After enduring a significant blow during the early days of the pandemic, the future is once again bright for supermarket prepared foods.
Data shows shoppers are increasingly seeking the convenience of ready-to-eat meals or dishes available at their local grocery store.
But labor woes threaten to derail this progress by limiting the amount of food that an operation can prep and serve.
Prior to March 2020, prepared foods in the retail segment was a burgeoning market, with growth outpacing that of nearly every other kind of operator. But that came to a screeching halt with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions and safety measures led to the closures of most self-serve bars and the elimination or reduction of other selections.
But as those restrictions have eased and most consumers have adapted to a new normal in the day-to-day ways we shop and eat, the prepared foods section is poised for a rebound.
The International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA) predicts supermarket foodservice will be the strongest performing overall segment in 2021, 2022 and 2023. By 2023, supermarket foodservice is expected to exceed pre-pandemic numbers by 25%.
“Recent statistics are painting a much brighter future for [deli-prepared foods], which was one of the more promising fresh categories before the pandemic hit,” Supermarket Perimeter magazine reported one year after the start of the pandemic. “Data figures for March  show that deli-prepared sales were up 7.4% compared to March 2020, as well as greater than the 2019 pre-pandemic normal of 3.6%.”
Industry observers note that consumers are increasingly turning to prepared options as an alternative to at-home cooking and for events and gatherings.
“The stage is set for a strong rebound as more shoppers return to their pre-pandemic routines and create fewer meals at home,” Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics, a San Antonio-based market research and marketing strategies firm, told The National Provisioner.
By about mid-2021, the share of Americans who purchased grocery deli-prepared foods every few days or daily was 13%, about even with the pre-pandemic 2019 share of 14%, according to Supermarket News’ coverage of the 2021 Power of Foodservice at Retail report from FMI – The Food Industry Association.
To continue this upswing, delis must remain competitive with other foodservice outlets by offering appealing meat and poultry creations, industry leaders assert.
Labor issues challenge prepared foods growth
Despite the rosy outlook for prepared foods, the ongoing labor challenges may pose a threat to the execution, stymying growth.
Labor shortages, which have plagued restaurants and retailers alike for much of 2021, have forced many grocers to make adjustments to their operations like reducing store hours or closing certain departments earlier in the day — deli, seafood and butcher counters among them.
At least one grocery store owner says his customers want a self-serve option for hot foods, but he can’t provide it right now because of staffing shortages.
Other stores are reportedly unable to keep up with demand for products that are time-consuming to prepare, like freshly breaded fried chicken, and are limiting the amount made per day or simply removing them from the menu for the time being.
“Labor shortages are being felt storewide, but perhaps even more so in the fresh departments given the necessity of associates to not only prepare products, but also engage with the shoppers,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator at the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, in a recent webinar, Reimagining Deli & Bakery.
Labor-saving food preparation tools and equipment may offer some relief to this pinch.
“If the current trajectory continues, we could see greater use of automation for some department processes,” Richard continued. “A new trend might be focused on equipment and technology. Process-based, efficiency-based and convenience-based ways of ensuring that products keep up with consumer demand for them. That’s one possible solution.”
Reduce time spent on labor-intensive tasks with the kind of convenient and efficient equipment alternatives that experts recommend. Try these popular solutions from the food prep specialists at AyrKing:
- Breader Blender Sifter (BBS). The BBS is the ideal tool for operations that hand bread fried foods like chicken. The easy-to-use automated sifter cuts hand-sifting time by 80% and extends the life of breading mixtures, which can cut ingredient costs by up to 40%. Learn how the BBS helped one grocery chain keep up with demand while also saving more than $5,000 per year.
- DrumRoll Automated Breader. Take automation one step further with the DrumRull, an automatic breader that quickly and consistently breads fried foods of all kinds, from chicken breasts to pickle slices. Automatic breading is fast and requires little labor. See how one operation paired the DrumRoll and BBS to address labor shortages without reducing service.
- Mixstir – The Mixstir is a blender/mixer/stirrer that’s ideal for preparing batters, liquid seasoning mixes or any food item that requires constant stirring. (Bonus: Discover three steal-able ideas for using the Mixstir to boost efficiency and zhuzh up your deli menu to keep customers coming back.)