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Tell your food story with prepared foods

Involve mission and marketing to help customers understand the thought and effort that goes into your foodservice offerings.

Steven Petusevsky

December 12, 2016

4 Min Read
Tell your food story with prepared foods

When I see tremendous efforts from a culinary department but little customer messaging, I think of the adage of the falling tree in a forest. Does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it? Just as the sound doesn’t exist without an ear to translate the sound waves, foodservice offerings don’t sing without a shared story. Without it, a potential consumer might never know the skill and thoughtfulness that go into your menu and simply pass it by. I recently worked for an operation that used all organic and non-GMO ingredients, and sourced local dairy products from cows never treated with antibiotics and hormones. The well-prepared meats and cold cuts were all made in-house from the same quality ingredients.

Problem was, no one would ever know this. The department nearly failed because the prices were much higher than traditional markets. The ingredients were more expensive, yet all the customer saw was expensive food.

Help customers understand the effort that goes into your finished product and why you go the extra mile.

Every deli tells a story

All of us in retail know that establishing an individual identity is dependent on telling a clear story about our product mix. The result will cause customers to fully appreciate what they purchase from us. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a piece of fruit, coffee beans or chef-prepared foods. The difference is, telling the story about prepared foods is much more complex than disclosing the origin of a seasonal fruit. This is why the marketing department is an integral part of the success of almost every major company I work with. And these messages aren’t simply for the benefit of millennial shoppers either. Universally, people want to know many things about their choice when they place something in their basket.

Related:Optimize your fresh prepared offerings

Even a simple salad tells a story with dozens of chapters. Just consider the ingredients alone; it might have more than 20. Although many are simple stock ingredients, others may be from an heirloom species of grains; the fat used in a recipe may be from sustainably harvested coconuts; or dairy may be from cows not treated with growth hormones and antibiotics. You may want a customer to know that the greens were from a local farm or the chopped eggs came from cage-free chickens.

How the story emerges

I always study a company’s mission statement when I begin a menu engineering project. Your culinary prepared foods program is one of the most visually telling examples of your store’s reason for being. If you have a glass deli case, which most stores do, the finished product you are offering tells a story before any signage is even placed.

Related:Put an egg on it! 5 flavor trends for foodservice in 2017

An entire story does not need to appear on a deli sticker or packaging, but your story somehow has to appear within each department and be echoed on the finished menu item that leaves the store.
For example, if your company is dedicated to a healthier planet and adopts more sustainable practices, then your cuisine needs to reflect more plant-forward items, nutrient-dense menu choices and proteins that are sourced carefully and raised with care. This means that not only does the procurement department have to be involved, but the kitchen has to follow through on its end, and then the signage and packaging needs to broadcast this to your customers.

Sign of the times

Signage is a strong visual of your story. Many places I work for now use digital signage to communicate their message. Although it’s more expensive than blackboards and other forms of signage, it allows flexibility and control of your message. Your company probably has a "look" already, but the prepared foods department can have its own identity and look to fit your branding. If starting a prepared foods department for the first time, pay special attention to the font and menu badges that indicate things like vegetarian items, gluten free, local, etc. Consider separate menu boards that talk about your local vendor partners, suppliers, ingredients that you’re especially proud of or anything that you think will influence a customer’s purchase decision.

Make sure that the signs are large enough and can be read easily from where a customer stands and orders. Although this sounds obvious, I have seen this go wrong on many occasions.

So, the moral of the story here is that storytelling will enhance the shopping experience of your prepared foods. It can bring food to another level completely. In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

About the Author(s)

Steven Petusevsky

Culinary Innovation

Chef Steven Petusevsky is nationally known as a pioneer in the pairing of health and exceptional taste. His culinary studies have taken him across the globe in search of innovative and authentic cooking techniques. Robust earthy flavors and vibrant cuisines capture the influence and unique reinterpretations of the ethnic dishes he is famous for creating.

Chef Steve was the National Director of Creative Food Development for Whole Foods Market from 1990 to 2002. He wrote the book on natural foods, quite literally. He is the author of The Whole Foods Market Cookbook – A Guide to Natural Foods with 350 Recipes published by Clarkson Potter in fall 2002.

Since 2002, he has worked as an outside resource and industry consultant to innovate or create food service programs for major retail and restaurant chains and institutions including Google, Lettuce Entertain You Group, UCLA, UMASS, Roundy’s, Mariano’s and Lucky’s Markets, among others. His passion and expertise in “plant forward” and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine remains the central focus of his work.

Petusevsky is a celebrated food journalist. His monthly column entitled Inspired Vegetarian for Cooking Light Magazine ran for more than four years and he continues to write special features for the magazine. His weekly syndicated column Vegetarian Today, written for The Chicago Tribune news service, was published in hundreds of newspapers across the nation for more than a decade. His work has also been featured in Health, Fine Cooking, the LA Times Syndicate, Food & Wine and Restaurant Hospitality.

His recently published books, The Diabetes Vegetarian Cookbook and Sizzle and Smoke: Diabetes Friendly Recipes for Charcoal, Gas and Stovetop Grills were published by the American Diabetes Association in 2013 and early 2014.

Petusevsky is currently a member of the Menus of Change Advisory Board for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and co-chair of the CIA’s Appetites & Innovation initiative, a national leadership collaborative created for the purpose of advancing culinary excellence, health and wellness, sustainability and cultures of innovation in retail foodservice.

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