Delis Battle Sodium

Delis remain popular, but operators are working to make them healthier.

Few foods taste better than a well-made sandwich, and despite the traditionally high fat and sodium content of many luncheon meats, delis’ popularity continues unabated even in an era of growing health consciousness.

Take Bayonne (N.J.) Medical Center for example. Bob Lewandoski, director of food and nutrition services, returned last year to the hospital in which he was born to transition foodservice operations from contract management to on-staff. One of his initiatives has been to brand a retail café in partnership with meat purveyor Thumann’s, which promotes its deli counter line as trans fat free and low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

“We’re in an urban area with a lot of delis that deliver, so we had to have a brand name because our customers are very quality conscious,” says Lewandoski. “We call it The Healthy Deli and we provide nutritional information on all our products.”

Keeping customers in: Bayonne is home to many “mom and pop” delis. “It was hard to compete,” he notes. “Our staff used to go out or order in for lunch. Now, they don’t. We renovated the café and do everything branded. A lot of deli items are very low in fat—roast beef, turkey, chicken and even ham.”

The operation “looks like a small display counter—a curved glass, five-foot-wide refrigerated counter with wrapped sandwiches, and a full ham, roast beef and turkey with the brand name visible, uncut. We had to raise our prices, but nobody complained although they’re [usually] very price sensitive. We do a sandwich of the week at a discount daily and serve around 500 retail meals a day.

“People haven’t perceived deli as healthy, but dietitians know that a sandwich with a light schmear of mayonnaise is better for you than a burger and fries,” Lewandowski adds. “We improved sales quite a bit. We work hard to bring in the customers.”

A “pressing” solution: At Unidine, the Newton, Mass.-based contractor, Director of Culinary Services Paul Booras meets demand for grab-and-go items from customers with pre-pressed, ready-to-go panini sandwiches.

“We pair them with a choice of housemade side salads to get away from the chips and fries,” Booras explains. “We do a simple cucumber salad, tabouleh, spicy black bean or roasted corn succotash. It’s a great way to add interest to the traditional combo meal as well as introduce new menu items and/or flavor profiles.”

Unidine is rolling out a breakdown of core menu offerings at the deli and grill with nutritional posters that show exact nutritional values so guests can mix and match items to build the caloric value of a specific sandwich, he adds.

At Penn State University in University Park, Pa., Mark Kowalski, executive chef, does toasted subs and wraps made to order and even makes his own sub rolls. “Paninis are really popular and we sell a lot of them,” Kowalski says. He uses a number of different breads, pretzel rolls and ciabatta rolls for specialty sandwiches.

Deli all over: At Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., which typically does 12,000 transactions a day, Gary Cole, associate director of culinary, offers a signature sandwich—the Silo—that’s become a student favorite. “We serve them cold and hot. The dressings don’t run out [of the sandwich] because we cut off the end of a loaf of French bread, hollow it and roll the filling into it.”

Deli plays a big role on the Washington State campus in different concepts, from Northside Café with its pita sandwiches to the Hillside Café, which will introduce panini sandwiches this fall.

“We’re introducing sandwiches on flatbread as a healthy option,” Cole notes. “We do a meltdown concept on a press, or not, as the student wishes, and we’re doing chicken fajitas with flatbreads to drive healthier choices.”

Sharon Briel, foodservice director at Kern High School District in Bakersfield, Calif., doesn’t offer deli sandwiches daily because of the meats’ high sodium content, although she says “students would like it every day.

“We do deli two or three days a week, but we’ve tried to move away from traditional deli meats,” Briel explains. “Our California standard is 1,200 milligrams of sodium, so we do a low-sodium turkey breast. The favorites are a chicken sandwich and an Asian gourmet salad with chicken, soy dressing and Mandarin oranges. Our deli is not the fastest line because everything’s made fresh. We do about 150 sandwiches and wraps at lunch.”

Dennis Dittfurth, foodservice director at the 191-bed Northeast Methodist Hospital in Live Oaks, Texas, strives “not to re-invent things,” and lets customers build their own sandwiches. “I look at Whole Foods and other delis,” he says, “and see what goes and what doesn’t. I try to have turkey with dressing and cranberry sauce to ‘build your own’ sandwich. What is a recipe? Pulls out one ingredient and it becomes something new.

“I like to say you have planovers, not leftovers. Is there a way to use something in another service area? You can end up with things not typically considered, like taking vegetables with Italian dressing, sun dried tomatoes, squash and shredded Parmesan for a vegetarian offering.”

Scratching sodium: In the Framingham, Mass., School District, Chef Brendan Ryan offers a full service deli serving panini, grilled and toasted sandwiches and two hot sandwiches a day. “Variety,” Ryan declares, “equals a larger percentage of consumption. At the high school, we do about 1,100 lunches a day.”

He admits the high sodium content of many deli items is a concern, but “whenever you deal with processed meats you have that, and it’s hard to get low sodium items at the price level we need. We make about 75% of our food from scratch, which lets us control sodium, but it’s always a problem. It’s the hardest thing to control because sodium is in cheese, processed meats and bread, and it adds up real fast.”



Developing Delis


Two operators used different approaches to offer more variety in deli options. 

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - DelisMenu strategies are all about meeting customer needs and driving traffic, and different companies and institutions employ different tactics to satisfy those goals.

For Barry Schlossberg, corporate director of nutrition services at Continuum Partners’ Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, the issue involved finding space in the lobby to add a salad bar.

“Our big challenge was finding the space. We’re a large medical center with 600-plus patients and a couple thousand employees and a lot of competition. There wasn’t enough space.”

Making space: The solution involved a major renovation and shift from ready-made, refrigerated food to a grab-and-go café that Schlossberg says serves “fresh prepared products—fresh pastrami, corned beef, brisket and turkey. We moved the seating across the lobby. Our architect helped us add the self-serve salad and soup bar, smoothie area and deli station. Now, we do 250 dinners a day with six or seven entrées. Everything is prepared in the main kitchen and held in built-in warming units.”

The staff, Schlossberg adds, “gave us positive reviews. Our location is everything. Now we do 80 to 100 fresh sandwiches a day. We knew the café had the potential to draw more customers.”

Partnership: Sodexo’s Development Chef Chuck Hatfield says they partnered with the National Mango Board and the California Avocado Commission to create deli concepts with a value focus.

“We developed sandwiches—a barbecue chicken with mango and avocado on ciabatta and some ‘minis’ like a junior roast turkey and avocado to drive down prices,” he explains. “We created a Basics line designed to let customers build their own bag lunches, which are paired with fruit and a drink. It’s $5 to $6 for the package.”

Deli sandwiches, he points out, “can be comfort food, especially in this economy. We wanted choices with healthful ingredients and ethnic flavors. The challenges were maintaining the check average, keeping our costs low and providing quality. Sodium content was one of the biggest [issues], so we worked with vendors to develop lower-sodium bread and meat products.”

For its Simply Something To Go program of sandwiches and salads, the company created premade items packaged in Kraft wedge boxes “for a brown bag feel. We’re working on hot subs and also grinders and paninis with two of three ‘mini’ varieties. For the hot sandwiches, we’ll look at classic entrées like meatloaf that can become a sandwich.”



Getting Smarter


East Street Deli program satisfies desires of savvier college and corporate diners. 

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - DelisCustomers are smarter today about what they eat, says Dave Freeland, a 20-year industry veteran in higher education and resident district manager for Parkhurst Dining Services at Bucknell and Saint Francis universities in Pennsylvania. Two years ago his company revamped its East Street Deli program with a strong focus on sandwiches, wraps, paninis, freshly made chips and special toppings. Freeland talks about the impact of the change.

“Our emphasis was on freshness and variety. Our deli is split into two areas, one with wraps and the other with actual deli sandwiches. Sodium content is a concern, but that issue has been more prevalent in our B&I accounts. In one, we try to promote healthier eating options by putting all the healthiest items first on our menu to try to steer customers to those.

At Bucknell and St. Francis, we see students becoming very savvy and demanding nutritional information. Right now, we’re implementing a new system that gives both serving size and the number of calories for every item. We put the information on the packaging for grab-and-go items in both our B&I and college and university accounts. We’re working on making the information more accessible from our Web site or in kiosks.

The challenge in deli is keeping variety in the menu. We get a lot of feedback from our guests and try to keep on the cutting edge of what’s out there. We have a lot of international students and students from large metropolitan areas, and they challenge us. 

Customers are looking for all the different breads in deli and a variety of spreads, and there’s a lot of carb and calorie consciousness. Both Panera and Atlanta Bread Co. have helped change the concept of deli and the expectations.

We use Turbo ovens for toasted sandwiches and have six kinds of meat and four cheeses, plus some vegan soy-based cheeses. At Bucknell, deli is the most popular station. We have 10 different kinds of hearth-baked breads and rolls. Wraps are also extremely popular, so we’ve increased the variety we offer. At all our locations, we can heat grinders or wraps. All of our sides in the deli, like potato salad and coleslaw, are made from scratch.

We market a lot of limited-time offers with specials that the chefs and general managers choose. Sometimes we have them for eight days or we’ll do a daily special. We also do combos of half a sandwich with soup.

We have our slicers right on the line so customers can see us shaving the meats and cheeses in front of them. That perception of freshness is good. Our turkey, for example, is always roasted whole. Also, 25% of our produce comes from our Farm Source program.

In our B&I accounts we see the same customer needs and demands for quick, nutritious food. We try to make our products a little different by heating or grilling them. Our ability to customize the sandwiches is very important. We like to provide that customization. The demand for healthy is there and now, with our new availability of nutritional data, that can help our guests become more informed about what they’re eating.

Today everybody’s very cost-conscious. In all of our operations, the price-value relationship is very important. We’re always making decisions based on that.

Convenience is a huge factor in the way we market. The perception we create is important to let customers know that the $5 foot-long sub at Subway is not the same quality of ingredients and preparation as ours.

We’ve been looking at portion sizes and options in that area. In some of our locations, we stay open for as long as 17 hours a day. Sometimes, customers don’t want a full meal very late and are looking for ‘minis.’

In the deli, we offer half sandwiches in our On The Go program and this fall, we’ll be rolling out a program to meet the needs of our guests who are just looking for the basics. We have a lot of great upscale deli sandwiches, but sometimes guests also want less food at a lower cost, just the basics like a turkey and Swiss or ham and Swiss or peanut butter and jelly.”


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