Deli Meats for a Post-COVID World

Consumers want healthy, convenient and safe eating.

composition of delicatessen
Bob Johnson

The pandemic drove consumers from their favorite restaurant haunts back to the kitchen, where they hoped to replicate the convenience and quality of foodservice dining.

This shift impacted deli meats as the reborn cooks looked for high-quality options versatile enough to include in many dishes.

“Consumers are spending more time in the kitchen cooking for their families, and we’ve seen a surge in demand for pre-packaged items that can flex across a variety of recipes,” says Kelsey Steffel, marketing associate at Volpi Foods, St. Louis, MO. “These products spark curiosity and allow for exploration of new flavor profiles.”

John Volpi came to this country from Milan at the end of the 19th century, bringing with him ancient arts of dry curing meats that he used to create salami small enough to fit in the pockets of clay miners who came to his shop in the St. Louis neighborhood known as The Hill.

The company he started makes authentic salamis, prosciutto, bresaola, capicola, pancetta and other traditional Italian dry meat products and, nearly 120 years later, still maintains its headquarters in the St. Louis neighborhood known as The Hill.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen shoppers gravitate to new flavors and cuts of meat as they cook up new dishes in their kitchens,” says Steffel. “From spicy coppa to chorizo, flavors with a kick are definitely trending and allowing consumers to bring new layers of flavor to their everyday meals.”

Meat Sales Healthy in Delis

Deli meat sales were nearly 14% higher in February compared to the year before, which was the month before the pandemic.

The deli has good reason to be bullish on meat, but the post-pandemic prize could go to managers who forecast correctly which of the trends that emerged during COVID are here to stay and which will fade as restaurants come back and life returns to normal, or to a new normal.

Many retailers turned to merchandising through social media as in-store sampling declined, and they may have found an effective and economical way to reach consumers in the future.

Conveniently-packaged pre-sliced meats have done well since March 2020, as traffic has been down, and labor has been in short supply for many retailers.

Plant-based meat analogues, already gaining traction before COVID-19, increased during the pandemic, and surveys indicate these consumers plan on staying with their new source of healthy protein.

Many people worked at home because of COVID-19, and they came to the deli looking for convenient quality sandwich meats. It remains to be seen how much this represents the beginning of a new trend, as professionals continue to work at home after the pandemic.

Aisle deli meats were up 10% year over year in the 13 weeks ending Nov. 29, 2020, according to the Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s What’s In Store 2021, but grab-and-go lunchmeats were up a robust 48.7%, as consumers looked for lunch ingredients to take home.

Sandwiches Rule

Deli meat mainstays remain strong, as grab-and-go lunchmeat salami dollar sales increased in the year ending last November 29, and grab-and-go sandwich ham, turkey, beef and chicken dollar sales all increased by 50% or more.

Some suppliers expect the high demand for quality sliced sandwich meats to continue even when most workers could return to the office if they wanted.

“As far as we are concerned here in the New Jersey-New York area, sandwich programs are still operating; we still see a large need for deli meats,” says Jaline G. Isidor Horta, marketing director at Cibao Meat Products, Rockaway, NJ. “A lot of people had to resort to making their own food because of the pandemic, and sandwiches were a hot item, especially for those who did not know how to cook; that was the easiest meal they could think of to make for themselves.”

Siegfried Vieluf began Cibao Meat Products more than 50 years ago in a small place located in the Washington Heights area of New York with salami campesino. His sons Lutzi and Heinz continue making quality products that made the business the favorites of the Hispanic community.

“We have over 17 different types of salami and a variety of ways of packaging our product to reach the consumer,” says Horta. “We use custom-designed casings, each with its own unique brand logo and color scheme available in more than one size for some of our products, since we produce one to two different sizes in weight.”

Relatively small packages of meats are resonating with many customers looking to prepare lunch and other meals for themselves at home.

“Single-serve salami, grab-and-go, is still huge for consumers,” says Gil Perales, marketing director at Olli Salumeria Americana, Oceanside, CA, “They offer easy preparation for sandwiches, charcuterie boards and snacking.”

Olli Salumeria, which dates its origins to family salami making traditions in Italy more than 150 years ago, opened its U.S. facility in Virginia in 2010, then moved five years later to larger facilities in Oceanside, where the company makes snack packs and sliced chubs to artisan standards.

“Our Genoa mild flavor has been the number one flavor for several months, while Calabrese spicy is following close behind,” says Perales. “We have released flavors that may be new on the shelves but not new to the consumer’s palate—hard, Italian dry and hot sopressata. Hard and IDS are known flavors, but we are excited to have them added to our family content using our traditional curing process.”

Deli sandwich meat sales may have increased most dramatically during the pandemic but there has also been a growing market among consumers looking to replicate at home the meals they used to eat at restaurants.

“Restaurant sales have obviously declined quite a bit since March 2020 — but because consumers have fallen in love with high-quality charcuterie at home, we have been able to establish new branded business across several new categories,” says Preston Green, director of sales and external operations at Hickory Nut Gap, Fairview, NC.

Jim and Elizabeth McClure started Hickory Nut Gap Farm in the Appalachian Foothills back in 1916, and their descendants produce grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork and chicken on ground preserved through a conservation easement from the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

“We moved our full line of pasture-raised salami/charcuterie to resealable pouches with viewable windows, given the shifting consumer trends,” Green says. “We also see re-sliced continuing to build.”

Plants that Taste Like Meat

Plant-based meat was already gaining traction, but it has increased consistently since March 2020, according to Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, who has written monthly analyses of trends during the pandemic for the IDDBA and outpaced animal-based meat in both dollar and volume sales growth to arrive as a fast-growing billion-dollar category.

More than 90% of consumers who first tried plant-based meat during the pandemic are likely to continue buying it, according to IDDBA’s What’s In Store 2021 citing a study by Archer Daniels Midland.

Because these meat skeptics skew younger, with more than 40% of Gen Z and nearly 40% of Millennials reporting they are less likely to buy meat due to fears of COVID-19, according to Chicago-based Datassential, this could represent a future trend.

Other deli meats that promise to be healthier, for consumers or the earth, also appear to be gaining in popularity.

“Now more than ever consumers are looking for brands that help them be more environmentally conscious in their everyday lives, and we were first in the industry to offer shoppers a paper-based package that uses 70% less plastic than standard deli packs,” says Steffel from Volpi Foods.

Environmental consciousness has also raised interest in meat brought to market with a smaller carbon footprint in terms of both transportation and treatment of the soil that produces the food animals consume. 

“The current trends we are seeing include preferences for locally-sourced meats,” Green says. “Also, regenerative agriculture is gaining traction among consumers — as are meats from heritage-raised animals. These trends put Hickory Nut Gap in a great position. We are continuing to see the preference for meats without nitrates/nitrates … and uncured.”

New Ways of Selling

“Taking a closer look at deli meat shows that grab-and-go (random-weight but sliced for self-service) has been the main driver of deli meat success in the pandemic months, with additional success in pre-sliced options,” says Roerink.

Prominently displayed grab-and-go meats are just one new merchandising trend, as deli retailers have adapted during the pandemic to reduced traffic, the virtual elimination of sampling and labor shortages.

“Stores are having a very difficult time with staffing, leading them to get creative and seek products that convert to a sale with minimal or no additional labor required by their staff,” says Carl Rambo, chief sales officer at Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats, Wittenberg, WI. “As a result, we have seen interest in bulk foodservice offerings in the retail space.”

Nueske’s, which makes a line of smoked bacon, ham, poultry and beef products, is finding that formats previously shipped largely to foodservice have become attractive to retailers looking to save on labor behind the counter.

“Our wholesale products come pre-packaged in 5-pound gas flushed bags. Traditionally, these are sold to hotels, restaurants, country clubs and other foodservice establishments,” Rambo says. Retailers are now seeing an advantage to buying pre-sliced instead of cutting full slabs of bacon per the customer’s request at the time of sale.”

The bulk pre-sliced bags make it possible for the store to reduce time spent behind the service counter without sacrificing quality.

“Stores are seeing value and are able to meet consumer preference by offering varying slice counts and multiple flavor profiles—applewood, cherrywood and pepper—in a pre-sliced product,” Rambo says. “Slice counts vary from four slices per pound to as thin as 24 slices per pound for wrapping other items. Preparation time is reduced, and customer wait times are minimized, as well.”

COVID-19 also brought greater use of social media to merchandise meat products because sampling was largely put on hold.

“Because of the pandemic, we unfortunately have not been able to do sampling so instead we have invested in digital demo,” says Horta. “It is a new venture for us, but it is very exciting, since this is a different way of getting consumers to know about our products as well as a quick questionnaire to find out more about the consumer and their needs.”

The internet has become more important as a tool for distance merchandising of deli meat products.

“Web banners, social media posts and ads, collaboration with chefs, influencers and word of mouth are being used to successfully merchandise in the deli,” says Perales.

In addition to expanded use of digital and social media, more delis are using displays to draw attention to their meat products.

“Hickory Nut Gap customers are using stand alone ‘local’ racking, peg-able space and other areas that are non-refrigerated,” Green says. “We are seeing hot bars and foodservice operations within retail beginning to expand offerings. Buffett style is not operating.”

As consumers have moved to prepare their own meals at home, delis have had opportunities to cross merchandise their fine meats with companion ingredients from other areas of the store.

“Cross merchandising pre-packaged items helps shoppers discover new flavors and inspiration and adds value through simply keeping the shopping experience convenient,” says Steffel. “As we approach summertime, merchandising sliced prosciutto near heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella will entice new twists on caprese salads. It’s also equally important to communicate key product attributes that are both relevant and informative to shoppers. Callouts like ‘All-Natural,’ and ‘Raised Responsibly,’ quickly capture a consumer’s attention and allow them to understand the caliber of product they are purchasing.”

One of the first signs that the deli is coming all the way back came early in the year when sales for larger social gatherings enjoyed brisk sales.

“Deli entertaining had a huge February,” says Angela Bozo, education director with IDDBA, citing information from 210 Analytics. “The February results included two holidays, the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, which are both typically holidays where a significant portion of the food dollar flows to foodservice. The 10% increase in deli entertaining is an encouraging confirmation that people want to celebrate holidays and special occasions, albeit differently.”

As COVID-19 disrupted many economic activities, deli meat producers benefited from recent increases in efficiency. 

“We have the latest technology when it comes to the ‘what’s new’ for the salami world,” says Horta. “We have an innovative oven that cooks our products in half the time compared to how we used to produce a few years ago. This oven has changed the game for us, cutting down on our production time to leave us more time to focus on other developments we are trying to do in house.”

One result of increased efficiency is that deli meats, like most of the food economy, has earned a reputation during the pandemic for being able to deliver under the most difficult conditions.

“Since we are in the food industry, the pandemic impacted our sales in a positive way,” says Horta. “Though there was a shortage of meat, we were able to survive and prosper during the heavy months because we planned it through properly. We had experienced something like this in the past when we were in New York, and from that experience we need to have an abundance of meat on hand to produce and meet the demand. We did close down for two weeks only to make a few assessments and make sure we had the proper PPE for everyone so they could feel safe at work.” DB


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