Carol M. Bareuther

Cashing in means knowing what customers want, when and how.

Grab-and-go, the practice of grabbing ready-prepared food to go and eat, isn’t new. In fact, this concept is a century-plus old.

Ask grandparents, or great-grandparents, who grew up in Philadelphia or New York in the early 20th century, and they’ll tell you with a kid-in-a-candy-shop delight about visiting a Horn & Hardart automat.

Walk along a wall of glass-windowed slots, each filled with single-serve restaurant-quality selections like sandwiches, soups and sliced pie. Make one selection or several mix-and-match for a full meal. Then, insert a coin to open the door, grab the food and go to a nearby table to eat.

Want seconds? Staff in the back almost like magic continuously filled the slots with fresh food.

Today, the essence of grab-and-go is the same. Shoppers want fresh high-quality food and fast. They want to see their selections. They want to be able to customize to satisfy all family members. And if everything is all in one place, either plated or pre-packaged, and perhaps bundled as part of a special price promotion, all the better.

“Grab-and-go is one of the fastest growing categories for us and the industry,” says Hannah Herring, media relations manager for Publix Super Markets, Inc., a 1300-plus-store chain headquartered in Lakeland, FL. “Over the last 10 years, this growth has accelerated as customers increasingly value their time. Busy lifestyles have created time-starved consumers, and they look for ways to save time. One easy target is the time spent preparing daily meals. Additionally, customers now attach more meaning to their meals than just lunch and dinner. They like to have more interesting, unique, robust and bold flavors. Our grab-and-go case offers a variety of categories such as leafy salads, specialty salads, sandwiches, entrées, meals and sides. Each category offers classic items, customer favorites, and new, trendy and interesting items.”

What is different with the grab-and-go customer today versus the automat diner of yesteryear is indeed what they want, as well as when they want to eat it and how they want to buy it. This is especially true when they shop at the supermarket deli and prepared foods department.


Know your customer when creating or recreating a register-ringing grab-and-go program in the supermarket deli and prepared foods departments.

“Start with data specific to your store(s) and region,” recommends Anne Nelson, senior manager for deli brand and strategy for Reser’s Fine Foods, in Beaverton, OR. “Do shoppers buy fried chicken just before a weekend? If so, align your grab-and-go products accordingly. Do younger shoppers buy only for the next meal or two while families shop for the whole week? If so, make sure you have a variety of grab-and-go sizes for all audiences.”

For a broader perspective, Whitney Atkins, vice president of the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), in Madison, WI, recommends gaining an understanding of the five generations of shoppers from traditionalists of the Silent Generation to digital natives of Gen Z. “This is vital for grab-and-go convenience. In 2019, the number of Millennials surpassed the number of Boomers. By 2028, Gen X will surpass the number of Boomers meaning the number of households led by people under 40 will outweigh the amount over 40.” 

Foods with a focus on healthier preparation appealed to two-thirds (66%) of shoppers in 2022, up from 58% the year prior, according to the Power of Foodservice at Retail 2022, by FMI-The Food Industry Association, in Arlington, VA.

“Customers are looking for grab-and-go convenience plus something that has the nutritional specs they desire in a hurry,” says Laura Morris, associate marketing director for Kayco Beyond division, in Bayonne, NJ, distributor of Beetology, Wonder Melon and Wonder Lemon brand cold-pressed juices; products which easily pair with other grab-and-go deli foods like salads and sandwiches for an added ring. “We have three varieties because of the increased popularity of better-for-you beverages,” she says. “They can be promoted on the shelf with a deal of buy one get one 50% off or have IRCs hanging for a quick money save,” he says.

By sub-category, grab-and-go and pre-packaged deli meat and cheese have been outgrowing service meat and cheese for several years, with the former rising from 28.6% of dollars in 2017 to 44.7% in 2022, says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of 210 Analytics, LLC, in San Antonio, TX.

“The biggest challenge for deli operators is navigating the public perception of salami and other deli meats as unhealthy — even if that isn’t necessarily true,” says Oliviero Colmignoli, president and founder of Oceanside, CA-based Olli Salumeria, which recently introduced its grab-and-go Olli Salamini line of bite-sized salami sticks, which offer 2.6 ounces of bite-sized salami in a resealable bag and bold flavors like Smoked, Pequin, Bourbon and Classic. “Our newest preservative-free formula eliminates all added nitrates and nitrites, a revolutionary step in modern salami-making and the deli category as a whole.”

In deli prepared foods, demand in grab-and-go is for healthy plant-based items and globally inspired flavors, says Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development for Don’s Prepared Foods, in Schwenksville, PA. “Our grains, sides and Better Bowls are a perfect fit for retail deli, which overall is projected to grow by 10%-plus in 2023. We offer some of our traditional salads in pre-packed cups, but the best path forward is for retailers to buy in bulk. Retailers build their brand equity by providing their grab-and-go cups made in-store and offering cool, healthy and unique items.”

The company’s offerings include grains like Mango Lime Quinoa Salad, sides such as Korean BBQ Green Beans, and Better Bowls like Plant-Based Burrito Bowl with vegan chicken.

As for global flavors, 83% of consumers surveyed in Culinary Vision research said they enjoy exploring new cultures through food, according to Sharon Olson, president of Chicago, IL-headquartered Olson Communications and executive director of the Culinary Visions Panel and Y-Pulse. “Our research also shows that 83% of consumers surveyed said they consider themselves to be adventurous eaters, thus offer a flavorful twist is a good way delis can build their grab-and-go business.”

Tuscanini, a brand of authentic made-in-Italy foods distributed in the U.S. by Kayco, recently introduced its Tuscanini Reserve single-sauce cheese pizzas, which include Margherita and Supermargherita flavors.

“Make these products available in the frozen grab-and-go section of delis and supermarkets with a call out on the key benefits of authenticity,” suggests Shani Seidman, chief marketing officer of Kayco.


The prevalence of snacking, the practice of family dinners and the popularity of entertaining at home are all ripe opportunities for grab-and-go.

“Consumers have embraced multiple snacking occasions throughout the day,” says Carlee Corvino, associate brand manager for FrieslandCampina, with U.S. headquarters in Paramus, NJ, on behalf of the Royal Hollandia brand of cheese. “We have introduced our new Royal Hollandia snack bags. The product line offers three different flavor varieties, Mild Gouda, Smoke Flavor Gouda, and Chili Flavor Gouda, that pair well with fruit, nuts, or pre-packed cured meat slices. This provides an elevated snacking option with little to no effort when shopping the deli.”

For shoppers who want to graze on charcuterie flavors while on the go, Olli Salumeria offers its 2-ounce pre-portioned Olli Snack Packs. These come in five flavors, including Pepperoni paired with Mozzarella cheese, and Calabrese Salami with Sharp Asiago cheese, both with La Panzanella crackers.

“These deliver on the demand for high-protein mini meals in a portable snack form,” says Colmignoli.

For delis that want to create signature snack kits, Placon has introduced two new tamper-evident, sustainable grab-and-go containers in 2- and 4-compartment sizes. The packaging is part of the Madison, WI-headquartered company’s Crystal Seal refresh line.

“The 2-compartment classic cube easily fits in a lunch box and is popular for tuna salad lettuce wraps and cheese and crackers. One major retailer uses these for a variety of dips with crackers,” says Kali Kinziger, product manager. “The 4-compartment container can be displayed upright as well as flat. Nuts, fruit, crackers, and candies are some of the food delis have used these for.”

Statistics from the IDDBA’s What’s in Store 2023 show 41% of shoppers are cooking mostly from scratch, only 9% want fully prepared meals, while 50% mix scratch with semi and fully-prepared items from the deli, meat and produce departments. This opens the door for the deli to stock grab-and-go dinner menu components.

Tuscanini’s newly introduced Pronto line is one such offering. These are authentic Italian premium pastas paired with sauces. The line includes macaroni and cheese, truffle macaroni and cheese, fettuccine alfredo, lasagna, cheese tortellini and spinach tortellini.

“Our soups remain a great grab-and-go offering due to their ease of prep in the microwave,” says Mike Seeger, vice president of retail and club for Lynn, MA-based Kettle Cuisine, whose soup flavors range from traditional chicken and dumpling to trendy organic split pea and kale. The company also makes meat entrées under its Bonewerks brand and sides and sauces under its Spoon & Fork label.

“For dinner, offer ‘paint by colors’ type of meal solutions so that customers feel they are creating a meal, not just buying it,” adds James Brownsmith, vice president of innovation and culinary for Kettle Cuisine. “For example, curated options to make either a Thai salad or a taco night using the same pulled chicken from behind the glass gives people the sense they are in control and creating their own experience but without the heavy lifting.”

Consumers go to the deli for easy solutions whether it’s gourmet snacking, quick meals, or entertaining needs, says Giuliana Pozzuto, marketing director for the George DeLallo Company, Inc., in Mount Pleasant, PA. “Our most popular are our olives and antipasti trays. These multi-compartment trays package together our most popular olive and antipasto items for easy merchandising in the deli.”

Rovagnati North America offers its Paolo Rovagnati range of pre-sliced charcuterie.

“New items that include provolone cheese complete the range and offer an even wider choice to consumers,” says Giovanni Quattrone, U.S. chief executive officer of the Vineland, NJ-based company.

Meats with the provolone include prosciutto, Genoa salami and hot soppressata.

Retailers can take advantage of the year-round appeal of salami through promotions, LTOs, and displays that position salami and charcuterie as perfect for group gatherings timed to key events and seasons throughout the year, such as tailgate parties, summer barbecues or holiday gatherings, says Olli Salumeria’s Colmignoli.


The term “grab-and-go” doesn’t always convey just how large of an opportunity this segment represents, says Reser’s Fine Foods’ Nelson. “It is more than just a product’s placement in a store. It is a way of merchandising that makes a busy shopper’s life easier in terms of meal planning and menu inspiration. It can also be defined as offering incremental sales opportunities by driving impulse purchases, higher repeat visits, and larger basket sizes.”

A good example of this is how deli staples like meats and cheeses can serve as the foundation of cross-merchandised displays of grab-and-go items for snacking and entertaining.

“We help to execute successful charcuterie sections where retailers curate a display case of deli items that pair well together,” says DeLallo’s Pozzuto. “For example, a cured meat or salumi item, two to three specialty cheeses, an olive item, an antipasto salad, gourmet crackers and a few gourmet complements (fruit spread, mustard, etc.). Then, tie it all together with an inspiring photo. This shows how easily such an eye-catching gourmet spread can come together and readily offers customers the items to create it at home.”

Salami is one of the few deli meats that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, says Olli Salumeria’s Colmignoli. “This allows retailers to cross-merchandise salami via secondary displays in other sections of the store like crackers, cheese or wine to drive incremental purchases.”

On the prepared foods side, grab-and-go has evolved from single-serve dishes for immediate consumption to multi-item meals to take home and serve.

“Retailers are now cleverly encouraging shoppers to ‘make it a meal.’ The upsell is the purchase of the current meal and the next one,” says 210 Analytics’ Roerink. 

“Also, to buy extra items, such as ice cream with a deli pizza, or family meals like large containers serving four to five people for around $20 to $25 that rival takeout offers of the popular family restaurants. The growth opportunity lies in aligning assortment and pack sizes with the store audience. In urban areas, there is going to be much more instant consumable business. In the suburbs, that family meal that just requires reheating may be just the way to go. But certainly, always looking to sell the current occasion and the next, that’s something that more retailers could benefit from.”

A great idea, especially for health-conscious customers to whom meal prep is still a big chore is to build a meal prep solution behind the glass that allows customers to make their week’s meals using deli items that align with their dietaries: a one-stop shop, suggests Kettle Cuisine’s Brownsmith. “Lean in with options for protein-forward, keto, vegetarian, flexitarian, etc.; to showcase how you solve for their lifestyle.”

“Create a grab-and-go display that offers cooking inspiration and consumers will thank you for helping them utilize their purchases,” Reser’s Fine Foods’ Nelson says.

Beyond this, create a year-round grab-and-go plan.

“Start with a plan to drive sales, trial, and awareness. Look at the calendar and identify key dates and holidays. Then, build your promotions throughout the year. For example, big game promotions might include a grab-and-go bundle with a refrigerated section that includes party trays, snack crackers, chips, onion dip and local craft beer. Tap into heavily promoted televised events (sports, NASCAR, movies, TV show season launches, or the finales of shows that have gained national attention). Merchandise party platters, popcorn, soda/beer and pizza. And perhaps tissues! Test and learn. Don’t be afraid to start small to gauge reaction and sales,” Nelson says.


Give Your Grab-and-Go a Theme

Themes are an excellent way to spotlight opportunities and offer solutions via destinations with a mix of grab-and-go items.

In the summer, create a grab-and-go barbecue display filled with family favorites including baked beans, rolls, barbecue sauce, ribs, seasoning and utensils, suggests Anne Nelson, senior manager for deli brand and strategy for Reser’s Fine Foods, in Beaverton, OR.

Also, be sure to include summer promotions that make camping a breeze with hot dogs, coleslaw, s’mores ingredient packs, dips and crackers. Stack charcoal and lighter fluid nearby.

In August and September, make it about back-to-school and lunchbox fixings, Nelson adds. “Grab-and-go displays that include single-serve and multipack sizes of deli salads, puddings, crackers and tortilla roll-ups, are an ideal grocery assist for busy shoppers. Our newest grab-and-go item is our rotisserie chicken salad, with 3-ounce cups in a 4-pack. With the growth of protein across the category and consumers’ need for versatility as they approach meals, it made sense to take a top-selling product and reconfigure package format to meet the current needs of consumers.”

In the fall, when families are back to work, school and a regular meal routine, tap into cooking trends like consumers’ eager purchase of small kitchen appliances like air fryers, slow cookers, InstaPots and panini makers.


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