The Deli Goes Vegetarian

Plant-based proteins are here to stay.

Bob Johnson

Late in 2019, Burger King began announcing to anyone with a screen or radio the coming of a version of their signature dish made without meat, demonstrating the power of the trend toward plant-based foods.

The deli, trapped in its identity as a museum of fine salamis, prosciuttos and connoisseur cheeses, struggled to respond to this surge in consumer interest in vegetarian foods.

“Pre-COVID, plant-based food was in the news, and the deli didn’t really have a place for Beyond Meat,” says Bob Sewall, executive vice president at Blount Fine Foods, Fall River, MA. “All the ads prompted the consumer to think about what their options were, and the deli didn’t really have options because there is no plant-based ham or beef.”

Blount Fine Foods, which offers a line of premium quality gourmet soups, sides and entrées hand-crafted from carefully-sourced fresh ingredients, was unusually well positioned to offer the supermarket deli answers to the question: What’s for plant-based dinner?

“We had a lot of great products that were organic and vegan,” Sewall says. “It was in the news every day, and we had a plant-based chili our deli customers could promote. It was both organic and vegan, and we emphasized the vegan. Vegan products will become more staple items if it stays in the news.”

Carving a Niche

Plant-based foods, including proteins, are here to stay because they answer fundamental questions for large numbers of consumers, both young and old.

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

“There is an incredible amount of discussion about plant-based proteins; it is up, and it will continue to rise,” says Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development at Don’s. “One generation is interested in healthier eating, and another in saving the planet. If you were born before 1964, you are interested in healthier eating; the Millennials are extremely interested in saving the planet.”

The plant-based items must also be interesting, however, because Millennials, in addition to saving the planet, are also interested in foods that are both trendy and fresh.

Vegetarian or vegan chili, ancient grains, plant-based sushi and gourmet pickles could all capture growing market share in the deli.

“Emerging new trends that are unique and clean are important to Millennials,” says Patty Amato, senior vice president at Farm Ridge Foods, West Palm Beach, FL. “Fresh pickles are the next best thing since hummus. From half sours to sweet horseradish chips, we have over 25 varieties of fresh pickles that are vegan, low calorie, low carb, fat free and gluten free.”

Farm Ridge delivers a variety of prepared foods, including salads, olives and its signature fresh pickles.

While there are more Millennials than Boomers, the older customers remain especially important to the bottom line.

 “It’s the younger eaters and the Baby Boomers,” Sewall says. “The Baby Boomers have more cash.” 

Statistical analyses of consumer preferences show the deli does well to not ignore this trend.

A market survey from Port Washington, NY-based NPD Group, for example, found that 46% of consumers would pay more for a vegetarian snack and an additional 38% would be more likely to buy it.

The Madison, WI-based International Deli Dairy Bakery Association ‘s (IDDBA) What’s in Store 2020 reported that claims a product is vegetarian or vegan increased more than 12% in the year ending May 19, 2019, which was faster than “unsweetened” and just behind claims to improve digestion.

“The demand for vegetarian, plant-based food is growing,” says Cappelli. “We see more and more demand coming across multiple generations. The Millennials are the largest and fastest growing, the Boomers are growing into this, and Generation Z is the next biggest group.

Generation X is still raising children, cooking and looking for healthier options.”

While the number of vegetarians and vegans remains small and is growing slowly, the much larger number of people looking to eat more plant-based food is growing faster.

The NPD Group’s Future of Snacking Report found that 86% of the consumers of plant-based foods do not consider themselves to be vegetarian or vegan, and their number one reason for eating more plant-based foods is to prevent or treat illness.

Another survey reported in What’s in Store 2020, this one from the Humane Society, found that nearly 95% of consumers are concerned about the welfare of animals.

“This is longer term, not a fad,” Chicago-based IRI vice president for client insights John Crawford told What’s in Store 2020. “There are only eight million vegetarians in the U.S. but 60% of the population is interested in consuming less meat. One-third are having meat-free days and 83% are adding plant-based foods to their diets to improve their overall health.”

The Importance of Convenience

Like deli customers in general, plant-based food consumers are busy and will reward retailers who offer help saving time.

“Hissho’s most engaged customers are usually married women ages 35 to 49; they are typically juggling multiple things on their to-do lists, from working and volunteering to groceries, soccer games, pick-ups and drop-offs,” says Corey Wilde, vice president of business development at Hissho Sushi, Charlotte, NC. “What we offer is a healthy, premium-grade convenient option that can be enjoyed as a special treat or with the family. And no cooking or clean-up is required.”

Hissho partners with upscale supermarket delis to offer sushi made fresh at the store by its staff, which is well-trained in the arts of making sushi and of offering information to inquisitive consumers.

“Shoppers are turning to supermarket delis as a solution to their busy lifestyles and diet preferences, and with that, they want variety, quality and convenience; this holds true especially for our vegetarian guests,” says Wilde. “Whether it’s a vegetarian meal of indulgence or something lighter, we want our customers to have the ability to pick and choose what’s best for their busy schedules and dietary needs.”

The most important way to show consumers they can save time save time is to let them quickly and easily see how plant-based foods can form the center of a meal. 

“Consumers are looking for meal solutions,” says Cappelli. “When you pair the grain salads with fish or pastured chicken, you answer their questions. Consumers are pressed for time and want solutions. COVID-19 has changed many things. Consumers want it scooped-out or pre-packed. They prefer the store to do it fresh. They want delicious, healthy-vegetarian, global flavors.”

Hissho is stepping up its sushi packaging efforts and plans to introduce more convenient vegetarian alternatives in the next few months.

“We’re also getting smarter about the small details that make a big difference,” says Wilde. “We recognize that many of our customers are moms who are on the go, in multiple directions. That’s why we’re taking our packaging to another level to ensure that it delivers on convenience. We’re doing this through proprietary changes that will be unveiled later this year.”

A Healthy Serving of Quality

Delis looking to expand their plant-based options are advised to focus on quality and on offering dishes that look substantial and deliver on that promise.

“I’ve been in the food business for 30 years, and quality rules,” Sewall says. “If you’re going to have a vegan, or plant-based or organic product, it has to taste great. You also have to make them hearty.” 

When Beyond Meat created prime time buzz, Blount’s was already prepared to offer the deli a vegetarian chili made with pinto beans, soy-based crumbles, mixed bell peppers and onions, all simmered in a blend of tomatoes and spices.

A cup of this robust chili has 12 grams of protein, just 2.5 grams of fat and zero cholesterol.

“In the hot soup category, people are having vegan items, and chili is our number five item,” Sewall says. “You can use it to stuff peppers or as a topping.”

While tomatoes are a natural for bringing excitement to plant-based dishes, red peppers can also provide a new wrinkle.

“A great example of our innovation in ingredients is our Spicy Pepper Roll and Veggie TNT Roll,” says Wilde. These rolls are made with a plant-based protein to serve as the “tuna”—a roasted bell pepper. The beautifully roasted red bell pepper packs a flavorful punch and provides a velvety-textured substitute that even non-vegetarians can enjoy. We have created new, innovative rolls that not only deliver on taste, they fulfill the health standard more supermarket shoppers are searching for.”

Because most consumers of plant-based options are not vegetarians, many of these dishes can be effectively merchandised with meats.

“Grains marry well with fish, chicken, beef, pork; they are good hot or cold,” Cappelli says. “Wheatberry, cranberry grain, mango, lime and quinoa are our most popular traditional deli vegetarian items.”

Familiar plant-based options can be paired with animal protein to beef up the ring at the cash register.

“Fresh pickles are great merchandised with the cold cuts, fresh salad and at the deli counter,” says Amato. “Fresh pickles are up 23.2% in the last 26 weeks in the Nielsen data. The pickles have earned their wings and are flying off the shelves.”

Because plant-based food is a newly-important trend, the deli does well to have signage that draws attention to its options and offers information.

“Support plant-based chili with signage and nutritional information,” says Sewall. “Now that plant-based has everybody’s attention, it’s something you want to call out.”

It pays to go the extra mile and have trained staff available to talk with customers about the plant-based foods.

“Hissho Sushi is committed to not only making our menu more accessible but also more approachable to shoppers of all backgrounds, ages and diet preferences,” says Wilde. “To ensure that messaging thrives, we’re looking to our chefs to connect directly with shoppers inside the deli area and capture audiences through education of our menu, tastings and samples. This approach is something that delivery and meal kits can’t provide—education of our fresh, top quality menu and a personal connection with our chef.” DB


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