The deli department has been a bastion of meat and cheese. The core of the lineup has been a wide selection of sliced meats, fine cheeses, entrees and in most cases, rotisserie chicken. However, plant-based, vegan products are a large and growing market that have attracted vegan, vegetarians and omnivores to the tune of a forecasted market of 3.5 billion by 2025 and that number may be an underestimate. Driven by multiple concerns, such as concern for the environment, health and animal welfare, many consumers are going vegetarian or vegan; however, that is not as significant as the number of people who are cutting back on meat and introducing non-meat meals to their menus. The deli department must address those people’s needs to stay relevant, regardless of the pushback from traditionalists, who favor and promote the “real” thing.
For many years, the deli department has been evolving into a corner of the store that promotes quality and value. High-end deli meats, such as prosciutto and whole muscle meats, along with domestic and imported high-quality cheeses, have become the norm. Prepared foods and rotisserie chicken have provided many families with restaurant-quality alternatives to home cooking. These alternatives often promote health, quality and deliciousness. The focus on cheese has grown from a few commodity cheeses to entire departments focused on local, domestic and imported varieties that rival local specialty markets. Unfortunately, very few of these products are vegan.
Cheese is not vegan, but often vegetarian approved. The current main objection to cheeses is the use of animal rennet. Most cheeses today use a microbial or vegetable rennet because animal rennet is more difficult to procure and it is often less predictable as well as more expensive. The new microbial rennets have become more complex, answering the issue on one-note cheeses. Faults, such as bitterness, have also been addressed. Unfortunately, these are not suitable for vegans, who will not eat any food of animal origin, including milk-based products. There are vegan alternatives, and there is debate about whether the alternatives can be called cheese and while some of them are very good, they do not taste like milk-based cheese. Truthfully, some of them are awful
Taste as opposed to philosophical objections have continued to be an important problem for general consumer acceptance. Plant-based meat alternatives are often the worst vegan products. For the budding vegan, plant-based meats are looked at as transition products, satisfying the need for sandwich meats or dinner entrees. Covering vegan deli meat with bountiful helpings of catsup, mustard, mayo and other toppings may end up making a sandwich that is tolerable, it is often covering up an inferior product. I am sure vegan meats and cheeses will improve with high levels of consumer interest and purchases, thereby funding research and development. Unfortunately, I have yet to taste anything that measures up to animal-based meat and cheeses, and regrettably many of the products I have tasted smell like chemicals, have a texture like Play-Doh and a very strange taste. However, there is a market for these products, and delis must address the need and desire of some consumers simply because this is too big a market to ignore. There are other deli products that are perfect for vegans and vegetarians.
The fastest sector of the deli department has been prepared food. While rotisserie chicken and, in some parts of the country, fried chicken has been a staple for decades, the advent of prepared foods, ranging from salads and sandwiches to dinner entrees has been growing and, for some companies, the leading edge of sales and profits, overshadowing the mainstay of deli meats. Highly profitable, technology and packaging have given these products an enviable track record of food safety and shelf-life. Technology has also enabled producers to reduce the use of additives and preservatives without compromising quality and often make the products better tasting. It is in this area that vegan and vegetarian foods shine. There are many options from different cultures around the world. Indian, Chinese, Thai and Italian cuisines are very popular, in demand and offer vegan options. Whether egg rolls, Italian primavera pastas and meatless curries, these dishes are not contrived and are indigenous to their native cuisines. Throughout history, meat has usually been a luxury and not eaten at every meal or every day. Trying to provide high-quality and tasty vegan meals is not a compromise.
It is a delicious alternative that satisfies on many levels and is suitable for all food preferences, including die-hard meat lovers, who may serve them as side dishes or occasional alternatives. As meat prices surge, meatless meals serve as delicious money-savers. Meat lovers may want to cut back for health reasons, and non-meat meals are often recommended by physicians for different health-related issues, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. It is possible for deli departments to become a mecca for everyone, and evolving to include products suitable for vegans and vegetarians makes perfect sense. To ignore a growing demographic is not good business.