Opportunities At Hand For Produce Sold Within Supermarket Prepared Foods


With menus, restaurants are challenged with incorporating fresh produce based on seasonality and availability. It just requires planning menus accordingly, says Steve Petusevsky, a consultant to more than 20 top national retail and natural food supermarkets in the United States, and former national director of creative food development at Whole Foods Market.

But for supermarkets on a much larger scale, it’s a different story, says Petusevsky. “You’re dealing with tens of thousands of customers a day at a supermarket. It’s a huge difference. There’s plenty of room to experiment, if you’re serving thousands of people a day, it gives you the opportunity to monitor and test innovative dishes.”

There’s always going to be a level of expected foods people want, such as the classics — rotisserie chicken and lasagna, and mashed potatoes — and then, according to Petusevsky, there’s two tiers above that. “Instead of a basic rotisserie chicken, you’ll have an Asian sesame hoisin chicken and a Mediterranean lemon lavender chicken, and then there could be a tier above that, such as a duckling with a tangerine soy glaze. Retail foodservice that doesn’t appeal to the masses as well as to particular guests loses out because those foods will be purchased somewhere else. But appealing to the mass market doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be great.”

Encino, CA-based Gelson’s Markets uses a team process in formulating menus, says Paul Kneeland, executive director of fresh operations. “Our corporate executive chef is part of our R&D team, developing new programs and products, and also our staff dietitian has her own line of salads in our cases — Jessica’s salads — based on the Mediterranean diet of fresh produce, proteins and olive oil,” says Kneeland, emphasizing that fresh produce is increasing in prepared foods, especially organic.

“My team at the CIA is talking about leadership and leading the industry, so it can be a bit more on the bleeding edge, but in addressing the business side, we’re always trying to focus on developing strategies that can work for people in their operations, and not just pie-in-the-sky ideas,” according to Jackie Chi, director of programs and special projects-strategic initiatives, at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, Napa, CA.

There’s a business case for developing great menus in a prepared foods program. “It’s a super competitive landscape, with a lot of consolidation, mergers and acquisitions going on. We think the leaders are the ones that treat retail foodservice as a differentiator. What leaves supermarkets behind in the space of prepared foods is not keeping up with the diversity in flavors and innovation,” she continues.

“There can be a lack of knowledge, attention and care to more produce-forward recipes and cooking. It’s harder for a rote operation to get more produce into prepared foods because there are fewer people who know how to execute a produce-forward program. That’s why it’s important to get culinary people who are trained and who can execute a program like that,” says Chi.

Clearly, if you’re going to do an aggressive prepared foods program, you need culinarians, agrees Petusevsky. Large retailers have a vice president of culinary, director of culinary or culinary innovation, he explains. “Independents may have an executive chef, but it all depends on their expense structure and how much prepared foods they do.

“It makes a huge difference…. I was doing a project for a year in Indiana with a retailer that had no chefs, no culinary director or culinary staff, yet it wanted to build its prepared foods. It had a real traditional deli that only served basic salads, sliced deli meats and cheeses and plain roasted chickens. I created 10 signature items and trained the cooks on how to make them and repurpose the ingredients to extend and maximize their use.”

Training is ongoing at Pavilions, and one of the challenges faced, not only at its stores and across its other store banners and in the retail industry as a whole is employee retention. “If you look at the constant training required because of new recipe innovation and seasonality, we can go through a process where we have our in-house cooks up-to-speed and they’re all on track, and all of a sudden we lose one, and lose another one, and we’re going back to the beginning,” says Deborah Jones, Pavilions sales manager, service deli, prepared foods. “Ideally the goal is to have a backfill of those who understand our program and a partnership with our fresh food teams within our four walls of brick and mortar…It’s very, very challenging.”


“Produce suppliers can help Publix build our prepared foods by ensuring we understand your capabilities and new innovation you are working on that you think aligns with Publix,” says Maria Brous, director of communications at Publix, based in Lakeland, FL.

Growers/suppliers participate in the R&D process, according to Paul Kneeland, executive director of fresh operations at Encino, CA-based Gelson’s Markets. “I think it works much better when we are aligned in our goals. It makes for much better synergies and alignment through innovation. For example, it’s tangerine season, and we’ve already developed a pixie tangerine salad,” notes Kneeland, adding Gelson’s also worked with the California Avocado Commission on some recipes for its kitchen.

“We work with Melissa’s to develop recipes across the store for Hatch chiles out of Mexico in August and September, and we do quite well with that,” he says. “For example, we’ll sell them fresh and roasted in the produce department, then in the seafood department with the salmon burgers and in the meat department Hatch chile cheeseburgers and sausages. In the Gelson’s Kitchen we may have a tomato salad with Hatch chilies, and even corn bread with Hatch chilies merchandised in the produce department.”

According to Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Los Angeles, “Many retailers like Gelson’s have really done a great job of inclusion of Hatch chiles in several dozen different recipes across different departments.” Such collaborations extend to other products on a seasonal basis. For instance, “We do a Zest Fest, which includes a lot of the different citrus varieties from December through March. We see many retailers implementing Zest Fest promotions, blood oranges, tangerines, varieties of grapefruit beyond the typical highlighted in prepared foods recipes.

“Our products are all being procured through the produce department for inclusion in retailers’ prepared foods. It’s all going through produce as a bulk order,” according to Schueller. “The produce department is being forced to supply the other departments, whether it’s Hatch chiles that go into the prepared foods, in the deli, or the meat department, because they’re going to make Hatch Chile sausages.

“The produce buyer, produce director, and produce manager are the experts for procuring the produce needed for the store,” adds Schueller. “The chefs are making the orders through the produce department, so there’s the whole culinary aspect behind it,” he says, noting, “You want efficiencies.”

Some retailers have warehouse kitchens. In this case, Melissa’s ships the product to their warehouses, and then from there it gets distributed to each store. And some of these warehouses have culinary kitchens where they’re prepping. Not all stores are like that. Usually the bigger retailers have the warehouses and the culinary kitchens prepare product before it gets to the store. But at smaller stores the products arrive at the stores where they’re preparing them, he explains.


Grocery retailers have come a long way in the prepared foods segment over the past 4-5 years, says Dennis Christou, vice president marketing, Del Monte Fresh Produce, tracing progress and development back to the emergence of various meal kit delivery companies. “While the initial wave of this model has fallen off some, the overall concept has not been lost on many major retail chains today. In fact, certain groups have partnered with some of the meal kit delivery services, incorporating their concepts inside the retail stores.

“We have also seen a direct reflection in store where chains have expanded upon their prepared foods segment with a variety of options targeting consumers ranging from the single individual all the way to family-size portion,” adds Christou.

“We’ve worked with meal kit companies in the past. Now major retailers are doing Blue Apron-style and grab-and-go meal kits in-house and coming to us asking for certain packs to incorporate, such as a five-ounce bag of broccoli cauliflower florets to fit in this meal kit,” says Crystal Chavez, marketing coordinator, Gold Coast Packing, Santa Maria, CA. “On the deli side, we’ve also worked with retailers and distribution companies that want a salad kit or fresh-cut vegetable foodservice packs. We have our own production facilities and innovation team here to customize products, and we’ll go and talk to the deli chef, and work with the retailer to get out in front as they plan their menus.”