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Stand out from the competition with smart tips from three experts.

Melaina Juntti

June 6, 2018

5 Min Read
How can retail foodservice compete with fast-casual restaurants?

Today’s consumers increasingly want good food on the go, and they have more choices than ever from which to get it. With the rise of fast-casual chains and more quick-service restaurants offering healthier options, how do you compete? As a natural products retailer, you have a unique opportunity to deliver delicious ready-to-eat meals along with other groceries shoppers want to grab fast. And if your foodservice is really solid, it can become a draw. How do you make your foodservice stand out from the competition? Here are nine pieces of advice.


Start small, test, tweak. When establishing your initial menu, you don’t always know what will sell and what won’t, so start small and have the flexibility to make adjustments. It’s easier to start small and add more menu options later than to offer a huge array and have to take some away. Also, when we added made-to-order recently, we were challenged with figuring out the flow. What would be the best processretailer-roundtable-bart-yblonsky-headshot.png

for ordering? One idea we contemplated taking from fast-casual restaurants was kiosks to make the ordering process more fluid. We ended up having a large menu shoppers can see, as well as small menu cards that let them write their name, check off what they want and hand the cards to us.

Offer both signature and DIY dishes. We found that half of our customers want to be able to come up to the window and pick every single ingredient in their dish, while the other half can’t decide for themselves. That’s why our stores have both build-your-own and pre-planned dishes. Offering a specialty salad, sandwich or bowl really helps when you have unique ingredients that aren’t familiar to everyone.

Train staff well. Consistency is super important, because when a customer orders a sandwich, they want it made the same way every time. But there is so much finesse in sandwich-making that it could turn out differently depending on who makes it. You can minimize this through proper training. We also want our staff to explain why our ingredients are higher quality, highlight what we make in-house and talk about our local products, organic ingredients and antibiotic-free meat. Staff needs to understand these attributes and convey them to customers so they’ll see that we offer more value than the competition down the street.

—Bart Yablonsky, director of operations at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Richmond, Virginia, and Dawson’s Market in Rockville, Maryland

Consulting chef

Know your demo. One of the most important things I talk about is the menu matrix: Does your overall menu offer something for everybody? Will it appeal to a broad spectrum of shoppers? When I begin working with a client, the first thing I always do is examine the local demographic. I won’t create a menu until I really understand it because I’ve learned over my 35-year career how much geography influences the menu matrix. The demographics in Wisconsin are different than they are in California, so know your customers well and really think about what they’ll actually want. Don’t cook for yourself—getting caught up in your own ego never benefits anybody.steven-petusevsky.jpg

Make sure food is eye-catching and tasty. If food isn’t appealing to the eye and delicious, it doesn’t matter if it’s healthy—people won’t eat it. Many retailers rely too heavily on saying their foods are better for you. Now, if an item is gluten-free or non-GMO, that is an important part of the story and a key to your foodservice success. But even despite those positive attributes, the food has to taste good. So many of the recipes I developed for Whole Foods Market starting in 1990 are still being offered. That’s a testament to food tasting good—if it didn’t, it wouldn’t still be on the menu.

Be patient. Retailers need to be realistic about expectations. Developing a good prepared foods program doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an evolution and a growth process, not an immediate return. You need to understand that. Overall, be really honest with your clientele. Once you figure out what your guests want and need, execute it honestly. If organic ingredients are too expensive and you don’t feel customers will pay for it, don’t do it. Just don’t bend to pressure or do anything because you think you should.

—Chef Steven Petusevsky, retail foodservice consultant, cookbook author and former corporate chef for Whole Foods Market

Food service design and operations consultant

Offer a variety of engaging programs. The first thing I do with a new design project client is develop a program plan that will right-size the operation with an engaging mix of programs. For many, this means sporting several self-service programs—grab-and-go, food bars, etc.—and from there, either sprinkling in or slathering on a few full-service programs. Recently, I’ve been putting in a lot of bowl, taqueria and expansive beverage programs, and many stores are executing these as swiftly and allen-seidner-headshot_4.jpg


Create exciting menu boards. Each of your service programs deserves a menu board that markets your standard and unique offerings. Make it as concise as is practical, and have it outline very clearly how shoppers can customize your menu options. Attractive, easy-to-understand menu boards that showcase a tight variety of flavorful made-to-order options do not cost a lot, but you’ll be reluctant to spend money every time you want to tweak your menu. Better yet are handsomely presented video display screens that, once installed, cost nothing to update.

Try wireless vibrating pagers. For your made-to-order sandwich grill and other longer-wait-time programs, give customers wireless paging devices that vibrate when their order is ready. Whenever wait time exceeds 3 to 5 minutes, staff should already be inviting customers to shop and come back in X amount of time. This is an underappreciated opportunity for customers to relax and enjoy shopping while they wait, which is great for their spirit and your sales, but also for the other customers waiting to approach a busy station. With paging devices, which will cost you just a few hundred dollars, you further encourage shopping.

—Allen Seidner, principal at Thought For Food Consulting, specializing in prepared foods department design and operations consulting for independent natural products retailers and co-ops

About the Author(s)

Melaina Juntti

Melaina Juntti is a longtime freelance journalist, copy editor and marketing professional. With nearly two decades of experience in the natural products industry, she is a frequent contributor to Nutrition Business Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser and Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music. 

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