When COVID-19 shut down food bars, including salad bars, retailers adapted operations to make up for the lost sales and plan for the future. From equipment considerations and innovation to consumer trends, retailers pivoted to meet safety and shopper needs.
Industry leaders from retail, equipment and grower-shipper-processor companies discussed the issues during three webinars organized by the Produce Marketing Association and the International Dairy, Deli, Bakery Association. Health authorities are certain the COVID-19 virus is not transmitted by food. However, food/salad bars involve shoppers touching common utensils and the bar itself, which are possible areas of virus transmission, hence the shutdown of self-serve bars. Here are some of the top insights from participating industry leaders.
- A return to some sort of ‘normal’ for salad bars will take about two years.
- Consumer confidence will be key to reopening self-serve bars.
- The pivot to prepackaged items helped retailers recover some sales lost when all self-serve bars were closed due to the pandemic.
- Repurposing salad bar equipment for a self-serve display of prepackaged items, allowed retailers to gain sales from this prime piece of retail real estate.
- A crisis such as this can drive innovation, provided companies listen to customers, speed up decision-making and increase risk-tolerance.
- The salad/food bar of the future may be a hybrid – some self-serve items and some prepackaged items.
- Robotics and automation will play a key role in the future.
- Consumers who make fewer trips to the store desire products with a longer shelf life.
- Though consumers are doing more cooking at home, convenience items remain important as they juggle work at home and school at home.
- Consumers continue to turn to familiar comfort foods as they did during the pandemic.
- Shoppers enjoy being able to customize their salads and will welcome self-serve only when they believe it is safe, regardless of when government authorities allow re-openings.
- Consumers are buying smaller quantities of everything as they are serving only their families at home.
- Some consumers shifted from the salad bar to bulk items to make their own salads at home.
- Data showed whole lettuce, tomato, and cucumber sales rose during the pandemic.
- Though consumers have focused on sustainability and reduced packaging in the past, the pandemic has caused their attitudes to shift to safety and packaged products.
- Food bars may be staffed by store personnel to offer customization to shoppers who place orders from behind a clear partition or extended sneeze guard – like at salad-specific or custom-sandwich restaurants.
- More labor will be needed for service, sanitation, and directing traffic flow to maintain shopper social distancing. Another option would be to have third-party kiosks in the stores handling salad prep.
- The impact of closed offices will affect lunch traffic at food bars in whatever manner they reopen. Shifts in traffic patterns may provide opportunities as well as challenges.
- Options for online ordering are important as that trend is here to stay.
- Grab-and-Go: Many shifted to more prepared, packaged salads as well as deli items to meet consumer demand for low-touch products. Prepackaged salads will be a growth area into the future.
- Non-salad options: Some retailers offered other creative packaged items for shoppers, such as a grilling pack.
- Packaging is key:
- Smaller, single-ingredient packs can offer the customization consumers sought from the salad bar.
- Formerly self-serve items are now being packaged. This may happen at the supplier level or in-store.
- Some retailers have had success by offering customer tips on how to make exciting salads at home by buying bulk items in the produce department.
- Some retailers expanded their premium and family-sized prepackaged salads to add variety for shoppers who could no longer customize their own salads in-store and want the convenience of no salad prep at home.
- Retailers face a wide range of regulatory requirements (state, county, city) –whether bars can be open, updated sanitation rules and shopper hygiene requirements.
Self-serve bar equipment
- Retailers pivoted to use salad bar equipment as additional refrigerated space for packaged and grab-and-go or even bulk produce items.
- Food bars are valuable pieces of real estate in the store, and retailers got creative: from merchandising the obvious – prepackaged salads – to beverage bars, including alcohol. Having risers or multi-deck options enhances presentation to the shoppers.
- Automation and robotics, such as robotic salad makers may gain traction in a post-pandemic world. Vending machines suffer from a consumer perception that their products are not fresh.
- Equipment vendors created inserts for salad bars that better accommodate packaged items. The inserts allowed refrigerated air flow to maintain proper temperatures. Hot tiles can be used to keep hot pre-pack items hot.
- Some companies have removed food bars completely. Some replaced them with smaller, mobile merchandisers.
- Equipment companies are innovating as well, looking for options to enhance safety and consumer confidence in open-air self-serve bars.
Contributing panelists included representatives from: 210 Analytics, Albertsons Companies, Carlson AirFlo, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Dover Food Retail (Hillphoenix), Gelson’s Markets, Giant Eagle, Hormel Foods, Hussmann Corp., Isabelle’s Kitchen/Salad Bar Tenders, The Kroger Co., Nestle, Sunset Food Mart, and Taylor Farms. PMA and IDDBA thank them for their insights.
The Future of Salad Bars at Retail Webinar: Processor and Culinary Professional Insights (August 20)
Salad and food bars remain closed or repurposed for packaged grab-and-go items or simple display areas. In this third and final webinar in the PMA-IDDBA Salad Bar series you’ll hear what fresh produce processors and retail culinary professionals say about the future of this important in-store feature. How the pandemic has changed their offerings and what’s on tap for ‘next’ normal. The panel includes leaders from Hormel Foods, Isabelle’s Kitchen/Salad Bar Tenders, Nestlé and Taylor Farms.
Webinar: Retail Panel (July 30)
Salad bars are an important component of many retailers’ offerings, but since the pandemic they have been closed. In this recorded webinar hosted by PMA and IDDBA, you'll hear from a panel of retailers as they discuss their insights on where salad and food bars are going over the next several months - from equipment issues to safety and labor - as we continue to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The retail panel includes leaders from Albertsons Companies, Gelson's Markets and Giant Eagle.
Webinar: Equipment Considerations (July 14)
Salad bars are an important component of many retailers’ offerings, but since the pandemic they have been closed. In this recorded webinar hosted by PMA and IDDBA, you'll hear from panelists from 210 Analytics, Carlson AirFlo, Dover Food Retail (Hillphoenix) and Hussmann Corporation, to understand the importance of salad and food bars and how equipment manufacturers are offering clever solutions to keep the bars useful to retailers and shoppers.