Thinking Beyond Deli

It seems so obvious that it doesn’t require repetition: every retailer involved in the deli industry should attend the IDDBA convention. The educational program would be justification enough, but beyond that, there is the trade show, where manufacturers and marketers, in choosing to exhibit, have been self-selected for their dedication to the industry.

Beyond all this, industry institutions simply must be supported and attending IDDBA and appropriate events on the regional level – the EPPA and NEFFA shows and meetings of the regional deli councils – is the primary way retailers show support for these organizations.

As important as our deli shows are, they are not enough, and those retail deli departments that confine themselves to the traditional venues are not fully capitalizing on the opportunities presented by today’s food industry.

I just returned from the big Pizza Show in Las Vegas, and it was a high-energy show with interesting workshops and an extensive array of vendors. One thing it was missing was a lot of supermarket attendance.

I don’t want to pick on the Pizza Show. I could say the same thing about shows I’ve been to in the last year from SIAL in Paris to local restaurant shows across the country. In all these venues supermarket deli personnel were scarce commodities.

It is not surprising really. Staff cuts have made operations leaner, and it is harder to spare personnel for anything not deemed relevant to core operations. But if a company wants to be more than just a follower, its top executives need to have their traditional concepts of how to innovate and execute leavened with new ideas.

At the Pizza Show, one of the big exhibitors was a top quality pizza sauce producer. This particular company doesn’t exhibit at the deli shows, despite the numerous deli pizza programs. It is interesting to note why. The exhibitor explained that he makes a top quality product, significantly more expensive than many alternatives. He had approached deli directors about supermarket pizza programs and found that if he couldn’t compete price-wise, very few supermarkets were interested.

Considering how many supermarket foodservice initiatives have failed in recent years and that important competition for many supermarkets comes from an array of venues – from traditional restaurants offering takeout to drug stores touting food offerings – it is exceptionally important that retail executives expose themselves to not focusing primarily on the supermarket deli market.

My sauce maker at the Pizza Show still rankles. It is a very large and successful company, yet supermarket pizza programs are not worth going after because the programs are mostly based on sub-par ingredients. The sauce maker was slapping supermarket deli operators and saying they produce a product inferior to that of the independent pizzerias who are the sauce maker’s customers.

Doubtless, there is a place in the world for cheap pizza and if, as a conscious decision, deli operators have decided to produce it for their market, more power to them. But all too often I’ve walked with deli directors who have described their latest efforts to produce “restaurant quality” food. All too often, I’ve seen these initiatives fail to produce the sales – or the profits – anticipated.

It may well be that those operations that are trying to do a top job need to change focus a bit. Just as the exhibiting community at a trade show is self-selected, so is the attendee base.

So if one doesn’t attend the deli shows, one’s organization is defined as not interested in keeping up with what is hot and happening in the deli market – and that’s a recipe for failure. But those special operators who are dedicated to doing a better job are going to be the ones that choose to go a step beyond the deli market. If they are going to dedicate themselves to being world class, that means reaching out beyond the deli community to suppliers serving the competition.

In some cases, those suppliers can be converted over to the deli industry – although for many operators the skills needed to seduce a supplier have atrophied during years of demanding concessions. In other cases, traditional deli suppliers can be persuaded to introduce additional lines to help the deli compete more effectively.

In some cases, nothing can or should be done, but the value comes in hearing bracing truths. Smart operators want to put themselves in line to hear franker assessments, which means talking to people with less to lose.

So redouble your efforts to keep up with the deli community, but make some time to visit other venues like the Pizza Show and don’t look for old friends and familiar faces. Go up to vendors you don’t do business with and ask them why they don’t pursue the deli market. They just might tell you that your pizza stinks because you are so focused on the cost of goods sold that you won’t spring for a great sauce which might reduce gross profits, but might also increase total sales and profits in that category.

It is bracing, even offensive, but if you don’t get offended every once in a while, you are probably speaking to too many people whose livelihood depends on your business.