ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Americans continue to cook more at home than they did before COVID, said Heather Prach, vice president of education for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., who spoke at IDDBA 2023, the association’s annual trade show that took place in Anaheim, Calif. Citing a recent IDDBA survey, she said 50% of consumers are mixing scratch cooking with fully or partially prepared foods when cooking at home, a trend that represents a strong opportunity for in-store deli innovations.

“The hybrid meal has taken over America’s kitchen,” Prach said. “Home-cooking burnout helps the (deli) department.”

Jonna Parker, team lead-fresh, Circana, Chicago, said, “Within the total deli department, deli-prepared foods were not only the biggest seller, but the aisle also had the best year-on-year growth performance.”

Deli-prepared foods include everything from heat-and-eat meals and sides to cold sides, prepared sandwiches and all types of salads, such as green, pasta and whole grains.

“Deli-prepared foods only had mild unit pressure of -1.4%, in sharp contrast to deli meat that dropped 6.1% year-over-year,” Parker said.

Prach said, “Affordability is one of the big pillars for deli-prepared foods. At the same time, consumers love deli-prepared foods for their wide variety, convenience and healthfulness.”

Prepared premium chilled side dishes are where the action is in 2023, based on new innovations from exhibitors at IDDBA. The beauty of the products is consumers perceive them as being made fresh in the store daily, which eliminates some of the guilt of not making it from scratch and helps save time in the kitchen.

The in-store deli’s biggest competition is fast-food and quick-service restaurants. The edge that the in-store deli has over foodservice is the ability to offer a greater variety of fresh products from both the self-serve case and deli counters. It provides an opportunity for more flavor adventure. A chicken taco salad, for example, may be merchandised between an Asian noodle dish and capri skewers.

Deli department operators are focusing on a varied product mix and, just like how the shopper relies on the retailer, the retailer relies on its suppliers. This insight was apparent on the expo floor and innovation showcases where “fresh” prepared foods took the spotlight.

Don’s Prepared Foods, Schwenksville, Pa., markets itself as “doing the work for the deli department operator.” The company even provides merchandising and recipe suggestions to take sides and salads to the next level for the grab-and-go case.

Some of the company’s newest offerings include adobo rice and beans and Korean barbecue green beans made with authentic gochujang.

“The new line of clean label and global-inspired gourmet vegan and vegetarian sides and gourmet cheese spreads enables operators to bring global side dishes and meal solutions straight to the customer,” said Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development.

Consumers find value in such prepared foods. Not only do they save time, in the end, it saves them money and reduces food waste. After all, it’s impossible to prepare just a half-pound of one of these dishes at home. Prepared fresh foods satisfy flavor cravings in “just-the-right-size” servings.  

That’s a value today’s shopper wants. Nine out of 10 consumers said they are making some changes to save money when buying groceries, according to IDDBA research. About a third of consumers are buying smaller packages, while 38% are buying larger packages to save money on a “per-ounce” basis when shopping for larger households.

Reser’s Fine Foods, Beaverton, Ore., recognizes this and offers various sizes of its branded packaged hot and cold side dishes. With a trademarked tagline of “We make it from scratch so you don’t have to,” Reser’s is focused on innovations for the deli counter. Some of its newer offerings are multi-component side dish kits that the deli counter operator combines prior to displaying or packaging for the self-service counter. The curried chicken salad kit, for example, includes fully cooked chicken pieces intended to be mixed with a sweet and spicy yellow curry sauce and garnished with cashew pieces. The side has a 15-day shelf life once prepared.    

The in-house program from Taylor Farms Deli & Prepared Foods, Salinas, Calif., is called “Behind the Glass” kits. These are easy-to-assemble deli counter salads in offerings such as a Mediterranean pasta, which includes fully cooked bowtie noodles, sundried tomatoes and spinach that the operator tosses with a sweet basil dressing and garnishes with shredded Parmesan cheese. The superfood salad is shredded kale, toasted almonds and blueberries that gets tossed in a pomegranate blueberry dressing. The company also offers deli operators a variety of green salads, meals, sandwiches and snacks that may be sold behind the glass or packaged in store for grab-and-go convenience.