Natural Foods Merchandiser

Customers deli up to meet dietary needs

It used to be that simply serving healthy, tasty food at a natural products deli was enough to keep customers satisfied. Not so anymore. Many of today?s naturals consumers are shopping with dietary restrictions. One only needs to look at grocery shelves to witness this growing trend—low-sodium, vegan, low-carb, vegetarian, low-fat and heart-healthy labels adorn more than a fair share of food packages. And if the store?s deli is not at least making an effort to serve these customers, it may be losing sales.

?People love being taken care of and when we make [deli] items for special diets, customers feel like they are being taken care of,? says Claire Criscuolo, owner and chef at Claire?s Corner Copia in New Haven, Conn.

?People with special diets have their own communities, and word gets out on where they can find the food that they?re looking for.?

And that group of individuals on restricted diets is growing steadily. The Vegetarian Resource Group puts the number of strict vegetarians in the United States at more than 5 million. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 18 million Americans are diabetic, 50 million have high blood pressure and 61 million have heart disease. Deli options such as vegetarian, low-fat, low-sodium and sugar-free should be well-received.

Items for specialized diets are a missing link for many delis, says Allen Seidner, principal of Thought for Food Consulting in Fairfax, Calif. ?I have clients telling me that drawing attention to wheat-free and vegan items works very well for them.?

For retailers unsure about whether they should create and market deli items for restricted diets, a survey may help. ?You could learn a lot about the special dietary needs of shoppers, and learn what you could do to serve them better and grow your sales, all because you paid some attention to it,? Seidner says. At Bloomingfoods Cooperative Market and Deli in Bloomington, Ind., marketing deli items for specific diets works well. ?At least half of the items are wheat-free, vegan or vegetarian, and the response has been overwhelming, incredible,? says Kai Krefelt-Stuart, deli manager. ?Many people say that it is the only place they can come to find [that item].?

Vegan, wheat-free and vegetarian versions of classic comfort foods are what customers buy at this Midwestern co-op. ?We did a lot of research and people wanted [a redux] of their favorites [from] when they were kids,? Krefelt-Stuart says. Instead of using labels such as vegan, Krefelt-Stuart now lists ingredients on deli item labels. ?We didn?t want to dissuade customers,? she says.

Currently the deli staff is creating more diabetic-friendly desserts, working with a local hospital for recipe development. ?As a specialty market, we need to be able to provide [special diet] items. It?s the job of a co-op,? Krefelt-Stuart says.

With Yale University across the street and the Yale Cancer Center not far away, Claire?s Corner Copia has been catering to customers with special diets for most of its 29 years in business. ?We?re a magnet for people with special diets,? Criscuolo says. The deli has items that are vegan, heart-healthy, dairy-free and kosher. All of the ingredients are listed on deli items except for the daily specials. ?The customer can ask the person who made [the daily special] what the ingredients are. Sometimes we have to call them at home,? Criscuolo says.

Her training as a registered nurse helps Criscuolo develop menu items. ?A lot of them are easy,? she says. ?We?re not going to make a cholesterol-free frittata, but we?ll offer low-cholesterol roasted eggplant instead.? The staff often starts with great recipes and simply figures out how to make them healthy. Criscuolo also has customers call in the morning to hear what?s on the menu that day and then order what they want, minus whatever they?re trying to avoid. ?In grocery, when people ask for a special item, you get it. It should be the same thing in the deli,? she says.

At the City Market Onion River Cooperative in Burlington, Vt., prepared foods manager Jamie Eisenberg addresses the needs of many dietary restrictions at once by always offering a plain rice and vegetable at the store?s hot buffet.

Eisenberg lists the ingredients on deli item labels herself. ?My doing signs as the manager has helped me stay in touch with what products we have,? she says. ?It really keeps you involved in the day-to-day stuff. Managers should hold onto that.? A retailer can take several routes to begin a labeling program for special-diet deli items. ?A real easy but quick-to-be-seen-as-amateur answer is colored stickers,? Seidner says. Retailers can place different colored stickers on deli items and then post a key. Or retailers can print stickers from their computers.

Common dietary restrictions
  • Low-sodium
  • Wheat-free
  • Vegan
  • Vegetarian
  • Nut-free
  • Dairy-free
  • Low-fat
  • Sugar-free or diabetic friendly
  • Cholesterol-free
  • Other options include a different colored border on labels representing certain diets or pre-labeled stickers made with a computer labeling program. ?The drawback is that when you have a green sticker for vegan, a yellow sticker for wheat-free and a blue sticker for low-sodium, it can start looking too circus-like,? he says. Going the bold signage route is not risk-free, Seidner warns. ?If you label this wonderfully delicious vegan chocolate brownie with vegan in big bold letters on the product, my mom is not buying it. But if it?s delicious and chocolatey and labeled chocolate brownie and then in the ingredients you say dairy-free or vegan, my mom?s buying it, knowing that it?s a double chocolate brownie.?

    Another approach is to offer customers a four-sided flier listing 10 low-fat or low-sodium deli items, Seidner says.

    For the retailer with $1,500 to $3,000 to spend, a scale with a labeler that will print many text lines is a good long-term solution, Seidner says. ?The first step is sitting down in front of that puppy and entering ingredients for each deli item along with a title, how much you are going to charge for it and a sell-by date,? he says. At that point, retailers can add terms such as vegan or low-sodium in bold letters after the ingredients. One plus with a scale labeler is that the items have a bar code so that sales of each item can be tracked, Seidner says.

    Anna Soref is a freelance writer in Lafayette, Colo. Reach her at asoref@

    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 5/p. 20, 24

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