Raising the Bar

–By Rebekah Marcarelli

Success with prepared food comes from more than just a delicious spread.

The demand for hot food fast is on fire. However, consumers’ needs—and penchant for speed—doesn’t mean grocers can toss some meat and vegetables into a food bar and call it a day. As the space becomes more competitive, retailers need to keep up by stocking the most desirable, on-trend foods while using the correct advertising tactics to get these crave-worthy attributes noticed.

Food bars provide retailers with a unique opportunity because they represent a stand-alone occasion rather than a requisite grocery shopping trip, says Bill Chidley, partner in ChangeUp, a retail design firm based in Dayton, Ohio. However, he notes, food bars tend not to live up to their full potential because they are often underpromoted and suffer from a “proposition deficit,” which Chidley defines as a lack of clarity on how they can create value for the shopper.

“That value needs to be clear and compelling enough to change shopper behavior,” he says, citing the importance of getting shoppers to consider the retailer as a relevant alternative to restaurants or packing a lunch.

Retailers often try to outmaneuver each other on execution and variety instead of strategic choices, Chidley asserts. To that end, he believes many could benefit from institutional store-level training—such as optimizing what is offered to reduce shrink and spoilage—to counter the prevailing attitude among many, which all too often are “selling to the converted.”

Communicating Ideas

Focusing on overcoming purchase barriers such as cleanliness and freshness is not enough, nor is “relying on what is on the bar and how it is merchandised to create new behavior,” Chidley says. “Setting the bar in a location that assures visibility is important,” he adds, but is also not enough. “Retailers need to think through who they want to attract, and appeal to the shopper’s emotions with a communication idea that influences the shopper to rethink and re-evaluate their current solutions.”

Chidley believes success can come from a new understanding of the targeted shopper, which will help retailers communicate a better value proposition. For example, he says, shoppers don’t think of eating a meal as by the pound, which is typically how salad and hot foods bars work.

Pricing strategies can indeed be a powerful tool to help communicate value to shoppers. Central Market, a banner of San Antonio-based H-E-B, has a sprawling olive bar with a staggering number of varieties, each labeled with a detailed description, such as: “Greek Olive Mix: A blend of Greece’s favorite varietal olives. A classic crowd pleaser.” The retailer makes this feature even more appealing with signage that proclaims “Olive Bar Is One Price” in large letters. This tactic communicates value to the shopper and also saves them the chore of having to decide which olives meet their ideal price point.

Landis Supermarkets, a five-store retailer based in Telford, Pa., has taken desirable pricing a step further by offering a fresh buffet, including Sunday brunch. The buffet has a modest price of $8.95 for lunch, $11.49 for dinner and $9.49 for brunch; children ages 3 and under are always able to eat for $4.99. The retailer also promotes the buffet by offering 10% off for seniors on Wednesdays and kids night on Tuesdays, in which all children under the age of 11 can eat for free with the purchase of an adult buffet. Landis has plans to roll out a free birthday buffet program in the near future.

Healthy and Fresh

Another hot phrase that could be converted into a communication idea is “better-for-you,” but Chidley says it must be framed emotionally versus rationally. He suggests using phrases such as “Do your lunch budget a favor” or “Farm-to-table for lunch” to catch shoppers’ eyes.

Some retailers are already wise to this idea. For example, Kroger’s Chicago-based Mariano’s stores label soup bars with the callouts “Hot and Steamy” and “Ladle Up Some Comfort” and adorns its salad bars with high-visibility “Fresh” signage that urges shoppers to “Pile it On.” Whole Foods has also made use of this strategy with a self-service food stand called the Healthy Eating Bar. In the same vein, Vancouver, Wash.-based Chuck’s Produce advertises its hot soups as “Healthy and Delicious.”

Chidley says communicating these ideas to the shopper is crucial in today’s marketplace, where food bars are a common fixture that can often fade into the background.

“I don’t believe that ‘convenience’ is compelling because everything today is either on sale or convenient, hence too ignorable,” Chidley says. “Depending on the retailer, the proposition should align with their broader brand, but my recommendation is that bars need a ‘why’— not merely a ‘what’—to increase their business potential.”

Directing Traffic

As retailers lose market share on center store items, the necessity to drive quality, fresh products is essential, according to Christopher Latta, marketing manager at Muskegon, Mich.-based Structural Concepts. He believes the term “foot traffic” is just another way to say “shopper loyalty,” which is coming at a premium these days.

Latta suggests adopting a customer-centric strategy to provide an eating destination that supports the quality and variety they crave. “Retailers need to start rethinking in terms of community-based approaches rather than just regional,” he says. “What one neighborhood may find to be the flavor of the week, the next over may not. For operational success, knowing your customer is key.”

A Whole Foods in Dallas, for instance, has a food bar with “Self-Serve BBQ,” including a spread of barbecued meat and all the regular fixings. City Market in Burlington, Vt., offers healthy options, such as Cilantro Ginger Tofu, Baby Bok Choy Kimchee and Moroccan Meatloaf.

“Bottom-line growth has been the biggest trend in food bars,” says Ernst Goettsch, president of Woodridge, Ill.- based Fri-Jado Inc. “Consumers are demanding more stores have a prepared foods program and one that supports their ever-evolving eating habits. In general, our communities are rapidly diversifying culturally, bringing in new foods and experimental palates. Combine the shifting demographics with the fast-paced nature of our lives and you quickly see the rise of grab-and-go, prepared meals and take and-heat meal solutions.”

However, according to Latta, a retail foodservice program is just one piece of a multifaceted approach to building value for customers. He emphasizes the importance of offering variety and higher-capacity displays, which he says has become a leading way to support customer needs.

“A higher capacity, along with upping the amount of fresh offerings, has shown significant growth potential for numerous major retailers,” Latta says. “A truly successful food bar program [that] has a top-notch fresh department portfolio goes a long way to telling the food story to your customers and building the loyalty that drives traffic.”

Breaking the Bolts

Adaptability is another important factor in keeping food bars relevant, says Goettsch: “Why bolt a food bar to the floor for the next 20 to 30 years?”

Goettsch says a alternative solution is to invest in modular food bars and standing displays that can easily be moved around the store to meet the changing needs of shoppers. This also allows retailers to use trial and error to determine what is the best placement for each display. For example, are shoppers more likely to make themselves a fresh salad after walking through the produce section, or will it better catch their attention near the sandwich counter?

“This can be achieved by use of modules that can be attached together; modules that are dotted around the store at target locations; island-type pieces of equipment on legs or even on casters for ease of use, cleaning, service and shopper offering at [a] particular time [or] place in the store,” Goettsch says.

Are Meal Kits the Food Bar’s Enemy?

As more and more retailers experiment with meal kits, such as Kroger’s Prep+Pared program, are they also diluting the hot bar’s relevance for dinner occasions? Chidley believes the two concepts may be in direct competition with each other, and operators may need to make a choice. “Retailers will ultimately need to decide which deserves the investment—hot bars or meal kits—because the shopper may not be able to associate the grocery with two different easy-meal offerings simultaneously,” he says. “The shopper will weigh in on this over the next 12 months with their wallets.”

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