Side Dishes for Health-Conscious Consumers

Convenient, healthy and plant-based lead the way.

Bob Johnson

While many in the deli business limped through 2020 as reduced traffic and the collapse of the salad and hot bars depressed opportunities, Mundelein, IL-based Jaffa Salads enjoyed what could be considered a banner year.

“Probably 75% of our sales are in the deli, and we had a 20% increase in 2020 over 2019,” says Ken Dedic, vice president of sales and marketing at Jaffa Salads.

One reason for Jaffa’s success is Dedic’s decision to pivot toward a merchandising strategy suited for the times.

“We rearranged our merchandising budget,” he says. “Normally we emphasize demos but we rearranged the budget to emphasize in-store promotions. We’ve had success with meal planning, using our products as condiments. We’ve been able to cross merchandise with other departments, like the meat department.”

But another important factor in their success was that Jaffa’s product line fits with trends that were strong in 2020 and figure to remain strong going forward; the company produces healthy, plant-based hummus, guacamole and salsas offered in a convenient grab-and-go format.

“Plant-based is here to stay,” says Dedic. “Everyone is screaming for the Keto diet and plant-based foods. Even young people are looking to eat healthy. Plant-based started to take off three to five years ago but consumers are still asking for more plant-based foods. Offering our products as healthy, low calorie marinades and dressings is a unique way to introduce the product.”

New Ways of Selling

The pandemic looks to have created increased opportunities catering to consumers’ increased interest in healthier side dishes, especially plant-based options.

And while many delis and their suppliers have struggled to tread water since last March, there is evidence the corner has been turned early in 2021.

“The pandemic marketplace in 2020 was characterized by many months of lower trip frequencies, less time in store but highly elevated shopping baskets as shoppers sought their must-haves versus browsing on impulse or special occasion needs,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, San Antonio, TX. “The lack of trips, in particular, had an impact on departments that rely on in-store experiences, visual appeal and secondary shoppers, including perimeter bakery and deli prepared.”

Roerink, who has penned highly detailed monthly analyses of trends during the pandemic for the Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) , found a change with the turn of the calendar.

“January 2021 was different,” she says. “January saw a recovery of trip frequency to slightly above year ago levels, while the basket size remained highly elevated. Deli had the highest sales gains since pre-COVID.”

Deli sales were up 5.6% in January year over year, and sides have been particularly strong: Following four quarters of growth from 7.5% to 13.4%, side dishes were up again by nearly 10% year over year in January.

Even producers of venerable sides that can be considered forbidden pleasures are catering to the trend toward healthier eating.

“Our classics continue to be best sellers, but lighter dressing (vinaigrettes, yogurt-based, etc.) are growing, and so are grain and pasta salads,” says Nathan Roe, senior manager for deli strategy and customer marketing at Reser’s Fine Foods, Beaverton, OR. “We’ve also seen success pulling from ethnic flavor inspirations.”

Nearly two-thirds of shoppers started off the year with New Year’s resolutions, and 35% aim to eat healthier, according to 210 Analytics data, and the impact on side dishes is significant.

“The shift away from artificial ingredients and high fructose corn syrup in the past few years has contributed to a ‘cleaner’ macaroni salad product that more closely matches what many consumers remember from their own kitchens,” says Roe. “Entire books or doctoral theses could be written in response to this question of how potato salad, macaroni salad and cole slaw have evolved over the years, and you’ll hear different answers from different parts of the country.”

Other producers have also noticed a shift in consumer preference toward healthier plant-based options.

“Healthy, unique, clean, flavorful, edgy and plant-based, ready-to-serve heat n’ eat items that they can show as prepared meals and sides are new and popular,” says Carl Cappelli, vice president of sales and business development at Don’s Prepared Foods, Schwenksville, PA. “Items ready to serve are the current trend—consumers are fatigued with meal prep at home.”

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

Grab and Go

Health-conscious consumers are looking to get in and out of the deli and the store quickly with a minimum amount of contact.

“Before COVID, Don’s sides were in hot bars, salad bars and food bars,” says Cappelli.

“Now, retailers can do that and include them in their prepared meals section pre-packed.”

That trend has held true for many deli products: Grab-and-go continued its double-digit growth, rising 25.7% year over year in January, according to 210 Analytics.

“Because of COVID and the change in consumer shopping behavior, many delis have shifted all or a portion of their bulk, freshly-prepared salads and sides to prepacked items to reduce labor and adjust to the shift in shopping behaviors,” says Roe. “While we don’t know how things will continue to evolve, we expect that long term, deli cases will return to having a wide variety of ready-to-serve choices that consumers are looking for, with an emphasis on value.”

Some suppliers have even developed new products catering specifically to consumers looking for convenience.

“One of our many new items is a four-pack of single-serve Rotisserie Chicken Salad,” says Roe. “With an increased focus on convenience, single-portion serving sizes truly capitalize on that trend. Consumers are also seeking ways to add more protein for lunches or snacking, and this chicken salad provides 13 grams of protein per serving. With a more robust, roasted flavor of rotisserie chicken and creamy mayonnaise dressing, crunchy sweet pickles, crisp celery and onion, and no artificial flavors or colors, this fresh, ready-to-eat salad will be a treat for consumers.”

One large group of convenience-hungry deli consumers is the many people who have unexpectedly found themselves eating at home more than before the pandemic.

“Retailers are finding ways to connect with consumers’ needs today—pivoting away from impulse and immediate consumption into creative ways to satisfy meal accompaniments and at-home snacks for homebound workers and students,” says Jonna Parker, head of Chicago-based IRI’s Fresh Center of Excellence.

This trend toward wanting sides for at-home eating is likely to continue, even when the pandemic is eventually in the rear-view mirror.

“Looking further into the future, working from home full time is expected to remain more than twice as high as pre COVID-19: 44% of employed Americans expect to work from home at least once a week after the vaccine is widely distributed and restrictions are lifted, according to the January wave of IRI shopper research,” Roerink says.

One merchandising strategy is to build small sections with several grab-and-go options in a particular side category.

“Reser’s deli salads and sides have a strong and loyal following,” says Roe. “As a product line, Reser’s items perform particularly well on a shelf alongside store brand salads, maximizing growth for the entire category. With purposeful promotions planned throughout the year, a combination like this gives retailers trade funding, the power of brand marketing and a degree of brand control, all on the same shelf.”

Variety Is the Spice

The way to keep the sides category fresh and vibrant is to introduce new and interesting flavor profiles.

“Variety, with new flavors and more vegetables is the key to continued growth,” Dedic says. “Variety and introducing new flavors are going to impact growth.”

Jaffa Salads specializes in different varieties of healthy dips, spreads and ingredients that may be relatively new in the U.S. market but come with centuries of tradition from other parts of the world. 

“Our foods are staples within the cultures in which they were developed,” Dedic says. “Hummus is new to America in the last couple decades but in the Middle East it has been around for many generations. We have a steady increase in sales because these are all healthy products.”

Reser’s, too, is constantly looking to complement its familiar favorites with new flavors and ingredients.

“Our chefs and R&D teams are always excited to use new flavors and ingredients to spur innovation. Sometimes we focus on a single herb or spice that is trending (e.g., dill, parsley, cilantro) or a primary ingredient, like deviled eggs, to give a quick cue to the consumer on what to expect,” says Roe. “Appealing ingredients such as wild rice and pepitas, combined with creative techniques (such as roasting, spiralizing or caramelizing), are some of the new and delicious flavor combos we’ve introduced that are trending.”

There are also new side options specifically tailored to the consumer preparing meals at home more than they were before March 2020.

“We’re also excited to introduce creamy scalloped potatoes to the deli in an easy heat-and-serve package format,” says Roe. “Delicious, fully-prepared side dishes that require minimal prep or heat time continue to meet a need for busy consumers.”

Don’s Prepared Foods is offering, in particular, more bowls with healthy, vege­table-centric options.

“We have many new sides and some new meals patterned after the bowl craze,” says Cappelli. “Clean, healthy, delicious grains or plant-based sides, items ready to eat, are trending. Consumers are concerned with health and the environment.”

There are, however, enduring mainstream sides that must not be forgotten, and they have not changed much in decades.

“There has not been much evolution with potato salad, macaroni salad and cole slaw; they are staples and often a lower cost,” says Cappelli. “They are more a side with lunch.”

And no side is more popular than the venerable potato salad done well.

“Reser’s top-selling deli sides continue to be our potato salads, both the original and deviled egg varieties,” says Roe. “However, where consumers are buying salads has changed a bit, with a shift away from the deli case and toward pre-packaged versions of the same or similar recipes. There is something quite comforting in the familiar tastes and flavors of deli salads, and we’re also seeing that a whole new generation of consumers are discovering some classic deli salads and family favorites.” DB


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