DAYTON, Ohio -- Hot food definitely has a place in supermarket delis.
That is one of the findings from a survey of 27 deli executives representing 2,000 supermarkets conducted by Solganik & Associates, a supermarket consulting firm based here.
"Contrary to what I may have thought in the past, hot food is not dying. It's just getting more focused and directed," said Howard Solganik, president of the firm. "It's alive and well and growing."
He said rather than the hot food presentation of years past, which was typically slacked-out frozen entrees sitting in a case, today's hot food is more focused and has a more ethnic appeal.
Of the 27 retailers interviewed by Solganik, only one said he did not have a hot food program in the deli. The survey was conducted in October and November for Eaton, Ohio-based Henny Penny Corp., a privately held equipment manufacturer that makes chicken fryers, among other items. The retailers represented in the survey include the leading chains in the country as well as much-admired independents in different U.S. markets.
The retailer who did not have a hot food program cited quality control and food safety concerns as the major decision not to have such a program. On the average, the survey findings showed, companies have some type of hot food program in 75% of the stores they operate.
Some key points emerged from an open-ended question in the survey: How do you see hot foods changing in the future?
Chicken will remain the top draw to retailers getting into hot foods and will remain the backbone of many program menus, the report noted, adding that there will be many more meal options and side dishes to go along with it.
While quality of menu items is
improving, there is a need for ongoing consumer education. "Many a prospective customer is unaware of the availability of 'good,' ready-to-eat items in the supermarket. And if they do know that products exist, they are not convinced that the quality is there," the report said.
There will be an increased emphasis on food courts and cook-to-order programs, respondents indicated.
Convenience is the major factor in the growth of hot foods. While there will be an increase in "immediate consumption" items, the report said, "there will also be an increase in the number of ready-to-heat offerings."
The survey also asked specific questions about preparation, sourcing and product trends.
In terms of preparation, 31% of the retailers surveyed used central kitchens for their programs. By far the most common method of preparation is use of a cook at store level, the study found. Some 81% of those surveyed said they had cooks at store level.
The store-level preparation creates a major labor challenge, Solganik said. "Retailers are building these new stores and they can't find people to do it," he said.
Solganik said he favors limiting in-store preparation to a few key items such as pizza and chicken, and turning to local suppliers to do the rest.
Many of the chains surveyed said they operate more than one type of hot food program. The most common menu theme is what Solganik terms "American Basics." The basics include hamburgers, fried chicken and pizza. Oriental offerings were the second most common, with 65% of respondents providing that kind of food; Italian came next, with 46% of the retailers surveyed offering it, and 42% said they had Hispanic items on their menus.
The report said 35% of the retailers surveyed had "light" fare on their menus.
In terms of the number of items retailers see as ideal in a prepared foods mix, 42% of the retailers surveyed said they like to offer their shoppers 10 or more choices. Thirty-five percent said they think one to five items is the right number, and 23% of the retailers interviewed said they offer five to 10 entree items.
Self-service appears to play a big role in conjunction with hot food programs. Some 69% of the retailers surveyed said they offer the same hot food menu items as ready-to-heat items in a refrigerated self-service case.
As for the future, 62% of those surveyed said they have plans to expand their existing hot food programs, by increasing menus or meal choices, and by ethnic offerings. Asked about the future of hot foods offered in self-service merchandisers, 84% of the retailers questioned said they thought there would be growth.