Natural Foods Merchandiser

Does Your Deli Case Say ... Spring?

The warm breezes of spring now blowing through most locales inspire the regenerating power of change. Blossoms begin to peek out from the once gray and dreary earth. Many retail storefronts are decorated with tulips. The forsythias and daffodils in floral departments send a seasonal signal as well.

But ask yourself this: As your customers look into the deli case, what message does it convey? What does your deli menu selection say to customers?

If done well, the prepared-foods case can be a primary visual window for expressing your store's personality. Most retailers carry the same lines of nonperishable goods. Even in stores with the resources to employ a creative in-store merchandising person, the prepared foods case is often neglected. But this is one area where you can make a truly unique statement to set your store apart.

First and foremost, a well-landscaped deli case should reflect the season. Creating a seasonal visual concept in your store will likely resonate with customers interested in eating with the seasons and supporting local farmers. These issues, along with sustainable agriculture, are finally gaining attention in mainstream media and by an increasing number of consumers. By displaying and serving spring produce, you show commitment to these issues and to relationships with local growers. A well-run prepared-foods section can reveal the store's dedication to important issues and boost sales.

This time of year, dishes should contain at least some of springtime's freshest ingredients. Imagine a large platter of artichokes or artichoke hearts alongside vivid green asparagus spears; or perhaps pasta with peas, parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. When customers walk the length of your prepared foods case, the items should shout "fresh," "now," "spring" and "Can I please have a plastic fork because I can't wait to get this home before I dig in!"

Ingredients that scream "spring" include arugula, baby bok choy, watercress, spinach, sorrel mushrooms, snow peas, culinary herbs, burdock root, fiddlehead ferns, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, radishes, scallions, strawberries and sugar snap peas. Also think about incorporating spring-season maple syrup and honey or grains such as buckwheat, cornmeal and wheatberries.

Dishing up a seasonal menu is easier than you think. Make cornmeal polenta either plain or add more flavor with fresh herbs, parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes or spinach. You can make polenta in large baking-sheet pans and cut it into squares or diamonds for an attractive presentation with the season's freshest produce. Polenta can also be layered and stacked to make vegetable lasagna or deep-dish casseroles.

Wheatberries are wonderful as a salad ingredient, adding a pleasant nutty flavor and chewy texture to pilafs, soups and stir-fries. Use maple syrup in rice puddings and to sweeten any dessert. Include information about these ingredients on your deli case signs to educate and reinforce the seasonal message.

Asparagus is another harbinger of spring—your deli-case display would not be complete without it. Simplicity is the key here. When spears are steamed or boiled, then "shocked" in cold water to preserve the brilliant green color, and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice or a bottled vinaigrette, a dish of asparagus says spring is in the air—or at least on a platter in your deli case.

Seasonal focus doesn't begin and end with produce. Clear-based sauces lighten up the menu mix. Rather than using lots of mayonnaise or dairy-based dressings that mask a salad's identity, choose vinaigrettes, which are endless in flavor possibilities and reinforce a fresh, seasonal look.

The menu can be crafted in other areas, too. Offer more poultry items, such as Cornish hens, and lighten the menu with white-fish, such as flounder, sole, trout and whiting. Even tilapia and orange roughy are economical choices. Top delicate filets with an herb and bread-crumb, walnut or sesame topping, then bake the fish for a simple seasonal dish with effective margins.

Spring also coincides with both Easter and Passover holidays, which can be conveniently tied into your menu promotion.

An obvious way to add seasonal flair to your prepared-foods display is by garnishing the case with blossoms. The floral department should have lilac, daffodil, lavender, magnolia and forsythia blossoms.

Chef Steven's Tip of the Day:
Some deli kitchens might not have fresh artichokes or skilled culinary team members to prepare them, but there are options. Most kitchens buy artichoke hearts in #10 cans. If prepared properly, they still say spring. Drain and grill or marinate canned artichokes and sell them as tapas or appetizers. Combine canned artichokes with cooked pasta for a seasonal salad. Use artichoke hearts in dips, on sandwiches or as pizza toppings.
Changing seasons, certainly, can spark creativity, but I'm also an operational realist. Many natural foods retail operations do not have a full-production kitchen. The store's prepared-foods program budget may not support employees with the skills needed to conceive and create fresh seasonal offerings. In many cases, the cooks are producing under pressure, and they cannot approach menu changes creatively as often as they'd like because the responsibility of merely getting food into the case takes priority.

If this is the situation in your store, a creative breath of sorts needs to be taken. Store operators must take time to meet with the cooking staff and give attention to the sales power that a thoughtfully crafted menu can create. Seasonal menus do make economic sense. Seasonal ingredients are in abundance, making them less expensive. These fresh ingredients are also at their peak of nutritional value, thus providing more benefit to consumers.

Just as department store retailers have white sales signaling season change, we also need to showcase spring's arrival by placing its bounty directly in the customers' faces. Changing your prepared-foods menu with the seasons is a creative outlet for diversity. Aside from establishing a unique statement for your store, it clearly indicates sensitivity toward your customers and what's going on in the world around us.

Chef Steven Petusevsky is a pioneer in the marriage of good taste and sound nutrition, successfully pairing healthy ingredients with creative cooking techniques. He was formerly the national director of creative food development for Whole Foods Market and is author of the Whole Foods Market Cookbook, (Random House, Summer 2002).

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 85

Celebrate Spring With Salad

Asparagus And Artichoke Salad
Yield: 20 pounds Light up your case with this adaptable springtime salad. Delicious add-ins include sugar snap peas, blanched carrots, cooked basmati rice or pasta.

2 cases asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 3-inch lengths
1 #10 can quartered artichoke hearts
4 pounds plum tomatoes, cut into slices or wedges
10 medium yellow squash, sliced 1-inch thick

Steam or blanch asparagus for 3-5 minutes until tender, but still al dente. Immediately shock in ice cold water and drain.

In a large mixing bowl, combine asparagus, artichoke hearts, plum tomatoes and yellow squash. Salad may be stored in containers for up to two days before mixing with vinaigrette. Drizzle with Lemon Dijon Vinaigrette to serve.

Lemon Dijon Vinaigrette
3 cups extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup Dijon-style mustard
3/4 cup honey
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup dried lemon peel
Salt and lemon pepper to taste
2 cups chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, tarragon, oregano, basil or parsley (just parsley will work, if you prefer)

Combine ingredients in a large bowl. Blend with a wire whisk or an immersion blender. Dressing may be kept refrigerated for up to one week.

—Steven Petusevsky

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 85

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