Deli Signature Flavors—Your Private Label


On a day our hot bar menu promised we would be featuring spanakopita, we found ourselves short of spinach. My spirited chef quickly thought to substitute broccoli, and the florets captured more of the buttery cheese flavor while adding a pleasantly firmer texture. Customers raved about it, and from that day on we made broccolokopita. And if you could pronounce it we let you buy more of it!

Large natural foods retailers are whipping out new private label items at a rapid clip. Whole Foods Market recently reported that fully 16 percent of its nonperishables sales are from its own brands. And Trader Joe’s is virtually built around the draw and strength of its private-label products. In many cases these are standout products with clean, top-quality ingredients. They are artfully packaged, well merchandised and deliver excellent flavor profiles.

With competition like that, what’s a cooperative grocer to do? Focus on flaring up the creative flavors coming out of your private label department—more commonly known as your prepared foods department. No other store department has as much potential to build a flavor-based relationship with your customers than does your deli. To be sure, every department has opportunities to enhance its presentation, selection and customer experience. Produce can source fresher, tastier product from local growers, for example, and all departments can find ways to distinguish their product mix from that of your competitors. But no department has the license, facility, staff, and opportunity to explode sales with flavors that solidify customer relationships the way your foodservice department can.

We remember flavors and they are a powerful influence on where we choose to spend our food dollars. When I’m in western Connecticut, my taste buds seek the scrumptious macadamia crusted salmon at New Morning Natural Foods. I’ve seen them sell a full bakery sheet of this aromatic recipe even before it’s cooled enough to go into their deli case. Customers cheerfully fork over around $20 a pound for this flavor they can’t buy anywhere else.

When I’m in Albuquerque, I pick up a handful of La Montañita Co-op’s black gold cookies. At $1.79, foodservice leader Chris Maher acknowledges, “They tend to sell out faster than we can keep them on the shelf.” And it’s no wonder, because these big chocolate espresso chocolate chip cookies are highly habit forming. Maher says some customers have admitted trying to imitate them at home and have still come back to buy them. “Our signature items in the deli have strengthened the relationships with our customers — where people have to come to our co-op deli to get the things they have fallen in love with,” Maher says.

How do you go about creating more signature flavors? “A lot of what I do is try to find a specific flavor to stand out, or just to make the overall flavor experience more vivid,” says chef Mani Niall, founder of Mani’s Test Kitchen, which specializes in food-related research and development and new flavor profiles for restaurants and manufacturers. “For example, I’m crazy about smoked paprika. You can get it sweet and you can get it hot, and it also looks pretty. It really has a lot of flavor. The smoked gives you much of the flavor of chipotle, without the heat.”

I’ve savored every luscious bite of what the River Market Co-op in Stillwater, Minn., calls the Caesar Chavez sandwich. It has slices of juicy grapefruit surrounded by Swiss cheese, avocado, red onion, lettuce and a splash of vinaigrette on a crunchy rice bread. As Niall says, “anything acidic, like lemon juice, helps accentuate the flavor that much more vividly. And that works for anything.”

How do you come up with some new prepared foods as private label items? Niall says the job of creating signature flavors can be as simple as “seeking out really specific ingredients for things you’re already making.” The mac and cheese my chefs prepared once a week for our hot bar, for example, was made with Gorgonzola cheese. And it was just that tweak that had our customers eating up and talking about our mac and cheese.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that, at least initially, foodservice sales are as much about appearance, packaging, and merchandising as they are about taste and healthfulness. Naturally, taste is critical in generating repeat sales and in achieving signature status. But appearance, packaging, and merchandising are much more important in making the initial sale. Attention to the visual details, such as blanching and cold shocking veggies for a pasta salad, are critical.

Just as much as you’re attentive to your niche wheat-free, raw foods, and vegan markets, be sure you’re going after the market for yummy foods that the mass of shoppers will eat. Remember that 80 percent of your store’s shoppers are looking for delicious, creative versions of mainstream foods. One bite of the lemon bars my pastry chef invented was enough to hook any dessert fan. (See recipe sidebar.) They were definitively sweet yet slightly tart, with a soft upper layer and a buttery firm crust. You couldn’t buy this incredible taste anywhere else, and our customers bought them up at the rate of about three dozen a day, adding roughly $20,000 in annual sales. We had to be careful when we chose to sample them so as not to generate demand without our having sufficient stock.

Each season’s menu offers you a fresh opportunity to focus on creating a handful of great new flavors. Set as a seasonal expectation for each of your cooks that they provide a dozen specific new ideas for products. I used to offer my cooks their choice of paid time off the clock or some desk time on the clock to generate new menu ideas for the coming season. If you inaugurate creative work for your autumn menu early in the summer, you’ll have plenty of time to test, taste, perfect, price and source ingredients for the new items you’ll introduce for fall in September. Then, come fall, you’ll be ready to work on new signature flavors for the winter season!


Allen Seidner is principal of Thought for Food Consulting (415-257-8815 or [email protected]).