How Green Grows the Deli

From packages to palates, the environment matters more

Bob Johnson

An increasing number of deli consumers young and old are looking to heal the earth as they heal their bodies in our troubling times.

The most obvious sign that times are changing is the popularity of menu items that are both nutritious and easy on scarce natural resources.

“More plant-based options, especially grain salads, that meet vegan and vegetarian criteria are signs the deli is going green,” says Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development at Don’s Prepared Foods, Schwenksville, PA.

Don’s Prepared Foods, which has offered delis a variety of clean label salads and spreads for the past 50 years, has recently witnessed increased interest in plant-based foods among young and old alike.

But COVID-19 has brought an additional challenge to delis looking to go green: consumers want the security of knowing their food has not been touched by pathogen-tainted hands but worry that packaging is destroying the earth.

“There is strong interest in compostable bowls, plates, utensils and packages,” says Mark Stephany, senior vice president of sales at World Centric, Rohnert Park, CA. “We’re seeing double-digit growth every year. We have had strong growth for 10 to 12 years. Consumers have changing views of packaging. People don’t want to see all that plastic end up at the landfill.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 50 billion pounds of plastic waste reaches U.S. landfills every year, and new generations of consumers insist that enough is enough.

World Centric makes a line of fully compostable corn or bamboo-based cutlery, cups, bowls, lids, plates, take out trays and bags, and donates a quarter of all its profits to grassroots community projects in the developing world.

The company makes their dishes, utensils and packages out of Ingeo — sourced from Natureworks — using a process they describe online.

“It’s important for deli operators to be mindful of how their consumers are transforming to be activists in their purchases,” says Mark Marinozzi, vice president for marketing at World Centric. “Our business is growing because we’re seeing college students, Boeing workers and deli customers who want to see a change.”

The good news for the deli is that a bevy of earnest new companies are offering utensils, dishes and packages, including rigid clear containers, that are plant-based, compostable, recyclable or made from recycled materials.

The sobering news, however, is that most recyclable materials are never recycled; most plant-based materials require fertilizers that emit the nitrous oxide that accounts for 2% of all the greenhouse gases in the country; and U.S., Western European and Chinese firms have taken long-term leases on 100 million acres of arable land in the developing world, largely to feed biofuels to our vehicles, which makes it harder for the poorest people on the planet to feed their children.

It is important for the deli to have someone at headquarters studying these dizzying details because the consumers driving the green revolution are young, energetic, college educated, and they are studying the details.

Can a Plastic Package Be Green?

That is a challenging question faced by delis looking to offer both protection against pathogens in the food and petroleum-inspired assaults against Mother Earth.

And many of the younger consumers who care most about reducing the environmental footprint are hip to greenwashing, the practice of claiming to protect the environment without delivering on the promise.

“Most packaging companies claim to use recycled content, but most of that content is actually industrial or excess material that they regrind within production—we do this as well, but our EcoStar PET material is made using post-consumer curbside-collected PET bottles and thermoforms that allow us to claim that we are truly ‘Closing the Loop’ on sustainability for our products and our customers,” says Derek Skogen, senior product manager at Placon, Madison, WI.

Placon goes the extra mile to document the recycled material used to make its line of clear hard plastic packages.

“We are able to bring post-consumer curbside-collected PET bottles and thermoform containers to our Madison, WI facility,” says Skogen. “We purchase the bales from material recovery facilities (MRFS) across the United States and Mexico. These bales are then brought to our recycling facility where we process (wash, clean and regrind) to be turned back into PET sheet that we then use in making our EcoStar PET roll stock. This roll stock is then used within our Placon facilities to produce our food and retail thermoformed packaging.”

The company is so proud of its efforts to use recycled plastic for packages that it offers a video of the process.

But for post-consumer packaging to be effective, it must also do a good job of protecting and preserving the product.

“The EPA advises that protecting food protects the environment, and 10 times more resources are used to make and distribute food than the packaging to protect it,” says Marilyn Stapleton, director of marketing at Anchor Packaging, St. Louis. “Food waste takes up space in landfills, releasing methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, as it decomposes. Our products are developed with performance characteristics to maintain food taste and temperature.”

Anchor Packaging includes clear labeling to designate whether it is PET or PP, which increases the chances that the recyclable material is actually recycled.

Packaging Without Food Bars

Like everything else in the food supply chain, however, the promise of green packaging solutions is even more difficult to fulfill in the COVID-19 world. The hot bar, salad bar and other self-serve areas of the deli that displayed many convenient healthy items have been replaced during COVID-19 by staff-served alternatives.

“Refrigerated food at the deli has taken hold, especially the comfort foods like soups,” says David Vittorio, senior director of marketing at Blount Fine Foods, Fall River, MA. “We’re finding a lot of retailers are ladling the soup in the back and putting a label on it. You can merchandise the meals near the soups in the refrigerated section.”

Blount Fine Foods offers a line of premium quality gourmet soups, sides and éntrees hand-crafted from carefully-sourced fresh ingredients and has long included a variety of nutritious, hearty and interesting plant-based options.

“Even meat eaters want to try some of the plant-based foods,” Vittorio says. “There’s a little more interest in plant-based products, vegetarian or gluten free. People want to eat cleaner. They are looking both at helping the environment and eating healthier.”

The Blount Foods deli menu includes a variety of soups, broths, sides and entrées in both organic and conventional SKUs.

Green packaging companies are introducing new products tailored to the need for protection against the virus.

“We’re finding our sturdy paperboard cutlery offers many solutions during COVID because people want utensils that are sanitary and wrapped, yet more environmentally friendly than plastic” says Peggy Cross, founder of EcoTensil, Corte Madera, CA. “Salad bars are closed, and delis are replacing them with packaged salads. We are currently putting our foldable paper utensils in the single-serve deli-salad containers of a large retail chain in Europe, and replacing the folded plastic utensil on to-go packages for a number of global brands.”

EcoTensil’s flagship deli product, EcoTaster, a fully compostable sampling spoon made using a minimum of material, is less in demand now with reduced sampling but the company has expanded its newer products aimed to meet the needs of our troubled times.

“We have been working with utensils for packaging for years,” Cross says. “A lot of our business lately has been in Europe, where they are banning single use plastic cutlery beginning next July. We are also working with several companies here to include sustainable utensils in single-serve packages. Many customers just don’t like seeing so much extra plastic, and the paperboard EcoTensil, which is a similar material to a coffee cup, helps reduce some of that additional plastic required to keep our food safe these days”

EcoTensil has also developed new products aimed to bridge the gap to a resumption of the days of salad bars and sampling.

“We have developed a sturdy, disposable 10-inch long version of one of our utensils, which is a replacement for serving spoons and tongs during COVID,” Cross says. “To help salad bars and olive bars be able to reopen sooner, we have also developed a Plexiglass SafeServe shield that allows you to offer samples from below a very low, portable ‘sneeze guard.’ People can grab a sample, and it’s still safe and protected.”

Sustainable Merchandising Tools

Package and utensil producers are already noticing a trend among retailers to develop more sustainable packaging programs as part of their merchandising effort.

“Many grocery and other retailers are putting in plans or have plans in place to move to a more sustainable packaging footprint now and in the coming years,” says Skogen. “Some buyers believe that corrugate boxes or film pouches are better, but they are not. Thermoform plastic containers have the ability to keep products fresher for longer and allow retailers to incorporate tamper-evident features to ensure products are safe upon purchase by the customer. One example, we had a grocery retailer who was using a corrugated box for muffins. We proposed a trial using our clear PET muffin container, and they saw an increase in sales three times within their muffin four count within the first three months.”

A clear advantage of hard plastic packaging is that you can see the food before you make a purchase.

“People want to see the freshness and products they are buying,” says Skogen. “Our packaging helps customers do just that. We offer a variety of tamper-evident deli container options to ensure products are kept fresh and secure prior to purchase. This packaging can be used in bakery, deli and even as a salad container within grocery stores. Our EcoStar PET material is more sustainable because we are actually using post-consumer collected bottles and thermoforms.”

It takes a commitment of time and money to build a deli program featuring sustainability, but the effort brings rewards.

There’s Gold in the Green Deli

The demographic looking for convenient plant-based foods is coastal, female, aged 26 to 52, with incomes in the $60,000 to $65,000 range, and frequently two incomes in more affluent areas.

“It’s going to become mainstream; it’s already in Target,” Stephany says. “It comes down to whether consumers are mindful. It’s a more educated, younger consumer that is driving this. There’s a long ways to go before we replace all plastic but seven or eight years ago, we were mainly on the West Coast and East Coast, but now we’re in Michigan, Indiana, Louisiana and West Virginia.”

A similar pattern of adoption looks to be likely with plant-based foods that began from relatively well-educated and affluent coastal regions but will eventually spread throughout the rest of the country.

“Plant-based foods have increased in the Northeast and major Metropolitan areas—New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where people have disposable income,” Cappelli says. “You go out to the middle of Idaho and it’s still meat and potatoes.”

There is money to be made by the deli that can effectively offer these consumers healthy and inviting foods sourced in earth-friendly ways and packaged to be safe but with an eye toward the environment.

“The secret to retail deli success is to show consumers healthy and delicious choices,” advises Cappelli advises. “Now more than ever, since many delis have closed food and salad bars consumers are looking for meal solutions. Pair grain and side dishes with protein, including beef, chicken or fish. Show consumers meal solutions with items they can ‘Heat n’ Eat.’”

The refrigerated grab-and-go alternatives may not be quite as convenient as the hot bar, but they offer solutions that are just a simple step away from providing a meal.

“The real trend is ready to eat or heat and eat, and this will last,” Cappelli says. “The smart retailers offer meal solutions.”

An essential piece of a merchandising strategy is to offer a variety of interesting and hearty options that fit with green eating.

Datassential’s Foodbytes included in its flavors to watch Donburi, which are Japanese rice bowls with a combination of proteins and/or vegetables simmered in a sauce that typically includes dashi, soy sauce and mirin, according to the Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s 2020 What’s In Store report.

Don’s Prepared Foods offers many clean label sides with no artificial preservatives, flavors or colors and just this year added five new items to the list—green curry lentils and quinoa, smoky butter beans, adobo rice and beans, Southwestern black eyed peas, and artichoke Romesco.

“We offer 20 plant-based grains or side dishes premade, with global flavors and ready to serve,” Capelli says. “Offering vegan items gives consumers more choices and has less of an impact on the environment.”

These green alternatives appeal to many consumers who are not now and never have been vegetarians.“There is a mix of vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians,” Cappelli says. “There are more college-age vegans, and Boomer and Gen Xer vegetarians. And the grain-based sides and salads marry well with fish, chicken, beef and pork. They marry well with chicken and fish. We are seeing significant growth in retail deli prepared foods and foodservice, especially with the military and airlines.” DB


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