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Meet foodservice demands large and small in your health food storeMeet foodservice demands large and small in your health food store

Customers are seeking convenient, healthy prepared foods. And they are looking to their local health food stores and natural groceries to meet their needs. Here's how you can fill the plate.

8 Min Read
Meet foodservice demands large and small in your health food store
<p>Dawon&#39;s Market hot bar</p>

When concerns about food allergies, genetically modified ingredients and artificial preservatives first gained attention years ago, consumers headed back into their kitchens to make the meals they couldn’t find in restaurants. They looked to natural products stores to carry what were, at the time, specialty ingredients. But as healthy and allergen-free eating has moved to the forefront in recent years, availability of cooking ingredients isn’t enough anymore—shoppers crave ready-made convenience in the form of premade foods.

In fact, research from Jacksonville, Fla.-based Acosta Sales and Marketing shows that nearly 30 percent of shoppers step into a market solely to pick up prepared food.

Lots of stores are answering this call with comprehensive grab-and-go solutions. The Natural Grocery Company, which has served California’s Bay Area with two locations for more than 30 years, recently opened the doors of its latest venture: a 7,000-square-foot Prepared Food Annex, transformed sustainably from a paint store next door and connected to the company’s El Cerrito location with an array of solar panels. Inside, shoppers find coffee, tea, juices, an organic deli, artisan cheeses, sandwiches, salads, hot soups, pizza and even catering services. Bob Gerner, company founder and general manager, expanded his staff by roughly 40 percent to accommodate this effort; new employees include a wine buyer, café manager, pastry chef and even a cheesemonger. “You need to have a reason for people to come to your store,” Gerner says. “Our reason is thoughtfully prepared food that is organic, fresh and non-GMO.”

Although most natural products retailers unite successfully under the goal of providing fresh, high-quality foods, opening a café is a huge step for most. But don’t worry: Ready-made success can be found at any size. Every store can take a page from the Natural Grocery Company’s playbook and find a niche all their own.

Start small
Opening a foodservice section can be a daunting prospect, but there are practical ways for beginners to break in without breaking the bank. “To start, offer air pots of coffee and a hot soup station during lunchtime,” suggests Jay Jacobowitz, president and founder of Retail Insights, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based natural products industry consulting firm. “Then offer that soup prepackaged in pint and quart containers in a cold case for grab-and-go.” The trick, Jacobowitz says, is eliminating the need for dedicated service staff at the outset. Instead, prep can be done before the store opens and customers can serve themselves. And with the exception of refilling the soup or coffee, there is very little maintenance throughout the day.

Another entry-level option is to craft fresh sandwiches every morning, package them and sell them out of a cold case. “I wouldn’t consider making custom sandwiches to order until you have more than 400 transactions per day storewide,” Jacobowitz advises. To minimize in-store prep stations, consider outsourcing the soup or sandwich program to a local restaurant or caterer that can meet your ingredients standards. Growth from that point can include adding a dinner meal period, integrating a chef’s case or salad bar, and then hiring dedicated staff to provide service. “Retailers can address the growing call for fresh foods by starting with simple premade, self-serve options that are prepared daily in-store—not made to order, which requires on-demand labor,” he says. “This way, you minimize your investment and space requirements but begin to answer consumer demand for quick and fresh.”

Focus on your strengths


Another key to successful foodservice, however small or large, is to keep it in line with the values that attract shoppers to your store in the first place. Stores of any size can thrive in this area. In fact, a store’s modest size can even work in its favor, as it does for Old Town Natural Market and Deli in Pagosa Springs, Colo. “You can get organic food at other stores, but at the size that we are, we have such a connection with our customers,” says manager Celeste Caywood. “Customers can read the labels of grocery items and decide for themselves whether to buy, but that’s not the case with prepared foods.” Old Town Natural Market’s strength is its commitment to vetting and stocking organic foods, and shoppers visit its deli because they trust that these offerings also meet the store’s rigorous standards.

Rick Hood, owner of Ellwood Thompson’s Market in Richmond, Va., and Dawson’s Market in Rockville, Md., caters to health-oriented and vegetarian shoppers with a special interest in local eating, so his foodservice sections reflect that. “Our customers are intentional eaters, and they prefer plant-based foods,” he says. “So we have a lot of variety in our foodservice and a lot of vegetables.” Indeed, the stores’ offerings are extensive: custom-made sandwiches, full bakery, hot bar, cold bar, vegan bar, raw bar and more. Shoppers find comfort foods, allergen-free foods and low-sodium options among other quality offerings. But Hood always brings the focus back to his intentional eater. “We’re constantly reminding customers that we use local produce in our prepared foods,” he says. This is a tactic that retailers can use at any level of service, from a simple coffee bar to a full-service café.

Drive sales with educated staff


When it comes to prepared food sales, employees on the front lines with shoppers are perhaps a market’s best asset. And because natural products stores often set themselves apart by having educated staffs, they are well-equipped to continue that emphasis with foodservice. Native Sun Natural Foods Market in Jacksonville, Fla., supplements its social media and in-store café ads with a staff rollout plan. “We let our employees try our new additions for free one week before they roll out to the public,” says owner Aaron Gottlieb. “If your staff loves a new item and they market it to your current customers, it has a better chance of catching on.”

Employees are also an invaluable resource for Hood, who finds that relaying the stories behind ingredients is key to many café sales at Ellwood Thompson’s and Dawson’s Market. It’s a priority that his employees learn about the local farmers supplying the café’s ingredients so they can pass this knowledge on to shoppers—a tactic many natural products stores already employ to promote other items on their shelves. “If someone walks up to the counter and they’re not sure what to order, that’s a great opportunity for the employee to suggest what is fresh from a farm that’s only 10 miles away,” Hood says.

The Natural Grocery Company also finds success with this tactic. Shawn Adair, the company’s cheesemonger, visits farms to personally select which wheels of cheese his store will sell, and he has a stock of stories to tell shoppers as a result. “With thoughtfully prepared food you are providing nourishment but also inspiration,” says Martin McGrath, Natural Grocery’s deli manager. “Preparing a vegetable or meat in a way customers haven’t seen before can change how they view that food.” And it might even translate to additional rings at the register when they see similar items in the grocery section.

Keep it fresh


Getting shoppers to purchase prepared foods is one challenge; keeping them coming back for more is another. And while retail shops might find that consistency is the key to customer loyalty, the opposite is true in foodservice. “The reason customers come back day after day is that we change up our offerings,” says Hood, who travels to other markets and restaurants hunting for the latest trends. “I think what kills some stores’ bars is that they are always the same. People get bored easily and want change. So that’s what we focus on. It’s a little harder, but it works.”

Menu changes, which can be based on subjective tastes, are a science all their own, says David Clemens, store director at Des Moines, Iowa-based Gateway Market. “It is an ongoing process,” he says. “What our customers wanted when we opened seven years ago is not necessarily what they want now. Trends change, so you have to change with them.” Gateway uses comment cards, email feedback and day-to-day interactions with shoppers to collect this information. The reward is that the store’s foodservice accounts for nearly 40 percent of its overall sales.

So whether it’s installing a small coffee bar for the morning rush, adding sandwiches to the cold case or even opening a large-scale café, retailers would be wise to start thinking of how they can incorporate convenient grab-and-go options into their business plans. “Even with a simple self-serve menu, you can leverage your program into different platforms like the grab-and-go case to extend your fresh-foods identity,” Jacobowitz says. “If you can do something that is unique to your store, such as signature sandwiches or homemade soup recipes, you can inspire customers to think of you differently—and to return more often.”

About the Author(s)

Melissa Kvidahl Reilly


Melissa Kvidahl Reilly is a freelance writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering news and trends in the natural, organic and supplement markets. She lives and works in New Jersey.

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