Beef tacos are available at Whole Foods' Taqueria, which celebrates "the great authentic flavors of Mexico."

Going in-house in the deli

Branded concepts find success with healthy, indulgent balance

Healthy and indulgent are a winning pair when it comes to supermarket-branded deli offerings this winter. This is evidenced in the prepared food mix everywhere from Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market to Caviar & Bananas, a five-unit specialty retailer based in Charleston, S.C.

In the first quarter of this year, Whole Foods is completing a roll-out of a new Taqueria program to 200 locations across the U.S. Kings Food Markets, based in Parsippany, N.J., is adding new options—power bowls—to its popular Mezze Bar in some of its 25 locations, and Caviar & Bananas is continuing to add new items to its store-made sandwiches and salad line.

Taqueria’s jackfruit torta (left) and a bowl with pork and rice.

All offer something for everyone: Those who are health-conscious, and those looking for a treat or food to fuel a cheat day. Andy Sasser, global category manager at Whole Foods, said the appeal of the Taqueria is that it is, “spicy, fresh and colorful with both healthy and more indulgent options. We think this cuisine is right in the sweet spot for Whole Foods Market customers.”

South of the border

Whole Foods created the Taqueria to “celebrate the great authentic flavors of Mexico” combined with the retailer’s “high-quality standards,” Sasser said. Tested in Whole Foods’ Southwest and Rocky Mountain Region, it has been expanded to other markets over the past several months in both traditional and 365 stores.

The concept is a quick-service restaurant within the prepared foods section. The menu features tacos, tortas, burritos and bowls made with local ingredients in certain regions. The price ranges from $6 to $9 per item depending on the location. It appears to be an answer to fast-casual chain Chipotle, noted Kara Nielsen, vice president, trends and marketing, CCD Innovation, a strategic food and beverage innovation agency that counts supermarkets, restaurants and packaged goods companies among its clients.

Billed as build your own, the menu includes such health-oriented options as a base of paleo-friendly vegan tortillas and main ingredients such as sweet potatoes, jackfruit and “faux-rizo” – chorizo-seasoned cauliflower rice. Most every filling and topping is vegan. There are six salsa choices, all vegan, listed in order of mild to spicy. Unlike Chipotle, there are no taco chips on the menu.

For those looking to indulge, the menu includes pork braised in achiote sauce and three kinds of cheeses. Guacamole costs extra (a New York City location charged $1.50 on a recent visit).

“They are catering to a variety of dietary lifestyles,” said Nielsen. “Not everyone is always looking for a healthful item. You can still be committed to quality sourcing and natural whole foods but want something that really hits your indulgent spot.”


The approach at Caviar & Bananas is to “curate your own experience,” said Margaret Furniss, the retailer’s co-owner and co-founder. “We are a hybrid where you can come in and eat super healthy and a place where you can indulge.”

Caviar & Bananas’ Porkfection sandwich (left) and its Baja Salad.

The company, which opened its fifth location last summer, in Nashville, Tenn., offers a changing array of customizable store-made salads and sandwiches plus pastries, cookies and sweets to eat in, have delivered or take out.

The chef-driven menus are tailored to each location, with about 75% of the offerings relatively consistent across all locations. Each unit has its own executive chef. To keep offerings interesting, the chefs pitch ideas to the corporate office, which then evaluates them to test and select menu additions.

Careful data analysis helps winnow out slow sellers, Furniss said. Two recent items to go are Toscana and Far East Salads. The Toscana, at $9.95, included mixed greens, crispy prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, vanilla poached pears, shaved fennel, roasted walnuts and chianti vinaigrette. “It is delicious but didn’t perform well for us,” Furniss said, adding she was in the process of evaluating replacements.

The best-sellers are always design-your-own custom salads and sandwiches. “People really love customization,” Furniss said.


Social media, most notably Instagram, plays a big role in getting the word out, with glamorous food shots telling the story, Furniss said. The retailer’s marketing manager handles the social media accounts for all five locations. The chefs, pastry chefs and catering managers are encouraged to get in on the act, and have been given a mini training on how to take tempting food shots. Appropriate customer content is reposted. The posts tell “the overall brand story or are product specific or menu specific,” Furniss said.

The retailer does not offer lunch specials beyond incentives to sign up for an online delivery service. Business is brisk enough that promotions are not necessary, Furniss said.

Still, there is a need to keep it fresh. “We have a salad feature and sandwich feature that changes daily. In prepared foods you have to keep things changing because people get bored very easily,” Furniss said.

Kings Food Markets introduced its Power Bowls in January.

At Kings Food Markets, the emphasis is on new flavors and choices for deli, said Chris Taylor, senior vice president of merchandising and marketing. “We’re always looking to offer unique options to awaken our customers’ senses. Food doesn’t stand still,” she said.

The Mezze Bar was launched in 2013 and has since been expanded to 22 locations. Choices include grilled eggplant, Moroccan spice roasted C=carrots, and more indulgent treats like hummus, baba ganoush and falafel. The newest addition is the Power Bowl Bar, offered in four locations, which is designed to appeal to health-conscious diners looking for a protein punch. It includes roasted and raw vegetables plus carrot, miso and lemon tahini dressings. The Mezze and Power Bowl bars retail for $8.99 per pound.

The self-serve bars are a draw, as are the retailer’s made-to-order sandwiches. The choices change with the seasons. In winter, hot choices are the top sellers, Taylor said. “We’re constantly updating our menu and focusing on seasonal offerings,” she said.

To market the Kings branded deli items, the retailer uses social media and its in-house loyalty program, My Kings Extra. To introduce the Power Bowls right after the New Year, Kings posted tempting photos on Facebook: “Looking for a protein boost this new year? Stop by our Bedminster, Morristown, Cresskill and Garden City stores and test out the Power Bowl Bar. Perfect for lunch or dinner!”

A Facebook follower agreed: “yes!!!it's all delicious!!i can live there!!!hahaha you know what I mean!!!cause it’s so good..how can pass up!”

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