So long, salad bar: Grocers get creative, consider robots to revive prepared food amid pandemic

Key Points
  • Grocers and industry watchers say self-serve bars may be gone for awhile, and perhaps forever, even as consumers return to more typical buying patterns.
  • That's sparked creative solutions and new safety measures.
  • At Publix, salad bars and hot bars have reopened, but employees dish out each item. Wegmans moved hummus, olives and more behind the counter. And at H-E-B, some coolers carry prepared meals from local restaurants.
Texas grocer Central Market turned salad bars and hot bars into packaged food displays during the pandemic.
Source: Central Market

Grocery stores have shut down self-serve salad bars during the pandemic. They've taken away displays of fresh olives and dips. And they've replaced giant kettles of ready-to-ladle hot soup with sealed to-go containers.

The deli and prepared food areas that used to draw traffic to stores and differentiate grocers have fallen from favor as customers worry about the spread of the coronavirus, cook more from scratch and try to limit their time in stores.

Grocers are trying to revive those parts of the store with new approaches. At Publix, salad bars and hot bars have reopened, but employees dish out each item. Wegmans moved hummus, olives and more behind a counter where cheese shop employees fill orders. And at Texas-based H-E-B, some coolers carry prepared meals from local restaurants and a former food bar became an ice chest of beers.

Companies and industry watchers say self-serve bars may be gone for awhile, and perhaps forever, even as consumers return to more typical buying patterns. That's sparked a need for creativity, said Randy Burt, managing director at global consulting firm AlixPartners that focuses on consumer products.

"You're going to need more than sneeze guards," he said. 

A sign on the Hot Food Bar reads "The salad, soup, and hot bar will be closed until further notice. Thank you, Mgmt" at the Redner's in Wyomissing, PA Monday afternoon March 16, 2020 where employees are working to keep in-demand items in stock with concerns over novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
Ben Hasty | Reading Eagle | Getty Images

A major traffic draw

Prepared foods, from coleslaw to rotisserie chicken, have long been staples of grocery stores. They especially surged in popularity during the 2008-2009 recession as Americans looked for ways to skip cooking, but watch the budget, said Jonna Parker, leader for fresh food insights at market research firm IRI.

Higher-end or specialty grocers -- such Amazon-owned Whole Foods, Publix and H-E-B's Central Market -- use their wide array of prepared foods to stand out in a crowded field. By offering quinoa salads or Mediterranean dips by the spoonful, they tried to entice customers to walk through their doors — and hopefully nudge them to fill up their shopping carts with eggs, milk and other staples, Parker said.

Sales in those parts of the store have had a steep drop during the pandemic as salad bars shut and shoppers bought items with a long shelf life, such as canned beans, rice and frozen foods. Sales of deli prepared food declined by 47% in mid-April, compared to a year ago, according to IRI, but have been improving by a few percentage points week after week since then. They were down by about 27% the last week of May.

She said salad bars and prepared foods face other headwinds along with germ consciousness. Even before the pandemic, the growth rate of prepared foods had started to wane, according to research by IRI. Sales of deli prepared foods grew by nearly 9% in 2015, compared to the prior year. That fell to about 1% in 2019.

Parker said consumers got bored with grocery stores' variety and in some cases, preferred to order takeout.

Many Americans are still working from home, limiting social gatherings and juggling a lighter-than-usual schedule, too, she said. That means consumers do not need a grab-and-go meal to scarf down between the office and a child's soccer practice or cheeses or olives to put together a charcuterie plate for a party.

She said she hopes the pandemic inspires grocers to make the prepared food department more exciting. For example, she said, they could tap into the rise of online grocery shopping by suggesting bundles of side dishes and entrees or help support local restaurants by featuring their specialties.

At least one grocer, H-E-B, is already carrying meals from local restaurants in cities like San Antonio and Austin.

From self-serve displays to behind-the-counter

At Central Market in Texas, prepared foods are a big part of the draw. Customers usually help themselves at large displays of pastries, prepared salads and salsas.

Phil Myers, director of foodservice, said store employees moved quickly in March to shut down those areas. They  packaged their many self-serve items, including the grocer's more than 40 varieties of olives. 

Hot and cold bars are now filled with pre-packed foods like croissants and fruit salads. 

"We are all about the customer experience, so it's important that those visuals remain strong," he said. "A shut down salad bar that's all steel and dark is not inviting."

Instead of using a salad bar, customers can order a customized salad from an employee wearing a mask and gloves who puts together their lettuce, cherry tomatoes and more behind a chef's case, he said. Instead of a kettle of soup, cold soup is prepacked or available hot from an employee.

Demand for prepared food like breakfast tacos and sandwiches initially plummeted, but has picked up again — a sign, perhaps, that people want a break from cooking and dishwashing, he said.

Florida-based grocer Publix reopened its cold and hot bars in mid-May. It has them in select stores. An employee now stands nearby in a mask and gloves and provides service, said Maria Brous, the company's director of communications.

She said the company doesn't know if or when the self-serve feature will return.

Customers can order custom salads or entrees from Sally the Robot, a foodservice robot made by Chowbotics.
Source: Chowbotics

Robots, salad kiosks and more 

For some companies, closed salad bars have created new opportunities. California-based Chowbotics previously marketed its foodservice robot to hospitals and college campuses: Two places with a strong demand for healthy and tasty meals at all hours, the startup's CEO Rick Wilmer said.

The robot, dubbed Sally the Robot, holds up to 22 ingredients. It can put together a range of menu items from a Greek yogurt muesli bowl to a pineapple blueberry upside-down cake. 

Each robot costs $35,000, including training, maintenance and marketing, he said.

Customers order on the robot's touchscreen, get a bowl and put it under the dispenser. Items typically range from about $5 to $11, Wilmer said.

As coronavirus cases spread, business at colleges ground to a near halt and dropped off at hospitals, Wilmer said. The start-up looked around and saw the need at grocery stores, he said.

He said Chowbotics has signed three grocery store deals, and it has pilots underway with others. He said it's accelerated development of an app that allows customers to order on their own smartphones and scan a QR code at the robot rather than having to press the robot's touchscreen. 

As eating in the store cafe loses its luster, he said grocers want the robot to make entrees that customers can buy and heat up at home.

Restaurant franchise Saladworks has opened kiosks in some ShopRite stores.
Source: Saladworks

Restaurant franchise Saladworks was expanding in grocery stores before the pandemic. It had four locations in ShopRite stores and planned to open another 20. 

"When Covid happened, the phone pretty much started ringing off the hook," CEO Kelly Roddy said.

He said the company is in talks with grocery chains and recently signed a deal with a large grocer, but isn't yet permitted to share its name.

Saladworks rents the space and pays the kiosks' staff. Behind the counter, employees put together salads for customers with their preferred lettuces, dressings and toppings. Salads costs about $10 apiece.

Like other restaurants, Roddy said its nearly 130 stores had to shutter during stay-at-home orders. Yet its salad kiosks remained open and had about the same demand, he said.

"Somehow a salad tastes better when somebody else makes it," he said.

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