Throughout the course of the pandemic, prepared foods departments were some of the hardest-hit departments at grocery stores across the country. From addressing public health and hygiene concerns to navigating staff shortages and supply chain challenges, grocery leaders have had to be creative and strategic in their response. We connected with leaders to hear what departments have been experiencing and how stores have adapted during this challenging time.
Staffing Shortages and Supply Chain Issues
Linda McCann, Prepared Foods Director at National Cooperative Grocers (NCG), says that according to festaurant.org, 72% of operators surveyed said recruiting and retaining food service roles was their top operational challenge since May of 2021.
“Despite best efforts, production is often inconsistent contributing to out-of-stock issues. A limited menu will offer relief from high inventory and make the best use of tight labor pools,” explains McCann.
Chris Maher, GM at BriarPatch Food Co-op in Grass Valley, California agrees.
“We have seen increased demand from shoppers in prepared foods, but constant low staffing has impacted our ability to meet the demand. Our hot bar has been offline since the start of the pandemic and staff energy was rerouted to pre-packaged deli items which allowed sales to climb back up.”
The shift away from self-service programs like hot bars, salad bars, and soups during the pandemic allowed co-ops to make creative use of staff and try a variety of pre-packaged food programs for the first time. BriarPatch, like many other stores, repurposed their food bars as a cold/hot grab-and-go.
“On the hot side, we offer burritos which were previously only offered full service. Surprisingly, the burrito program was not impacted by the additional offering so we consider this to be mostly new sales,” said Maher.
Adapting and Shifting Roles
Roanoke Co-op in Virginia kept food service staff members employed throughout the pandemic despite having closed self-service. GM Bruce Phlegar explained that some of those food service staff temporally shifted their work to other departments but the department kept grab-and-go service going.
“We found it difficult to keep some departments fully staffed. Foodservice topped that list. We were able to maintain a core group of great people who carried on our institutional food service knowledge.”
Outpost Natural Foods in Wisconsin operates four stores in the Milwaukee area and took a broad view of their prepared food programs. “Our café teams got together (from our 4 stores) to agree on the priorities,” said GM Pam Mehnert. They prioritized items like fresh juice and used staff each day to make and stock a variety of juices in a grab-and-go cooler.
“We are actually selling more juice this way than the previous method of individual orders, which told us not everyone wants to stand and wait for a product.”
Outpost also saw success transitioning their sandwich program from individual orders to pre-made.
“One of our stores is now selling an average of 165 sandwiches per day, up from the 45 or so individual orders they used to have. This is one of the most important shifts in each deli – AM sandwich making. We still do custom orders when the café is open, but only those limited hours.”
Grab-and-Go is Key
NCG has a national perspective on challenges and opportunities and McCann sees that trend happening at co-ops around the country. “As restrictions lift and the pandemic subsides, turning the focus to how stores can ‘do grab and go better’, will position them as interesting and innovative.”
McCann suggests looking into protein bowls, affordable snack packs, and take-and-bake concepts.
“Dishes like lasagna or ravioli with meat sauce that are assembled but not baked, make it easy for the customers to pop a meal in the oven when they get home.”
Mehnert describes a positive outcome at Outpost with precisely that concept. “We created new programming of packaged salad varieties and a menu of meal options to take and heat. We called the second program “we made you dinner” and the items were packaged in servings of 2 and 4 persons. Items like lasagna, enchiladas, stews, mac and cheese, etc. Those sales came close to the same sales as our hot bars, without any loss of product.”
At Roanoke Co-op, Phlegar and his staff have used the opportunity to try new things and made equipment investments in programs that worked.
“We added a protein bowl program and a take-and-bake pizza program to our grab-and-go case. Most recently we added hot oatmeal in the morning out of one of our soup wells. We added a double stack, quick-cooking oven to enhance our signature sandwich program and to bake off some of those pizzas.”
Phlegar says Roanoke learned a lot from NCG and other co-ops. “We have experienced some level of success with everything we have tried, and we can’t take all the credit. These great ideas and many others originated with the NCG’s retail support team. Linda McCann and Mark Papendieck were the two people there that directly supported our recent foodservice success.”
Advice for Co-ops
Maher said BriarPatch is looking ahead to 2022 with old programs returning and a focus on some new opportunities.
“We will be re-opening our hot bar in December with our deli now being fully staffed. Many new recipes will show up on the bar, but we will be offering less options than in previous years. We may expand our offerings as the kitchen gets back into production mode. We will continue to offer pre-pack entrees and will explore some new flavors/dietary types that have been requested, keto, paleo, southeast Asian, etc.”
McCann thinks the time for that transition is right for all co-ops. “If you haven’t already, reopen your self-service food bars now. Even if it’s just a static menu, customers are craving it.”
Mehnert provided advice for co-ops struggling to regain success in prepared foods. “Make only your best sellers with the best margin help you gain some momentum in sales growth and profitability. People are more understanding right now because they see shortages and operating hours cut everywhere else.”
A full display case, whether at the deli service counter or the grab-and-go case, shelving is crucial says McCann. “Never let your case go empty. If you can’t maintain production, consider temporarily ramping up cross-merchandising of ready to eat grocery items and vendor prepared items.”
“Consumer demands for greater convenience are relentless, as evidenced by the rapid growth of online ordering, curbside service, and immediate delivery. Curate your menus down to the most lucrative and labor-friendly items.”
Phlegar reminds his peers to remember the people that make prepared foods departments run.
“It is important to take additional time and effort to appreciate the work of your staff members. Celebrate your individual and collective successes, large and small.”
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