What will make this holiday season different from all others is that the COVID pandemic has changed, in some ways permanently, what consumers want from the supermarket deli and how they want to buy it.
While Thanksgiving remains the traditional occasion for extended families scattered around the country to reunite for a celebratory meal, this year, there may be fewer chairs at the table.
“The slow roasted ‘hero’ meat is traditionally the center of the holiday meal that brings loved ones to the table,” says Evan Inada, charcuterie and partnerships director at Columbus Craft Meats, Hayward, CA. “With the chance of less traditionally large holiday get togethers this season, shoppers will be looking to the deli and prepared foods areas for a homecooked full muscle turkey or ham meal as a smaller portioned substitute.”
Columbus Craft Meats moved across the bay from San Francisco to Hayward, but the company continues its enduring identity as a producer of artisan salamis and other fine meats using traditional recipes and premium cuts.
Inada believes super premium meat products like homestyle turkey or natural juices homestyle ham, sliced thick, can offer oven-quality meat in smaller portions.
“Fresh-sliced product available for quick pickup will be a strong factor this year,” he says. “The deli staff can slice meat in half pound grab-and-go packages to keep the behind-the-glass deli meats business going during a time where customers are looking for less human interaction in their shopping experience.”
Other suppliers agree the supermarket deli will have to adapt and package quality meats for smaller Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings.
“There is no doubt that this holiday season will look different,” says Deanna Depke, marketing manager at Volpi Foods, St. Louis. “Travel industry leaders predict an overall decrease in travelers if the COVID threat persists, and celebratory gatherings will be in smaller groups closer to home. Retailers will need to adapt to this change by offering pre-packaged products that offer the same holiday spirit consumers crave.”
John Volpi came to this country from Milan at the end of the 19th century, bringing with him the 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 same St. Louis neighborhood.
The trend toward packaged meat increasing its share compared to the product from the service counter began before the pandemic, increased with the desire to maintain social distance, and, demographics suggest, is the way of the future.
“There is more and more data indicating that prepacking in the deli is driving sales across categories,” according to the Madison, WI-based International Deli Dairy Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) What’s In Store 2020 mid-year review of trends. “The customer service behind the counter is no longer as critical as having the right items ready to put into a basket and leave.”
Nearly 40% of all deli meat is packaged, and this trend is even stronger among younger consumers.
While more consumers than ever before want their deli meat in a prepackaged format, this holiday season many will be more cost conscious.
“This particular 2020 holiday season we all need to be mindful of the consumer spending capacity,” says Simone Bocchini, president and COO of Fratelli Beretta USA, Budd Lake, NJ. “I suggest a large display in the deli section as well as the use of the grab-and-go area to display additional options, such as midsize trays.”
Fratelli Beretta opened its small local meat processing facility in Barzano in the Lombardy region when Napoleon Bonaparte reigned over Europe more than two centuries ago, survived two world wars and the Depression, and today is the longest-standing family-owned charcuterie business in Italy.
Consumers may be a bit more cost conscious this holiday season but Bocchini believes they will still be looking to the deli to spoil themselves and their closest relatives with something special.
“We are essential in the most open sense of the word,” he says. “Consumers who are now forced to be at home more, not going out as much as before, will tend to, in my opinion, treat themselves better when it comes to grocery shopping, They will try new things and experiment also with different items that they haven’t previously tried.”
One thing COVID-19 has not changed is the popularity of traditional deli meat favorites that have always anchored the department.
Steeped in Tradition
“Classics like prosciutto, sopressata and Genoa salami are staples that anchor a set,” says Depke. “We’re also seeing consumers explore more unique cuts like coppa—dry cured pork shoulder and bresaola—and dry cured beef eye of round, as they get more adventurous in the kitchen.”
These authentic meats are being used differently, however, as more consumers figure out how to look to them as ingredients that add a special touch to consumers’ holiday dishes.
“A resurgence of cooking at home due to the COVID-19 Stay At Home orders has impacted how all consumers eat,” says Depke. “Consumers who want restaurant-worthy pasta dishes or simple ways to dress up their lunch are turning to easy, flavorful solutions like chopped prosciutto, rendered guanciale or thin slices of coppa.”
Many customers have already been drawn toward high-quality deli meats as they work and make sandwiches for lunch at home, rather than travel from the office to a restaurant.
“A lot of people are looking to the deli for meal solutions,” Inada says. “People are working and eating at home, and the deli can provide great solutions for shoppers to create their own restaurant-quality sandwiches, salads and flatbreads at home for a friendlier price.”
Limited access to quality restaurants has made high-end packaged deli meats even more attractive to many consumers.
“The category has seen quite a bit of growth during the pandemic as most Italian meats and cheeses are sold in minimal contact grab-and-go packaging,” says Alan Adelson, vice president of sales at Veroni USA, Gloucester, NJ. “People are eating out less and discovering Italian meats can offer an indulgent restaurant experience with family or small gatherings in the comfort of your own home at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps some of these are new consumers and will help drive the category post pandemic.”
Veroni traces its roots back nearly a century to a small grocery shop run by five brothers in Correggio, located in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.
“The key here is making things easy for the consumer,” says Adelson. “Merchandise many of the antipasto components together to give consumers entertaining solutions. Signage and recipe ideas offer helpful advice. Supporting cross promotions through advertising and website platforms are becoming popular and effective methods of reaching and teaching consumers.”
As consumers look to prepare food at home more often, they also pay closer attention to what can go with deli meats.
“What we are seeing now that is different from the past is the way the supermarket deli consumers use the product,” says Bocchini. “There is more attention in preparing nice combinations of them with other ingredients, such as cheese, olives, almonds and sweet elements to contrast the saltiness of the salami.”
This increased use of holiday meats as ingredients creates additional opportunities to display and merchandise them with other deli products.
“Charcuterie is ripe for cross merchandising,” says Depke. “Most consumers are searching for charcuterie as an incremental purchase to fresh produce, crackers, cheese, olives, wine and more. Make it easy on guests by merchandising these items together and encouraging bigger basket builds.”
Some suppliers focus on putting together charcuterie, antipasto and cheese platters that take the guesswork out of food pairing.
“In recent years, producers have made the pairings easy for novices by creating antipasto boards and platters ready to serve,” says Adelson. “Veroni’s combination antipasto platters, featuring our authentic imported salumi from Italy, have been very successful for the holidays, and we will be launching a new five-item aperitime tray in the fall of 2020.”
The traditional deli-sized platter, which is smaller than the traditional holiday platters, should play an important role this year.
“I don’t think there will be as large of gatherings this year,” Inada says. “The deli and charcuterie catering platters are going to be smaller but are ideally items that a deli or specialty cheese staff can execute for increased deli and specialty cheese sales for preorder.”
There may be an opportunity this year to feature deli platters of the highest quality meat products.
“Charcuterie platters will be very important this year,” Inada says. “Charcuterie has a lot of potential to pick up volume in 2020. If you’re creating a charcuterie destination in your marketplace, having a nice mix of grab-and-go salami items and premium bulk deli salumi is key to attract the shopper looking to entertain.”
While large muscle turkey and ham products reach their peak at the holidays, high-end Italian meats found only at the deli play a key role in entertaining.
“All Italian specialty meats are ideal for holiday entertaining and typically see peak demand around the holidays,” says Adelson. “It’s very easy to build the perfect entertaining platter by pairing salumi with any specialty cheeses, olives, crackers, breads, nuts or a plethora of other components.”
Various food bars have largely been taken down in the age of social distancing, and their future is uncertain, but the rest of the deli thrives as a destination source for unique meat products.
The low double digit decline in deli sales is almost entirely in deli prepared foods like the hot bars, salad bars and olive bars, but random weight deli meats are actually up 1% in volume and, buoyed by higher prices, a more robust 5% in dollar sales compared to a year ago.
Prepackaged deli sandwich meats were up an even healthier 10% in dollar sales and nearly 3% in volume.
“While service counter sales made up 68% of deli meat sales this week, sales were off 9.4%,” says 210 Analytics president Anne-Marie Roerink in her June 6, 2020 report for the IDDBA. “Sales for service counter deli meat that has been previously sliced for grab-and-go, but still sold non-UPC, was up 61.5%. Meanwhile, pre-packaged, UPC-ed refrigerated lunch meats continued to outperform random weight deli meat.”
While deli meat sales do not need to suffer this holiday season, because the gatherings will be small so, too, should the packages be less substantial.
“Smaller format packages are perfect for serving up full flavor to single-person households that still turn to food as a cultural connection,” says Depke. “Retailers that swell their charcuterie and specialty meat offerings throughout the deli and across departments will capture the increased demand.”
Suppliers of deli meats have been working overtime to decipher the new rules of merchandising these products meant for special social occasions in the age of distancing, and it is worth the time to lean on their knowledge.“Retailers should work with manufacturers that have been in the category for many years; our company has a 208-year tradition in the making of prosciutto, salami, etc.,” says Bocchini. “We are actually working with a lot of retailers to create their perfect holiday offering, considering also the current timing that we are leaving in, that combine the needs of a convenient package but don’t sacrifice quality and style. The need for convenience and ready-to-eat platters has always been strong in the retail world. We just introduced our new La Dolce Vita Entertainment Trays. Fratelli Beretta took this concept to the next level in terms of variety, quality of the components and appearance.” DB