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The supermarket fresh-meals segment is constantly searching for innovative ways to stand out from the competition. One tactic that is proving successful is the inclusion of tantalizing desserts in the fresh prepared meals department. While no two operations are run precisely alike, one thing rings true across the industry -- if there's one thing the public craves it's a happy, sugar-coated ending.Retailers

The supermarket fresh-meals segment is constantly searching for innovative ways to stand out from the competition. One tactic that is proving successful is the inclusion of tantalizing desserts in the fresh prepared meals department. While no two operations are run precisely alike, one thing rings true across the industry -- if there's one thing the public craves it's a happy, sugar-coated ending.

Retailers and consultants told SN that the only way to ensure the successful integration of any product is to know the store's customer demographics. Listen to what the shoppers have to say, follow their trends and the reward will be customers who return again and again. This is especially true when the customer's sweet tooth comes into play.

The trend among retailers seems to be to package an individual portion of a given dessert and cross merchandise it in the fresh-meals area of the store. Many chains have begun incorporating bakery items into their meal solutions, including a selection of single-sized desserts, and have found that they can be a strong selling point.

Greg Wozniak, a certified executive chef and meal-center director for West Bend, Wis.-based Prescott's Supermarkets, said it has been offering desserts alongside fresh meals since the onset of the program about two years ago.

"We thought, if we're going to offer complete meals then they should truly be complete," he said. "It seemed to us that the meal was incomplete without the inclusion of a dessert."

Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a consulting firm in Dayton, Ohio, concurred, saying retailers are realizing that when customers come to them for meal replacement, they are in search of a full meal. Dessert, he said, is an important part of that selection process.

Brian Salus, president of the Richmond, Va., consulting firm Salus & Associates, pointed out that when the desserts are worthy, customers may very well choose them first and then build a meal around them as they would if they were in a restaurant.

"Without a doubt, [dessert] offers an opportunity for meal offerers to set themselves apart from the competition," he said.

Both Salus and Solganik agreed that virtually every retail food operator who offers a fresh-meals program does offer some kind of dessert item as an accompaniment.

Wozniak uses Prescott's in-store bakery for his dessert options and said he instructs bakery associates to be creative. The results, he claimed, are eye-catching desserts that are attractive to adults as well as children. He enjoys carrying unique items and believes that presentation and packaging play a large part in sales. "A popular item with our customers is our parfait cups," he said. "We use clear parfait containers, so that every layer of ingredients can be seen, and then fill them with items like cakes and various puddings, or fruit such as strawberries and raspberries. They are very attractive-looking and sell quite well."

All fresh-meals products at Prescott's are packaged in black containers for better presentation purposes and all baked goods offered as individual desserts are prepared at the in-store bakery.

Salus said this is a great way to showcase the talent of a good in-store bakery.

"The single-serve or smaller-portion desserts give customers the opportunity to try something new without the risk of purchasing a whole cake or pie and having it stale," he said. "There is great potential for cross merchandising with these two areas."

Wozniak offers sweet options ranging from mini pies to fruited crepes dusted with powdered sugar to cheesecake with a variety of toppings. The maximum sticker price for any individual dessert is $3.50.

"Our customers really like the single-serving idea," continued Wozniak. "This way, they don't have to purchase a whole cake or pie and end up with waste."

Wozniak further promotes sales of complete meals by creating the meal-of-the-week, and displaying it as it would look in the shopper's home. Each week he chooses an entree and dessert, and even an accompanying wine -- all designated the "meal-of-the-week" -- which are displayed in the fresh-meals section, and made to look like an actual place-setting at a typical dinner table. The entree and dessert are set out on real dishes so the customers can get a feel for what the meal will look like when they serve it in their homes.

Meanwhile, Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Markets only recently discovered the benefits of merchandising individual servings of desserts in the deli section. According to company officials, the single-serve desserts have significantly improved sales, bringing in at least seven times the sales they did when they were sold in the bakery area. (See "Dorothy Lane Serve-One Dessert Sales Get Sweeter in Deli," SN, July 13, 1998.)

According to Scott Fox, bakery director for the two-unit upscale independent, the idea for the single-serve, self-service program came from Shelly Eberly, bakery manager at one of their locations.

"It all started with customers asking for single slices of pie," he said. "We started out at that store with no more than two dozen pieces the first day, and they sold out."

Both locations now market wedges of pie, slices of layer cake and cheesecake, as well as individual apple crisps and dumplings alongside prewrapped sandwiches and chilled entrees. Weekly sales for the sweets are now totaling as much as $750 per store, compared with barely reaching $150 a week when they were sold in the bakery area.

The desserts are packaged in plastic containers with a fork or spoon attached to the side, held in place by its label. This allows the customer to get a maximum view of the item.

Fox told SN the idea is to get customers to think of the items as dessert -- a finishing touch to a meal, as opposed to just a snack.

"Since we started it, we have not staled on one item," he said. "Customers have told us they're happy we're offering them. They say it's convenient, that they don't necessarily want to buy a whole pie or cake."

Fox said the retailer is currently making plans to remodel both the deli and fresh-meals departments and will increase the single-serve dessert options at the same time. He said Dorothy Lane wants to offer more upscale choices like a slice of cheesecake with gourmet raspberry sauce or a brownie with chocolate mousse or chocolate sauce.

"Depending on individual sales, some items may be dropped," Fox added. "But the new items will be on par with what a customer would get in a restaurant."

In Phillip Potter's fresh-meals department, at a Tampa, Fla., unit of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores, the desserts may come individually packaged now, but this was not always the case. Potter said that originally desserts were bundled with the meals in TV-dinner fashion.

"This didn't allow for many options," said Potter. "We were restricted to items like candied sweet potatoes and warm cinnamon apples because the dessert had to coincide with the cooking time and temperature of the meal."

Potter soon abandoned this practice and has been packaging myriad single-serve desserts ever since. And customers are not just limited to service-for-one.

"If a customer wants just a slice, they can get just a slice," he continued. "But they are also welcome to purchase a quarter-cake or half-pie as well. Whatever their individual needs, we try to accommodate."

Potter added that a customer will often purchase a half-pie and ask for slice to be cut off immediately, so it can be eaten right there in the dining area, which provides seating for about 50 customers.

The desserts are merchandised in two cases within close proximity to the prepared-meal offerings. Here, the fresh-meals area is part of Winn-Dixie Marketplace's Food Pavilion power aisle, which includes features like a custom sub shop and Oriental wok station.

"We do a terrific lunch business," Potter said. "And the desserts are an easy sell."

He offers items ranging from a 2-ounce Jell-O cup that retails for 69 cents to whole pies made in-house that sell for up to $5. The unit also carries a great deal of seasonal items like strawberry shortcake and pumpkin and mince meat pies.

Potter said that in the approximately two years the store has been open, profits in the fresh-meals department have constantly been on the rise.

"Other areas of the store may fluctuate in their sales," he said. "But [meal replacement] has gradually increased from day one."

While most of Potter's desserts are made in-house, the unit does carry some whole pies that are brought in frozen and cheesecakes that come from an outside source. Stores may use an outside manufacturer to expand their offerings or if they lack an in-store bakery. One company that focuses on custom manufacturing and creative partnerships with vendors and customers is Palmyra, Pa.-based Ask Foods Inc.

Ask Foods is a privately held prepared-food processing company and specialty manufacturer of all-natural deli salads and desserts, soups, entrees and side dishes. Officials at the company said the dessert business has been picking up.

"We have seen the trend in the late 80s and early 90s where desserts were not as popular, but they seem to be having a resurgence in the last few years," said Wendie DiMatteo, chief executive officer for Ask Foods. "Dessert volume does seem to be slowly growing."

Ask Foods offers approximately 30 dessert varieties, ranging from gelatins and puddings to fruit cobblers and cheesecakes and the more exotic treats such as tiramisu and flavored mousses. DiMatteo said it is seeing more and more requests for prepackaged desserts in single-, double- or family-sized packages.

She added that when retailers come to Ask Foods they are generally looking for something special.

"I would say approximately half of the stores we supply desserts to have in-store bakeries," she said. "I believe retailers come to us for more customized specialty desserts that are difficult to make at store level, such as mousses, cobblers and crisps."

Typically, the individual retailer will decide the retail price for Ask Foods' items, but DiMatteo said Ask is often consulted for recommendations on price points and how much the "consumer will pay for these types of items."

DiMatteo believes that retailers will expand their dessert offerings in the future, a point Solganik agrees with.

"Most retail food-service operators do have some desserts in their programs," he said. "But probably not enough. This is a good opportunity for increased sales and should be taken advantage of."

"In order to compete with restaurants and other food-service options, retailers will need to offer their customers meal selections that include appetizers through desserts," said DiMatteo. "[This includes] finding the right dessert selections, as well as choosing the best packaging to appropriately display the items."

"Desserts are definitely a strong selling point," said Salus. "They present well, they market well and they can provide a tremendous sales boost for the fresh-meals department."

Salus will address the meal-solution opportunities available to the in-store bakery at the In-Store Bakery Executive Conference presented by the Retailer's Bakery Association, in Minneapolis this April. Back by popular demand, the conference will focus on trends affecting the in-store bakery, including its role in today's fresh-meal solutions.