Profiting from Party Platters

From catering opportunities to creating a seasonal display, party platters are a lucrative segment in delis.

It is evident from the Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) recently released annual trends report, What’s In Store, and its annual IDDBA 2022 trade show in Atlanta that party platters are a part of today’s megatrends.

“Convenience has always been a driving force for grocery retail,” says IDDBA’s global marketing vice president/vice president/director Whitney Atkins. “Moving forward in 2022, kids are back in school and holiday and special occasions are back. This has created a resurgence of demand for deli entertaining and prepared items. This resurgence and consumer desire to create memorable occasions like never before leads to demand and growth for party tray sales.”

According to Chicago-based market research firm IRI, deli entertaining dollar sales totaled $4.5 billion in 2021, an increase of 7.7% compared to 2020 and more than 13% higher than 2019.

“Last year saw the deli in recovery, and the IDDBA Covid-19 Impact Report from December 2021 showed dollar sales were up 11% in 2020—even outpacing 2019 levels by more than 13%—well ahead of inflation,” says Paul Baker, founder of UK-based St Pierre Bakery. “Prior to COVID, sales had started to slow, with some deli sectors in decline but the pandemic transformed shopper behavior and now the challenge is to maintain growth, attracting shoppers back to the in-store deli amidst a cost-of-living crisis and the aftermath of a pandemic that brought hygiene into focus.” 

It is evident that convenience continues to fuel the above average sales in deli meat and cheese, Atkins notes. This has had a positive impact on deli platter sales overall.

Trends Impacting Platter Sales

A number of trends have impacted the party platter segment. 

James Anderko, vice president of sales and marketing, Venus Wafers, Hingham, MA, is not only seeing an increase in party platters, but also ones with more offerings apart from meat and cheese.

“We’re seeing nuts, dried fruit and crackers added,” he says. “Before party platters were mainly prepared at the deli but now major manufacturers are putting these together like Boar’s Head. There are more varieties out there than before, and this type conserves store labor, are quick and easy and provide on-the-go pick up for families or having people over.”

One of the biggest challenges in the party platter segment is the lack of labor in the deli to prepare these items.  

“We have been receiving a lot more requests for bulk offerings and that has to do with party platters,” Anderko says. “Usually it’s a simple cracker for party platters like water crackers or unseasoned flatbread. Nothing that would clash with cheese or meat.” 

“Probably the biggest challenge is ingredients, pricing and labor; those are our issues today in the unstable economy,” Anderko says. “Delis need to think about what customers are willing to pay and provide more diversity in the sizes being offered.”

Whereas portion control was the focus of the past, now it’s more about variety.

“There may be four meats and one cheese with bruschetta, for example,” Anderko says. “The type of cracker, its size and where it will be placed on the platter need to be considered.”

The quantity of crackers depends on the size of the platter.

“Some have a whole sleeve and others have four to 10 crackers,” Anderko says. “It depends on the price point of the platter.”

Don’s Prepared Foods, Carl H. Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development, Schwenksville, PA, is seeing the trend toward healthy and plant-based items as well as globally-inspired flavors impacting the deli segment.

“Our grains, sides and better bowls are the perfect fit for retail platters,” he says. “Retailers build their brand equity by providing trays made in-store. And more people are snacking at home, having parties and gatherings.”

Before COVID, the focus on environmental sustainability was on the rise. The pandemic further heightened consumer awareness regarding packaging.

“Consumers recognize there is opportunity for improvement at home and throughout the supply chain in packaging, food waste, upcycling and optimized resource management,” Atkins says. “Seventy-two percent of consumers are concerned about plastic and other package waste, and they wish to see more environmentally-friendly packaging (52%), resealable packaging (52%) and packaging aimed at reducing food waste (46%). Six in 10 shoppers say they would be more likely to buy a brand or shop at a grocery store focused on limiting food and package waste.”

Being creative in producing platters that limit non-recyclable materials or include sustainable packaging is an opportunity for delis to be stewards of the environment and appeal to a larger demographic.

With home entertaining becoming more prevalent, delis have an opportunity to create a party platter program that appeals to those looking to save time and money.

“As people return to old routines, they are once again time-poor—looking for quick solutions for breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between—including more special occasions at home,” Baker says.  “The IDDBA Covid-19 Impact Report from February this year demonstrated just how significant this growth is, with the ‘trays’ product group up more than 50% and ‘combo meals’ up 33% over last year. The current cost-of-living crisis also means that people will continue to celebrate special occasions at home. The number of guests might also be rising with pandemic restrictions relaxed and that means larger pack-sizes and pre-prepared will continue an upward trajectory.” 

He notes there are a couple of key trends deli departments can focus on to take party platter programs to the next level.

“There are two key trends that savvy retailers can use our products to capitalize on. The first is in pre-packaged party platters. After so long without entertaining, shoppers are keen to make at-home celebrations even more memorable, highlighting the need for a show-stopping platter,” Baker says. “There needs to be enough variety in the platter to keep shoppers interested. A good balance of ‘new’ versus ‘reliable’. Finding a bread carrier that can cater to savory and sweet items is key for retailers. St Pierre’s range of Brioche Burger Buns, Hot Dog Rolls, Sliced Brioche Loaf, Brioche Sliders and Brioche Baguettes work perfectly served with sweet or savory dishes, which can really help broaden the appeal of a party platter.”

Platters are not just versatile with wide appeal but also can come in a wide range of sizes with different complementary products.

“For consumers, they can deliver the ultimate personalized platter if they buy products individually and create their own, so operators have to offer added value,” Baker explains. “By using products that are already stocked, there’s no additional cost to the operator beyond resource, but they can answer to shoppers looking for premium, unique, fresh food—all of which are drivers.”

Marketing Tactics

“Like with any challenge though, the ‘comeback’ offers an opportunity for retailers to try something new and drive sales. Changes in shopper behavior drive innovation, and I think the deli will be testament to this pattern in the coming months,” Baker says. “Customers shop the deli because it offers a different experience, and that’s where the opportunity lies for retailers and indeed for brands like St Pierre. We offer innovative merchandising solutions to act as a trip trigger to the deli and increase basket spend.”

Atkins recommends looking at e-commerce, trip experience and technology and how each impacts the business. Also determine how these components can work together to spur better customer loyalty.  

“Walk through your specialty order process in its entirety,” she says. “How easy is it for the consumer to order, to customize? How easy is it for your team to be notified of the order and complete the order on time? Do you deliver trays? What is the time frame for delivery?”

Because convenience is paramount, look for an opportunity for party trays to be a reason to bring consumers in conjunction with a curbside order.

IDDBA’s quarterly What’s In Store release provides tips that can be considered when creating promotional activity:

  • Promotions of shorter duration, whether a few days or even a few hours. Know when those hyperlocal events occur. 
  • Comparison of deli-prepared meal solutions to that of a restaurant meal. 
  • Mix-and-match deals, allowing consumers to choose between several options for a set amount — taking pressure off purchasing only a bakery or only a deli tray.
  • Creating an experience that creates more permissibility to splurge. 

With occasions and events post COVID becoming more meaningful, even with the detrimental impact of inflation, consumers will splurge on party trays for holidays and gatherings.

“Be prepared for those holidays,” Atkins recommends. “Create an environment for special orders. Have someone who can offer ideas, create the tray, and have it ready on time. Consider taking advantage of other consumer trends. Are more people having micro weddings and  planning themselves? How can you create a catered solution with a variety of tray options?”

When marketing party platters, shelf life can be a challenge.

“There are price points you’re trying to hit,” Anderko says. “Consumers want value and also convenience. Platters that are too large or pricey will be harder to sell and take up a lot of refrigeration space. Positioning needs to be considered, as these items should be placed where people can see them.”

He adds that most party platters are positioned in the front of the deli, but in the summer with Independence Day, Labor Day and picnics, delis can create a seasonal display.

Anderko at Venus Wafers predicts the party platter segment will continue to trend up.

“We are receiving inquiries in that space from stores that haven’t done them before who are looking at getting into it as well as more cheese companies focusing on platters,” he says. 


Party Platter Merchandising Tips

The Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) global marketing vice president/vice president/director Whitney Atkins provides these tips for successful merchandising of party trays:

  • Be sure to merchandise pre-packaged trays for that quick grab-and-go consumer.
  • Plan around community events like graduation, summer festivals and be ready for prime holiday selling. Expect a bump in not only grab-and-go, but special orders. 
  • Merchandise a mix of specialty and grab-and-go trays. 
  • Try making in store trays that are keto, paleo, gluten free and plant-based to provide an option for those consumers.
  • Cross merchandise keto, paleo, gluten free and plant-based options with in-store made or prepackaged trays. Think of how this helps an event host create a welcoming table


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