Starting at the Beginning

Whet shoppers’ appetites for deli appetizers.

Carol M. Bareuther

Small bites served to whet the appetite before a meal have been a menu favorite for a couple of millennia. The ancient Romans, for example, began their banquets with tasty tidbits like seasoned eggs, cheese with herbs and olives, according to the 1992-published cookbook, “A Taste of Ancient Rome”. Since then, nearly every culture and cuisine has evolved its signature small plates or appetizers. Think tapas, mezze, antipasti, hors d’oeuvres and dim sum, to name a few.

Today, appetizers are supermarket deli staples. Those sold in the prepared foods section represented 8.3% of deli prepared foods sales for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 30, 2021, according to total U.S. data provided by The Nielsen Co., a New York-based data analytics company. The top three of these were cocktail sausage, deviled or picked eggs, and seafood appetizers, respectively. Noteworthy is that while appetizer sales were up 3.7%, prepared foods overall plummeted 9.1% in dollars over the past year. If you add another major piece of the pre-meal pie, that is dips and spreads sold in the deli, then appetizers represent over a quarter (25.7%) of prepared foods plus the dips and spreads categories combined. Appetizers may be small bites, but they represent big bucks.

“The good news for supermarket delis and prepared food is that consumers use these areas often to get their favorite appetizer foods,” says Mark Brandau, group manager for Chicago-based foodservice market research firm Datassential. “According to Datassential’s 2021 Appetizer Keynote Report, 17% of consumers who had an appetizer in the past month got it from a supermarket. This compares with 27% who bought it at a casual-dining restaurant or 15% from a fast food restaurant.

The best ways to sell more appetizers in the deli are two-fold. First, follow the trends and pick popular and trending products. Secondly, show shoppers how to make it easy for them to buy and turn appetizers into snack and meal solutions.


There does not appear to be a big difference between what consumers want from appetizers at the supermarket and restaurants, according to Datassential’s 2021 Appetizer Keynote Report. More specifically, when asked to identify the attributes of their ideal appetizers, consumers were most likely to say things like finger foods (51%) and shareable foods (42%). Another two in five consumers said unique flavors, but that does not necessarily mean global flavors, which only 17% of consumers identified. The most identified best sellers in supermarket delis were wings, fried potatoes (French fries, potato skins, tater tots), chicken strips, chips and salsa, dip, guacamole and cheese options like a flavored cream cheese ball or a cheese cube tray.

“Indulgence, especially during the pandemic, appears to be a driving force for certain products, but then you also have products perceived as ‘better for you’ like plant-based options doing well,” says Greg Klein, chief marketing officer of Delphos, OH-headquartered Lakeview Foods, which, in 2021, introduced its Rojo’s brand Cantina Dips, Tribe-brand Mezze Dips and Fresh Creations brand Cashew Dips to the deli. Overall, “consumers are looking for great-tasting options and new flavor experiences.”

On the indulgent side, two appetizer megatrends where deli operators might look for inspiration and future culinary innovation ideas are elevated bar bites and what Datassential calls ‘global poppers’, says Brandau. “These items are most often fried and shareable, but they offer one or two unique flavors in a format that should be familiar to many. Examples of the former could be fried cheese curds, fried pickles or loaded tater tots. Global poppers would be fried favorites from ethnic cuisines like fritters, arancini and croquettes.”

Yet, to the more healthful PotatoTrack data reveals boats/skins are showing a significant decrease in share in the marketplace in the last six months and are down double digits, according to Michelle Amundson, in national accounts marketing for Boise, ID-based JR Simplot. “We’ve focused more on roasted potato items, like our RoastWorks Baby Bakers Roasted Potatoes and Baby Bakers Halves with Herbs & Parmesan. These are simple to prepare, incredibly flexible across multiple dayparts, and retain an appetizing appearance under heat lamps. Additionally, they are a wonderful take-and-bake option as customer toppings are nearly limitless.”

The company offers several recipe ideas, including its Baby Baker Caprese Kabob appetizers. In addition to the potatoes, other ingredients include deli staples like fresh mozzarella balls, pesto sauce and smoked ham slices.

Interest in plant-based foods is huge and here to stay. In fact, over half (58%) of consumers surveyed in June 2020 by San Francisco, CA-based food and beverage consultancy firm, Mattson, said plant-based eating will be a fundamental dietary change that will continue for a long time.

“Consumers will continue to prioritize flavor and convenience in appetizers, but now they are looking for plant-based options that meet those needs and that they can feel great about enjoying and sharing like hummus and guacamole,” says Sara Braca, senior director of marketing for the White Plains, NY-headquartered Sabra Dipping Co., LLC.

The company in November introduced its Sabra Selections, a 30-ounce tub of its Classic Hummus bundled with a separate tray filled with three of the brand’s most popular toppings—Caramelized Onion, Roasted Red Pepper and Olive Tapenade—each in its own compartment. The release is a limited-time-only rotation for club stores.

Plant-based Queso, cheese-free and instead made with veggies and almonds, followed by Buffalo and Tzatziki are the top-selling plant-based dips for the Good Foods Group, based in Pleasant Prairie, WI, according to Mandy Bottomlee, director of content marketing. “Seeing the success of our dips, we’re continuing to develop new flavorful line extensions, while also expanding to new size formats to support different consumption needs.”

Seafood plant-based appetizers are also finding success.

“Small, bite-sized ready-to-eat products, such as our plant-based Crab Cakes and Thai Style Plant-Based Fish Cakes, are great additions to the appetizer menu for any occasion and make for perfect add-ons to salads, grain bowls, sandwiches and wraps, too,” says Chad Sarno, co-founder and chief culinary officer of Austin, TX-headquartered Gathered Foods, makers of Good Catch plant-based seafood. Products are made with a proprietary six-legume blend of peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans and navy beans that deliver protein and a flaky texture like seafood.


While consumers aren’t entertaining as much due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are eating more at home and are looking for the creativity they once enjoyed at restaurants, according to Dustin Bridgewater, marketing manager for Curation Foods, Inc., in Santa Maria, CA, makers and marketers of Cabo Fresh and Yucatan branded guacamole, available in traditional tubs and extended shelf-life squeeze bottles. “Appetizers are a big piece of that. For us, that means guacamole used as a traditional dip as well as suggesting to customers how guacamole can be used as a condiment on appetizers like nachos, taquitos and flatbreads.”

There is a lot of opportunity for go-with merchandising for appetizers within the deli.

“Guacamole can easily be cross merchandised with shelf-stable salsas, chips or any other Mexican food occasion items, giving consumers a simple way to make authentic Mexican appetizers and dishes, and gain incremental growth across categories,” says Damon Manak, brand manager for MegaMex Foods, LLC, the Orange, CA-headquartered manufacturer of Wholly Guacamole and Herdez branded guacamole products. “Visibility is key in that secondary placement. Multiple facings in-store and cross promotion all allow a greater likelihood for consideration by the consumer.”

Some companies create ready-made cross merchandising opportunities for delis. For example, for the Super Bowl, Sabra collaborated with celebrity chef and NFL wife Charity Morgan to craft a limited edition ‘Create your Own Play’ snack kit featuring her favorite go-to ideas for game day snacking and sharing. Each Create Your Own Play kit included a 17-ounce tub of Sabra hummus, 2-ounces of Cholula Original Hot Sauce, 8.5-ounces of Triscuit-brand crackers, 1.87-ounces each of McCormick Gourmet Organic Shawarma Seasoning and Organic Harissa Seasoning, and collectible chickpea sun- and football-shaped spice stencils.

“We’ve also recently done in-store promotions with great pairing partners,” says Sabra’s Braca.

Looking ahead, deli operators should get a nice tailwind from their appetizer sales whenever the COVID-19 pandemic is over and people start gathering with large groups of family and friends again, says Datassential’s Brandau. “Consumers frequently turn to appetizer foods when they’re gathering for holidays, events like the Super Bowl or informal cookouts.” DB


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