Tapping into the Salad Solutions

Deli salads increasingly are making room for new and inventive offerings

Tom Gresham

For years, deli salads were considered by many to be “unhealthy mayo bombs,” says Russell Zwanka, director of the Food Marketing Program at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. However, the products that make up the deli salads category have evolved and expanded over the years and perceptions are changing of the category, too. While traditional comfort foods such as potato salad and coleslaw remain immensely popular and show little sign of losing their foothold in the marketplace, experts point to a broadening field of salads that are giving customers a richer and more diverse mix of options to consider when strolling through supermarket delis.

Deli salads are off to a strong start in 2022, according to data from the Madison, WI-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA). Deli salads totaled $290 million in sales through the first three months of the year, representing an increase of 13.6% over the first quarter of 2021 – though inflation plays a role in that number and the category enjoyed a more modest 1.4% growth when measured by units.

Nathan Roe Sr., manager, deli strategy and customer marketing, Reser’s Fine Foods, Beaverton, OR, says an assortment of key trends are driving offerings in the deli area, influencing the salads category and the success that it is seeing.

“Convenience, variety and value are key to meet today’s consumer’s needs,” Roe says. “We are seeing delis nationwide expand the offerings of prepared foods, grab-and-go packaged-only and behind-the-glass.”

Expanding Options

Zwanka says deli salads increasingly are becoming “super fun,” trending toward inventive, creative approaches that give a new perspective to familiar dishes. For instance, surprising ingredients, such as Brussel sprouts, riced cauliflower and jackfruit, are bringing a fresh taste to a variety of salads, he says.

“There are so many ‘new’ versions of the old salads utilizing veggies or fruit that haven’t always been mainstream,” Zwanka says.

The pandemic and its push to more remote work has had an enduring impact on prepared foods, including deli salads, according to Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development for Don’s Prepared Foods, based in Schwenksville, PA. 

“People are looking for stuff that’s prepared, ready to eat and serve, or they’re looking for retailers to provide ideas, and meal solutions that are simple,” Cappelli says. “As more and more people work from home, they’re eating more meals at home, and they need help to do it.”

Cappelli says consumers’ increasing interest in plant-based foods due to environmental and health reasons has been influential on deli salads, as is customers’ accompanying tendency to look to other cultures for foods that fit that description. Don’s Prepared Foods launched five globally-inspired, natural sides in 2019 and another five in 2020, followed by five bowls concepts in 2021. 

“Those are the kinds of items that a lot of consumers are really seeking right now,” Cappelli says. “So, while we definitely still love comfort food in America, we’re also seeing more interest in globally-inspired flavors like adobo rice and beans or tabouli salad from the Middle East or Island Grains with beans, sort of the Caribbean flair and flavor. Clean food. Folks are looking for healthier stuff. They’re looking for things that are minimally produced with no artificial flavors or colors or preservatives.”

Even with the expanding array of options in deli salads, those traditional mayo-based salads remain steadfast at the top of the category as the most prominent salads in supermarket delis.

“No matter the trend, you still need to understand the deli salad case is still dominated by macaroni salad, potato salad (skin on and skin off) and coleslaw,” Zwanka says.

Cappelli agrees that the staples of the deli salad category are not being displaced or even challenged, just joined by more colorful company.

“If you walk into Pop’s Grocery on Main Street, USA, and you go to the deli department, you’re going to see potato salad, macaroni salad and coleslaw like you always have, but you’re also going to see these really cool grain salads with a lot of color, very vibrant, different shapes, made with interesting ingredients,” Cappelli says.

Among popular varieties right now, Zwanka says sweet-savory salads offer the advantages of being inexpensive, filling and labor saving for operators. Retailers also are showing a penchant for using more seasonal salads to take advantage of many consumers’ growing preference for diversity in their diets.

“Most retailers and foodservice operations are looking to capitalize on the seasonal offerings and use all the products they already have in the cooler,” Zwanka says.

The wide variety of salads now available helps supermarket delis serve consumers of all preferences and tastes, Zwanka says.

“There’s a salad for everyone: low sodium, low sugar, vegetarian, vegan, etc.,” Zwanka says.

Selling Deli Salads In-store

The basic store placement and cross merchandising strategy for deli salad has remained consistent for years for a reason.

“Deli salads are usually part of a gathering, so having them cross merchandised next to deli sandwiches, hot bar items and the lunch meat counter is important,” Zwanka says. “This is where they have always been merchandised, it’s where the customer expects them, and there is no reason to change.”

John Stanton, chair of Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, believes supermarkets do not do enough to sell items in the deli area, falling into the trap of simply conveying information rather than telling customers a compelling story that might capture their attention. More supermarket delis should mimic the best waiters who are able to tell “wonderful stories” about items on their menus to captivate and convince diners rather than “allowing customers to determine their own frame of references,” he says.

“We’re assuming they already have awareness, and we’re relying too much on what we think people already feel about our products,” Stanton says. 

Cappelli says consumers buy with their eyes, and Don’s Prepared Foods has emphasized colorful packaging that pops in the deli case for the globally-inspired new products it has introduced in recent years. He notes that the supermarket deli area remains a bit unstable, offering a mixed bag of layouts and approaches due to the pandemic; for instance, some have brought salad, olive and hot food bars back while others continue to wait.

Zwanka says the packaged salads section is a critical component of the deli for supermarkets. An appealing array of packaged salads not only means increased revenues for the store, but it also helps to ease congestion at the deli counter and prevents too many customers from waiting in line for salads to be scooped for them. 

Zwanka says there are important merchandising practices for supermarket delis to practice to spark interest in deli salad offerings. Some are simple and just require proper training for team members.

“The best merchandising practices are a constant stirring of the salad in the service case,” Zwanka says. “They have to look fresh and vibrant.”  

In addition, employees managing the deli case need to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities to help push deli salads to customers whenever opportunities arise, which can be often.

“Of course, always ask anyone buying anything in the service case what else they want with it,” Zwanka says. “‘Do you want some deli salad with this roast beef?’ should be ingrained in everyone’s head.”

Occasions and Hybrids

In terms of marketing hooks, Zwanka says deli salads remain an excellent item for summer gatherings, and stores and brands can look for opportunities to draw on that connection. The popularity of deli salads as part of parties and other social events gives store brands an advantage. It’s no wonder, Zwanka says, that store brands are dominant among deli salads in the supermarket.

“It’s difficult to differentiate anything about these salads, so most customers are fine with a store brand,” Zwanka says. “It’s being served at parties or gatherings, so store brands fit the need.”

Zwanka adds that bulk packaged salads offer versatility and portion control and the ability to take a higher-calorie, higher-fat one and mix it with something else to balance it out.

The way customers consume salads has evolved, as more of them treat the prepared food they buy in the store as a starting point for their own creations.

“Many customers have turned to deli salads as a ‘base,’ then [they] add their own vegetables or protein,” Zwanka says.

Jonna Parker with Chicago-based IRI says in an IDDBA report this year that deli market trends show that the deli area “now plays a big role in both every day and holiday meal occasions.” That is good news for deli-prepared salads that can make for a natural fit for either circumstance, versatile enough to be involved in a variety of meals and simple and fuss-free to prepare. “Deli salads align with a trend that anything that saves people time and provides an easy entertaining solution is doing very well throughout the store,” Parker says.

Cappelli says it is crucial to understand that when consumers meander through a supermarket deli they are looking for meal solutions. They want to be educated, nudged and helped to new ideas and options. Retailers with more colorful and unique sides have an important weapon in their arsenal.

As part of that guidance, Cappelli is seeing more retailers scooping out deli salads and assembling them with other complimentary items to help show customers the range of opportunities for how the items can be eaten.

“Showing consumers a meal solution is really a great way to go as far as marketing and merchandising salads,” Cappelli says. “Those are important steps for retailers to take, so that it’s not just about seeing the salads behind the glass but bringing it out from behind that glass and showing them how to use it.”

For deli salads and other related items, Parker sees potential for future growth.

“We see huge growth in everything that is convenience-focused, not just in preparation, but in all steps from planning and shopping to preparation and cleanup,” Parker says. “I would love to see deli prepared and entertaining work more closely with the meat and produce departments to provide solutions for the common hybrid meal approach—meaning shoppers do some cooking on their own in combination with easy heat-and-eat solutions. Value-added is trending extremely well in both meat and produce, and providing cross-functional solutions is something consumers would value greatly.”

The deli salad field has been invigorated with new ideas and new products in recent years and continuing on that path appears to be its best hope for that growth to build.

“We believe innovation will drive the future deli salad category—from innovating products within traditional product segments, to pushing boundaries with creative line extensions, to opening up completely new segments,” Roe says.


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