Can’t Do Without

jim prevor
Jim Prevor

If a natural disaster hit your town and you had to close, is there anything in your deli department that people would actively feel was missing in their lives?

The headquarters of DELI BUSINESS is located in Boca Raton, FL, right smack dab in the middle of the damage caused by Hurricane Wilma. The destruction this storm caused was well publicized and all of us here at DELI BUSINESS got to experience it first hand. No electric, no water, no gasoline, no traffic lights—one could go on and on. 

If you watched the news, you saw people queuing up for gas, ice, water and what not. It was horrific. Yet, oddly enough, by far the longest line I saw during the aftermath of the storm was the line for rotisserie chickens at Costco as soon as the store reopened. 

Now part of this was extra demand caused by the fact that people couldn’t cook at home because they had no power. Part of it was that although the supermarkets were open, many of them didn’t have electricity and, thus, had no perishables and weren’t doing anything that needed cooking.

And, of course, most restaurants were closed, as they didn’t have power.

Still, I stood on that chicken line a long time and listened to what people were saying. Beyond the yearning for a hot meal and complaints about eating tuna fish for several days in a row, there was an underlying message; that having someone else prepare your food has, for significant portions of our population, become a necessity.

True, this is Boca Raton, a very upscale community with a large number of retirees, so in that sense it is atypical. However, the whole nation is getting older, and as the population gets more affluent, this is a likely harbinger of what is to come.

The people on that line all cooked some. Many broke out the grill to cook meat that was defrosting in the non-functioning freezer. Many seemed to know how to cook, recounting times they made big holiday meals. But it was clear that, in day-to-day life, these people did not cook.

Much as most people perceive riding a bicycle as a recreation instead of as a means of transportation, cooking their own food is also a form of recreation rather than a means of sustenance: “I’m trying Emeril’s recipe for lamb for my annual Labor Day Bash.” Whether they eat at home, at work or out, the main food source was someone else cooking.

This shift in consumer attitudes is a revolution in human history. Traditionally only the very wealthiest elite could afford to have others cook their foods. Today, a plethora of foodservice outlets, combined with an abundance of pre-cooked and prepared items, makes cooking an optional activity.

It has been portrayed that the threat to supermarkets was principally from other venues, such as Wal-Mart, Costco, etc., but the transformation of consumer attitudes toward cooking is an extraordinary challenge. After all, supermarkets were designed to sell ingredients from which people could prepare meals. Now that function seems heading toward obsolescence.

Of course, there is nothing new here, as the industry has been talking about the “share of stomach” battle, Home Meal Replacement and the urgency of selling “restaurant- quality food” for a long time now. But if the future was on line at Costco that post-hurricane afternoon, then all these initiatives are woefully small compared to the enormity of the transformation in consumer eating habits.

The transformation that is required focuses directly on the deli. In most stores, delis have a monopoly on cooking. However convenient the fresh-cut produce or, however well prepared the new items in the meat department are, in the supermarket only the deli delivers freshly cooked foods to consumers.

And what those Costco shoppers were experiencing was not the loss of a pleasant luxury, like Tiffany’s being closed, it was the loss of a necessity. Getting their food—in this case cooked rotisserie chicken—from Costco was the natural thing. Going to a store and buying a whole bird, marinating it and cooking it on a spit in the oven is as far from their realm of experience as plucking the feathers as my great grandmother used to do.

When viewed this way, the foodservice offerings at supermarket delis are too irregular. Costco doesn’t have a Mexican food bar, a wok station, etc., but it reliably produces exceptionally good rotisserie chicken. And if something is a necessity, it is reliability that is crucial.

In this sense all the attention paid to the multitude of initiatives deli departments are always launching is probably counterproductive. Because what is needed is not hundreds of types of food, the production of which strain the ability to produce consistently and the slow sales of which strain the ability to always offer fresh product.

This is a new paradigm forming. Up till now, the conventional wisdom was that the deli had two great competitive strengths: It offered a wide array of products and so a shopper could satisfy everyone in the family in one place; second, it was inexpensive compared to restaurant takeout.

But the price card is not likely to be that important to shoppers affluent enough to be the heavy users, and the wide array of products sounds good in theory. However, the number of delis that can consistently produce even a few truly excellent products are few and far between.

The people who came to Costco after Hurricane Wilma were not casual shoppers who happened to buy chicken. They came to Costco to get the bird and happened to fill up their carts with other goods.

This strikes me as the first goal for every deli department: What prepared food items do we sell that consumers come to our store to buy? In other words, what do we offer that pulls the customer in the door?

Every deli should offer a signature prepared food. It doesn’t have to be unique; certainly Costco didn’t invent rotisserie chicken. But it should be a product you can claim excellence with. It should be so good and the focus so fitting with the needs of your shoppers that it should sell in high volume, thus allowing for quick turnover and thus always fresh product. Its production needs to be operationally engineered so that you don’t require extraordinary chefs to prepare it. In fact, your worst employees shouldn’t be able to mess it up.

If buying food already cooked is becoming a necessity, it means the deli department can become indispensable.

Ask yourself this: If a natural disaster hits your town and you had to close, is there anything in your deli department that people would actively feel was missing in their lives?

If not, the name of that missing product is opportunity.


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