A sign with big, earnest lettering hovers above the prepared foods section at the Whole Foods in Portland, Maine: “Real Food Made by Real Chefs.” The word ‘real’ here has multiple meanings: “real” food means no artificial ingredients, but it also refers to authentic cuisine, from Vietnamese spring rolls to Southern fried chicken. As for the “real” chefs: They are well-trained chefs—“real” thoughtful, creative people behind the food—despite the fact that they are retail chefs, who tend to get less attention and recognition than restaurant chefs.
Indeed, the rest of the industry should pay close attention to innovations at the retail level. Prepared foods have moved well beyond lasagna and turkey wraps, so tracking trends here really does provide a street view of what consumers look for. Grocery stores feed more daily consumers and have to appeal to a wider ranging clientele than restaurants do. So the chefs that work in this space must have their fingers on the pulse of consumer trends and behaviors in order to create foods to appeal to their large audiences. They’re also becoming competitors, not just stealing away-from-home diners with delicious at-home solutions, but also creating cool dining hubs right in the store.
Serving a broad audience is central to Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway’s mission. “There are so many different needs that our customers have, whether breakfast, school lunches, health-driven diets, office parties, birthdays, allergy-conscious diets,” says Dave Histed, who, as senior research chef for Safeway Culinary Kitchens, develops new items in almost every category within the store, from prepared meals to frozen items to salads.
Going to the Store
More and more, consumers are turning to grocery stores to meet their needs. One of these is the need to zip into the store to pick up a good ready-made meal, according to a joint report by global consulting firm A.T. Kearney and Technomic. Sales of fresh, prepared foods are growing faster than restaurant meals or packaged goods because they appeal to today’s consumer demand for both quality and convenience.
“Smaller households (singles, couples) and urban consumers in particular want healthier, fresh products with a value orientation. These consumers may lack cooking skills, or may not have the kitchen space for food storage and more elaborate food preparation,” says the A.T. Kearney/Technomic report, “Fresh Prepared Foods: A Growth Driver For Your Company?” The report describes how grocery stores are constantly updating their prepared foods, as opposed to the slower pace of change in restaurants.
“A grocery store has certain advantages over restaurants,” says trends forecaster Suzy Badaracco of Culinary Tides. “They have a wider clientele—multiple generations come there anyway to buy their milk and cereal.”
In addition to appealing to a wider customer base, more supermarkets are adding features inside the store—from sushi bars to coffee stands—while still maintaining their core purpose as a grocer. They have to potential to become gathering places, increasing their appeal to Millennials, Badaracco says. She points to her local store, Fred Meyer—a “one-stop shop” owned by Kroger with 131 stores nationwide. “It’s got a bar in the wine section. You can meet your friends for happy hour in the grocery store!”
One defining trait of supermarket shoppers: They enter the store in a practical state of mind. They’re not looking for indulgence—they’re looking for something they can grab and go, or take home to reheat, or maybe get ingredients and a recipe. So of all the considerations a retail chef must keep in mind, convenience is at the top of the list.
Paul White, senior global prepared foods coordinator for Whole Foods Market, describes a clever approach to convenience: Certain items will “pop up” on the Whole Foods sales floor for two or three hours, offering a couple of choices, such as a fast sandwich with different components. “That way we can make the flavors different every day. They’re quick, they’re easy, and they open the door to creativity.” Sandwich fillings, formats and flavor profiles can change daily, offering variety to both chef and customer. Similarly, restaurants might keep in mind offering a variety of easy-access, quicker foods as chef’s specials or LTOs, but they could include some riskier or innovative ingredients to make things more interesting.
Casting a Wide Net
When a restaurant designs its menu, there’s a certain target audience that they try to appeal to and certain themes they’re forwarding. Supermarket chefs have to think bigger and broader. Naturally, that means offering a wide array of choices as well as being smart about which flavor trends to put out there.
As corporate culinary innovation chef for Roche Bros. Supermarkets, a family owned grocery chain with 19 stores in Massachusetts, Brian Dunn develops recipes for all the departments. Prepared foods are served in the stores’ self-service hot bar with themed entrées, side dishes, chicken wings and more. There’s a chef’s case with plated protein plus side and salad, and a cold case with prepared entrées, salads and sides.
“We have to fill an entire department with hundreds of plates, with the hope that someone will buy them,” says Dunn. “So you really need to look at what’s selling and what’s not. You really need to know your customers.”
Part of knowing the customers and what they’ll buy means adopting trends at the right time. “When I started more than six years ago, I came out with a quinoa salad, but I think I was a little ahead so it didn’t do well,” he says. “Now it sells great. Same with a grilled cheese station—I tried that too early and had to wait on that. Now it’s really popular.” Fortunately, retail chefs can easily test the water with a new item, then try again later if need be.
Dunn feels he has developed a better sense of how to walk the fine line between forward-thinking and too trendy. “Last year we came up with four different kale salads,” he says. “This year we jumped on grilled cauliflower, and customers loved it.”
With global flavor trends, Dunn knows how to push the envelope within the safe zone of ever-popular Asian flavors. “We decided to do Korean beef barbecue skewers to tie into Asian street-food trends. You can go spicy, but I went lighter on chile than I could’ve done. You have to be constantly thinking of the consumer—what is that median point that appeals to tastebuds, but without too much of a bite to it. We probably couldn’t put gochujang out there yet”
Safeway’s Histed agrees. “It’s imperative to first understand our customers’ needs, regardless of the market or trends in both national and international foodservice.” He points out that Safeway’s Marcela Valladolid brand was developed to respond to Safeway’s Hispanic shoppers. “We understand their wish to have authentic flavors of Mexico available.”
Another consideration when introducing a trend: Is there visual appeal? This matters more to supermarket customers, who shop with their eyes first; restaurant customers generally order before they see their food. Dunn learned this when he tried to introduce an Indian prepared food line. “Indian food was getting more popular, and the dishes were good. But it’s a difficult visual for our customers. It was a great line, but customers didn’t go for it.” Since then, Dunn switched to a mac and cheese line, with variations like lobster mac and cheese, and customers are eating it up.
As a balance to trending foods, every supermarket needs to keep a hearty supply of comfort fare. Supermarket customers count on their stores to have a reliable “home-cooked” meal waiting for them to pick up and bring home. “You need to keep the classic items—meatloaf, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes,” says Dunn. “We take our comfort foods very seriously. If we took away our roasted turkey, I’d have customers wanting to kill me.”
Speaking of knowing what customers want, retail chefs are highly attuned to the growing demand for healthful options. When someone stops into the grocery store to grab dinner for the kids, they want nutritious and delicious food. It’s a wise move to make those options available in multiple forms—and to be sure consumers know that the company is embracing health and wellness.
“You see health consciousness everywhere—it’s a big area of growth,” says Whole Foods’ White. He says cooked greens have seen a big boost in popularity lately: chards and collard greens in cooked recipes and on pizza and sandwiches. “Kale has had massive growth, but now it’s extending beyond that.” White takes note of other “hot” healthy items like heirloom tomatoes and vegan options like nut-based cheeses and sauces.
Grocery stores have the advantage of knowing if certain better-for-you ingredients are selling well off the shelves, and they can put those ingredients straight to use in their recipes and prepared foods. At Safeway, Histed says Greek yogurt is an excellent example of an ingredient that’s healthful, easy to use, great tasting and can be introduced into a wide variety of menu-meal day parts. “We have developed some great new products using Greek yogurt for breakfast parfaits, light and healthy dinner sauces, dessert frostings, hearty side dishes, fresh dips, salad dressings and marinades,” he says.
Other healthful options at Safeway include an Eating Right line that addresses fat, sodium and caloric intake. Histed also points out that issues such as local sourcing and sustainability are “very much top of mind at Safeway.” The company partners with FishWise to offer responsibly harvested seafood in the stores and also works with hundreds of local farmers to deliver their products directly to the stores.
Whole Foods is known for its socially conscious philosophy and work in the community—including connecting with local farmers. “Local is a really big deal—it probably trumps everything else as far as where we source,” says White.
And at Roche Bros., sustainability is an important concern, so the company sources its seafood from trusted local companies. “It’s a huge selling point for our customers,” says Dunn.
None of the good choices that retail chefs make would have much impact without someone delivering the message to customers. At grocery stores, guests interface directly with the people cooking, preparing and handling the food. Because of this, grocery stores put a great deal of emphasis on developing a well-trained staff who can deliver the right ideas and right message to the public.
Dunn says that every level of staff at Roche Bros. gets training so that they are thoroughly familiar with the food that is reaching customers. “They are constantly getting questions, like ‘How do I grill romaine for a Caesar salad?’ That’s a great item for people to do at home, so we want our staff to be able to teach them.” Roche Bros. has held training sessions in techniques like how to pickle vegetables or grill steak. He describes one meat manager who was delighted to learn how to grill tomahawk steaks, and on Father’s Day he passed his knowledge on to customers. “He sold a lot of steaks that day,” laughs Dunn.
At Whole Foods, each department has training about the specific products, and the staff members often exchange information about alternative foods, special diets, nutrition, local stories, animal welfare, sustainability and more. “All of our team members want to learn and share and teach about food,” says White. “The best thing you can do is make sure the people you hire are passionate about food. It makes the experience for the customer much more meaningful.”