On the Side
The latest buzz in side dishes at the deli

Keith Loria

For as long as supermarket delis have been serving sandwiches and meals, side-dish staples such as potato salad, macaroni salad and coleslaw have been among the biggest sellers. Even in 2023 when people are more interested in healthy eating, those products are as big as they ever were.

But today’s consumers are also looking for diversity in their side dishes. They are drawn to authentic flavors and products that are not bland in taste. People also are looking to expand their cultural palette and dive into more ethnic dishes.

“This is not the 1970’s anymore; consumers seek items beyond potato salads, macaroni and coleslaw,” says Carl H. Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development for Don’s Prepared Foods, headquartered in Schwenksville, PA.

The company offers 10 gourmet side dishes that the company describes as having “clean, edgy, and globally-inspired flavors.” In addition, Don’s offers 10 more clean grain salads also used as sides in retail deli departments.

“This is an area of leadership for us, as consumers seek unique, healthy and clean options for in-home meals, says Cappelli. “These items from Don’s have grown in popularity, as more Americans work from home. They want restaurant-style items and creative meal solution ideas.”

Anne Nelson, senior manager of deli brand and strategy manager for Reser’s Fine Foods, located in Beaverton, OR, notes side dishes are being thought of as meals for many today.

“We know that consumers are feeling inflation’s economic crunch,” she says. “They will increasingly look for meal solutions in the deli that can replace — and often surpass — restaurant options. This will be a key shopping strategy, as consumers try to stretch their food budgets without sacrificing the foods they love.”

Reser’s offers consumer favorites such as potato salad, pasta salad, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, dips, meal kits and more.

“Reser’s comprehensive portfolio provides a variety of formats to meet evolving retailer needs — items that retailers can quickly put together to provide a great value and convenience for their customers,” says Nelson. “It also keeps consumers coming back to the deli to bring fresh new flavors and variety to their dinner table.”

A Healthy Way to Go

Over the years, side dishes have continued to become increasingly healthier and more nutritious, functional and in demand, with an emphasis on food safety and certifications to satisfy specific dietary requirements (i.e., vegan, gluten free).

“They have evolved from ‘belly stuffers’ to healthy, plant-based, global flavors,” says Cappelli.

Cedar’s Foods, a family-owned Mediterranean food brand that specializes in the natural and organic space, offer dips and spreads utilizing organic ingredients that are popular at the deli counter.

Some of the company’s staples include hummus with flavors like Topped Organic Balsamic Caramelized Onion and Roasted Red Pepper, tzatziki, dips like labne and baba ghanouj, plus salsas and salads. 

“Now more than ever, people care about what’s going into their bodies and are seeking foods that taste good and make you feel even better, with topics like gut health and a diet’s impact on your mental health currently leading the conversation,” says Aimee Tsakirellis, executive vice president of marketing for the Haverhill, MA-based company. “With the Mediterranean Diet being ranked the number one best diet in 2023 by U.S. News and World Report, consumers are also seeking diets that emphasize patterns of eating, rather than restrictive eating.”

Charcuterie boards are heavily trending right now, and because of that, heartier options on the board are more in-demand and make a great side accompaniment for meals.

“This provides an opportunity for side dishes to have their spot on the board,” says Tsakirellis. “To capitalize on the trend and market the brand, merchandising items for a charcuterie board together in the same section offers a one-stop destination for the shopper, providing inspiration for meal ideas and convenience for shoppers, while driving incremental sales and a larger basket size for the brand.”

New and Unique

Innovation is important to maintain consumer interest and drive sales with side dishes. As such, Reser’s has created macaroni and cheese kits where deli staff assemble the final product and the consumer heats — and eats and enjoys — at home. Various components include toppings like flavored breadcrumbs, bacon or barbecue sauce.  

“Reser’s has invested significantly in the broad meals segment with a combination of product innovation, category education and operational resources,” says Nelson. “We have dozens of new products on the horizon and a commitment to helping retailers hold on to meal solution-seeking shoppers with unique offerings.”

Cedar’s Foods is rooted in its family-founded roots and continues to incorporate authentic Mediterranean recipes into products, while also innovating with new flavors such as the Chocolate Hommus and seasonal Pumpkin Hommus.

“Starting in April, we will be rolling out a fresh new look for our labels for the first time since 2016 as well as debuting new hommus flavors throughout the year, starting with the Topped Organic Grecian Golden Hour Hommus that was launched on April 1,” says Tsakirellis. “Additionally, our new Topped Hot Honey Hommus flavor will be rolling out at Kroger in May.”

Don’s analyzes flavor trends globally, and thanks to its executive chef, creates unique on-trend items consumers seek in the retail deli department.

For instance, this past September, the company launched new gourmet cheese spreads, as it noticed consumers were snacking more at home, and these side dish options could be transitioned to a snack item.

Pandemic Issues

While some side dishes saw big drops in numbers during the pandemic, those that were already prepared and packaged, and products that didn’t require any prep work remained highly in demand; that still continues today.

“What we’re seeing now is consumers are eating side dishes as meals as well as combining many to eat them as a mezze plate,” says Tsakirellis. “With this, they are seeking healthier options and alternatives that also have nutritional value to ensure that their side dishes provide them with the daily intake needed.”

Having been in this business for a long time, Cappelli notes that “COVID changed all the rules” when it came to how side dishes were being sold in the supermarket deli.

“Salad bars, olive bars and prepared food bars all closed during this time, but consumers were still in need of side items,” he says. “Getting grains and sides from behind the deli glass case —cool options that pair well with in-home meals — became the norm. Consumers were looking for restaurant-quality items.”

As home meal preparation became a more established behavior throughout the pandemic, companies saw more space dedicated to meal solutions within the deli.

“We’ve also seen increased execution of ‘Meal Deals,’ which provide consumers value and one-stop shopping for ease of meal planning,” says Nelson. “There is a role for all product formats in this space — pre-packaged branded, repack bulk and both pre-packaged and bulk kits which provide both retailers and consumers a variety of options, depending on their needs.”

Accentuate the Positives

Side dishes are sold both in the full-service case and self-service areas, as it’s important to provide customers with options when shopping within the deli. Different supermarkets try different things, depending on size and scope of the department.

In recent years, there has been tremendous innovation and creative merchandising in supermarket delis. Innovation is happening in a variety of ways, including products, displays, packaging and regional varieties.

“In a crowded space, creative packaging helps gain attention and presents a classic favorite as something new,” says Nelson. “Reser’s recently invested in a package refresh for our branded deli hot sides. The design is now synchronized with our top selling deli salads to encourage a loyal deli salads consumer to consider something new from a brand they know and trust. We see a growth opportunity for hot deli sides, as price-conscious consumers continue to shop the deli as an easy alternative to dining out.”

The secret to big sales is to offer something that others don’t have, and with side dishes, you can have a point of difference, Cappelli shares.

“These are fresh, colorful sides that catch the consumers eye, which equals the best results in the deli,” he says. “Consumers perceive the sides are made fresh in-store every day, thus building the retailer’s brand equity.”

He recommends selling side dishes behind the glass because people want to believe everything is made fresh in-store.

“While labor challenges plague retailers, selling behind the glass and at in-store food bars yield the best results,” says Cappelli. “Consumers see this as that point of difference.”


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