How retailers are successfully reinventing the hot bar

Photo courtesy of Marché des Barons

At the height of the pandemic, when bars, restaurants and offices closed, most hot bars (and salad bars) in grocery stores across the country did the same. As a result, retailers have had to, you guessed it, pivot in order to continue to provide their customers with both convenience and quality, albeit in a slightly changed way.

“Even if you live in a state or region where remote working is still the norm today, you don’t necessarily need a hot bar to be successful,” says Jonna Parker, director of the Fresh Center of Excellence at third-party research firm IRI and frequent speaker on the fresh food market. “Now it’s over It’s more important than ever for retailers to assess their local market and, if there’s a less regular lunchtime work crowd, consider prepared foods that customers reheat and enjoy later.

In short, take-out is an important addition to hot and cold bars and a key part of a fascinating ready-meal experience.

“We’re seeing increased growth in deli / prepared products because people are starting to get tired of cooking from scratch,” Parker says. “Our most recent survey from October shows that we still eat 80% of our meals at home, but now people just want to reheat something rather than romanticize the making of sourdough.”

The closure of the self-service kiosks at the Barons’ Market, in particular, has resulted in a major shift in planning. “Our hot food bar, salad bar, olive bar and soup bar were key items in all of our stores, so when the pandemic hit and the local health department said we had to shut all of them down. our self-service stations, we had to rethink everything, ”says Rachel Shemirani, senior vice president of Barons Market, a regional grocery store based in San Diego, California.

In the past, customers of Barons Market’s hot bar were mostly those who stopped for lunch or dinner at the store, or at least shortly thereafter. “Now a lot of people go to the deli wall and have a bunch of ready-made meals for the week and then heat up at their convenience. This was especially the case when we saw recipe fatigue start to set in, ”she adds.

In the spring of 2021, Barons began to reopen its hot bars. “To our surprise, when we reopened our hot bar, people loved it,” said Shemirani. “Seeing hot bars and empty salad bars actually seemed to cause the customer more panic.

“The great thing about hot bars is that they engage all five senses,” continues Shemirani. “Especially if we have something aromatic like Indian or Asian dishes, the smell hits and people are excited about the food. It is a key element of the customer experience.

All-in-one inputs

Parker says today’s consumers want more comprehensive take-out options. “When it comes to foods that are selling a lot more than before the pandemic, what really stands out is the rapid growth of entrees or full meals for families and individuals,” she notes. “People want an oven-ready dish that is maybe chicken parmesan with a vegetable or other side included.”

The numbers don’t lie: A recent IRI study in September showed a 34% increase in sales of prepared meats compared to 2019 and “astronomical quarter-over-quarter growth after one year 2020 low, ”according to Parker.

“These ready-to-cook, turnkey meals seem to be the evolution of the meal kit phenomenon,” Parker explains. And even though these dishes are refrigerated, “they’re usually found along the perimeter of the store or in the deli crate, not just frozen, so there’s a feeling of freshness.”

The Save Mart companies based in the Bay Areaalso capitalized on the trend. “Our hot bar menu offerings are constantly evolving to meet the tastes our customers are looking for, especially since they are confined to their homes during the pandemic,” says Josh Zodikoff, Senior Category Manager, Catering. “We have created simple, family-friendly meal offerings for our hot bar menu and created simple, family-friendly on-the-go meals with the goal of satisfying our customers’ desire for hot, healthy and quick meals. Innovation is at the center of The Save Mart Companies, so our offerings will continue to evolve to meet the wants and needs of our buyers.

Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas has also addressed this growing need for in-home convenience.

“We all need easy meal solutions and a break from our overworked family kitchens. Our prepared food department has therefore focused on meeting customers where they are with a variety of meal solutions, ”says Molly Siegler, Senior Director of the Whole Foods Program for Culinary Development. “In locations across the country, we offer heartwarming family meals, appetizer salads for easy lunches, hearty snack boxes, hot on-the-go pizzas, and fully prepared meals and dishes to add to holiday traditions. established.

The retailer also plans to launch a new and expanded range of ready-made meals in 2022, including lasagna and quiches for easy reheating, Siegler said.

Health and balance

A mix of comforting / indulgent and healthier options along with offerings that combine the two for a more balanced approach is the name of the game when it comes to hot / cold bars and prepared food sections today.

While self-serve hot bar offerings at Save Mart and Lucky California stores across California and northern Nevada have closed due to the pandemic, the retailer’s full-service hot cases have remained open and they have been expanded to offer additional healthy offerings to include items like baked chicken and vegetable sides.

“Our customers want simple, easy meals that are balanced with protein, starch and vegetable, and that also taste great and are affordable,” says Zodikoff. “Our most popular meal is our three-tip dinner, which is served with roasted red potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts, all made in store. Another of our favorite customers is a combination of our Grilled Chicken, Lemon Linguini Pasta, and a Roasted Broccoli Mix.

Whole Foods has expanded its line of healthy prepared foods, both on reopened self-service hot bars as well as in chilled cases for reheating later.

“We focused on special diet offerings and comfort food because we saw demand for both from our customers,” says Siegel. “Our hot bar menus consistently feature paleo and keto-friendly options as well as vegan options, so there really is something for everyone.” For example, a mac and cheese is creamy with mashed butternut squash instead of dairy.

Flavors of the world

Parker says that in addition to the healthy and comforting offerings, it’s crucial for retailers to include items that offer “taste exploration” for customers in the prepared foods section.

Barons Market has long capitalized on its customers’ penchant for Indian and Asian offerings, Shemirani says. “Each day we present a different theme – it can be Indian, Asian or Mexican, all of which are very aromatic and offer a lot of variety to our customers.”

Most recently, Shemirani said customers were “very excited” about the direct line barbacoa, which is served with tortillas for make-your-own tacos. The chow mein-themed hot bar also continues to do well, as do “American” favorites like ribs, mashed potatoes and wings for game days.

“Right now we have supply issues so we have to get creative and try new things that we might not have tried before, but our customers appreciate the variety,” said Shemirani.

Going forward, the secret to the success of hot (and salad) bars will continue to lie in this balance between ready-to-reheat and reheat and reheat offerings. For Barons, “the hot bar is the final frontier of touch, feel, visual and smell that constitutes the complete customer experience in the grocery store,” explains Shemirani. “The food is so community driven and literally brings people together. ”

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