate cooking techniques but by championing 30-Minute Meals — right before your eyes she would actually make a fresh, healthful, delicious dinner for a family in just 30 minutes.

The popularity of the concept is emblematic of a feasible and desirable focus for deli operations. It is easy to be a fan of Whole Foods and HEB’s Central Market. You just have to look at the Specialty Cheese Guide, starting on page 15, to realize how exciting the culinary world can be. Yet, Paula expresses the way a lot of Americans feel when she writes:

“Nothing is better than a good ham-and-cheese sandwich. In fact, some folks don’t even need the bread. Lots of times when I’m home, I’ll take a slice of ham and Swiss cheese, roll them up, dip it in mustard and that’s a meal for me. But it has to be really good ham and cheese.”

Fair enough and, for deli operators, it’s a reminder that to improve the meal experience of consumers and get more business, there are a lot of things that can be done short of building a world-class food emporium.

Start with, as Paula mentions, selling good stuff. One very large retailer was bemoaning to me that a big brand wouldn’t sell him for competitive reasons. He was crying because he couldn’t banner this one brand over his delis. He didn’t realize it but, actually, he had been done a great favor — if he will seize the opportunity.

No one brand is best at every price point for every product. Not being able to yoke his operation to that one brand, he was free to select superior products at various price levels.

This is a continuous process we all should do. Another retailer mentioned his rotisserie chicken sales were down and theorized about people looking for healthful food and wanting breasts cooked without skin. It is a theory, but he had forgotten his rotisserie program was exactly the same as the one he ran 10 years ago. Chicken only, one flavor only, even the container had the same decade-old graphic.

Maybe his chicken was tops in his market 10 years ago — maybe it isn’t today. Maybe tastes have changed, and people want “lemon-pepper” rotisserie instead of what he decided on so long ago. He needs to do tastings, competitive studies and look at the whole offer anew.

Selecting the best products is key, but it is just a start. Too many delis are run like a secret society. There is a massive display case of all kinds of meats and cheeses in the service deli — and scarcely any signage or explanation why one might be better or different than another. If you don’t know the difference between Jarlsberg and Swiss, nothing will tell you. If you don’t know the difference between Genoa salami and kosher salami, there is no way to find out. Much less, is anyone actually trying to sell any of these fine products? They just sit there for those who know them to buy them.

We can urge better training of personnel — at the very least, every counter person should have tasted every product. But the nature of mass-market retailing, with rapid turnover and thus inexperienced employees, means we are not going back to the day of the old “appetizing specialist” who knew how to slice nova, de-bone herring and explain the difference between pastrami and corned beef.

Sitting around and bemoaning the shortcomings of our staff won’t get the job done. We have to look for new tools.

We have to start with information. Every deli operation should have a website with a page about each product. Nutritional information, flavor profiles, usage information, storage information, etc.

Then, most important, there needs to be a little section on why you, the retailer, selected this product and this brand to offer your customers.

Once we’ve got the information, we have to make it accessible at the point of purchase. With today’s inexpensive wireless networks, that shouldn’t be that hard to do.

The real win is going beyond making information available to using information as a selling tool. Every deli should have a meat, cheese, salad and specialty product of the week. These have to be chosen not because of a manufacturer-funded a sale, but because the retailer is proud of the product and wants to introduce it to his customers.

Manufacturers have to help with samples and literature. It is, after all, their products that are being pushed. But, at the core, this is about the relationship between the store and its customer and about increasing customer satisfaction by making sure the consumer knows how to buy the ham and the cheese that are “really good.”