Grown beyond its roots, ‘deli’ can encompass the world—but don’t forget the pickle.

Over the years, the name “delicatessen” may have been shortened to “deli,” but the product line has steadily grown to include wraps, paninis, a wide array of breads, spreads and international flavors beyond its Jewish and Italian roots. Today’s customers either want the grab and go speed advantage or sandwiches uniquely made to order.

In addition to achieving speed of prep in made-to-order production, getting the nutritionals in line—i.e., finding lower sodium, low fat products and then being able to make the information readily available to customers—is a key challenge many operators face today. David Martin, senior director of culinary services and executive chef for Sodexo’s healthcare division, has a program called Sodexo Menu Graphics. “This program prints information regarding nutrients and allergens, which is placed in an insert at each station,” Martin says.

“In our New York accounts, we’ve taken it beyond what’s required by law. No one’s requiring allergens to be listed yet, but we felt it was the right thing to do,” he says.

Martin adds that the 900 hospitals and 450 long-term care facilities in his division now typically offer a lower sodium deli meat alternative. “We’re also selling more side salads than chips with sandwiches, and the demand for half sandwiches with salads has increased greatly over the past year,” he notes

A pressing advantage: Martin says he sees the deli business steadily trending toward more paninis and half sandwiches. “In high-volume accounts, we’re preheating some paninis—that’s what Panera (Bread Company chain) does. Then just put them in the press to score them and bring them up to temperature. Without preheating, you’re looking at about three minutes heating time.”

From a flavor profile perspective, Martin encourages operators to introduce ethnic flavors to the deli, from chipotle seasoning and tandoori spices to chutneys and various salsas used as spreads—just don’t forget to include the half-sour kosher pickle, he adds.

More in-house prep: Similarly, Chris Wood, chef/retail foodservices supervisor at University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, is continually tweaking the offerings at his cafeteria’s deli operation. Now, he’s planning to make his own condiments, including cranberry mayo and pesto mayo, with an eye to producing a more healthful product. Then, to have more control over sodium content in meats, he plans to use a rotisserie oven to roast his own turkeys and inside rounds. “I do an espresso coffee rub on beef, or a rosemary/citrus rub as well as a balsamic Dijon mustard glaze so we can limit the amount of sodium.”

When Eric Rauch, Kid’s Café manager at Akron Children’s Hospital in Akron, Ohio, runs a special deli promo, his by-the-ounce concept often comes into play. “We’ll do a football promo for Ohio State or the Cleveland Browns, or a basketball promo cheering on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and get an eight-foot sub and sell it by the inch (at 32¢ per inch), cut to order,” he says. “It’s a typical Italian sub. We make our own homemade trans fat-free potato chips (six ounces for $1.50) to go with it.”

But it’s the by-the-ounce self-serve deli bar—with six selections of meat, eight cheeses and assorted toppings—that customers love. “They seem to enjoy making their own with the total control they have over ingredients,” Rauch concludes.

Targeting sales: The strategy of when and where to menu a special has been honed to perfection by John Koutras, New York-New Jersey district manager and corporate chef for the corporate dining division of Whitsons Culinary Group. “We do a Target 5 program, targeting where the $5 special for the day is in the servery,” Koutras points out. “At the deli, we’ll have a hot toasted barbecue chicken on a hoagie plus a side salad and a 32-ounce fountain beverage. For food cost reasons, you target what works for you but still shows value to the customer.” Today, toasted sandwiches account for about 40% of deli sales when there’s a Target 5 special at the deli area about once a week.

At Redifer Commons at Penn State University, more than 1,200 sandwiches are made daily to be sold at In A Pickle and In A Pickle, Too; both lines flow to one cashier. In addition, all other sandwiches are “customer built,” with three student employees per line taking verbal requests and preparing the sandwiches. Here, top sellers are turkey and chicken finger sandwiches, according to Jim Richard, manager of The South Food District for Penn State Dining. Richard says the main challenges to operating a successful deli are: “They want it made-to-order, plus you need to get enough throughput to maintain your system. We’re doing two to three transactions per minute.”

Jennifer Cook, RD, area supervisor for the department of food and nutrition for Denver Public Schools, finds that elementary students prefer a hot meal to a sandwich. “We do see more grab and go than usual when chips are offered, but still less than hot items,” she says. In high schools, Cook menus the All American Sub, a deli combo of turkey ham, bologna and salami.



Out beyond sub rolls, rye bread and pumpernickel, a wide assortment of breads incorporating more healthful grains and boasting varied ethnic flavors are generating buzz—and sales—at the deli counter. 

Penn State students in College Park appreciate the 10-inch sub rolls that are proofed and baked in-house, then dressed with signature seasonings. “While our deli line servers are student employees, I have a full time technical support service staff of three FTEs, and most of the labor is spent on baking bread,” notes Jim Richard, manager of the university’s South Food District. “We have flavor profiles, such as brown sugar and quick oats on whole wheat; our most popular flavor is asiago cheese, which we shred from a wheel, sprinkle on proofed rolls, then bake.”

Super grains/super hero: Overall, Richard finds the whole-wheat wrap—now offered in six flavors—is currently the most popular bread. Perhaps the biggest buzz was generated by the recent intro of a 100% organic sprouted wheat wrap from Super Bakery (now renamed RSuper Foods), a national company headquartered in Pittsburgh. The product kick-off included a visit to campus from Penn State grad, and former Pittsburgh Steeler, Franco Harris. “Our guests sampled them, then cast their ballots for what they wanted to see menued. Now, a 12-inch wrap plus a six-inch organic sub roll are two of our options.”

Eric Rauch, manager of Kid’s Café at Akron Children’s Hospital, Akron, Ohio, is able to purchase 12-grain wheat bread as well as light wheat and light white from Nickels, a local baker/distributor. Since these breads contain only 35 calories per serving and zero grams trans fat, more of his customers are asking for them. “The biggest thing at the deli regarding health concerns is the light and grain breads,” he contends.

Space constraints: However, for some operators, satisfying customers’ desires for these types of breads can be problematic. At Chesterfield County (Va.) Schools, Director of Nutrition Services Warren Grigg is having difficulty finding fresh-baked products. “Bakeries here are going bankrupt, and if you don’t have enough storage space for large boxes of frozen bread shipped from a purveyor, that could be a problem. We don’t have the space, so we’re continuing to look for fresh bread,” Grigg says.

David Martin, senior director of culinary services for Sodexo’s healthcare division, also acknowledges some sourcing challenges. “For that reason we’ve been purchasing fully-baked ciabatta and focaccia from Rich’s,” Martin says. “We’re doing that at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston and also at University Hospital in Cleveland. Whole-grain artisan breads are making sandwiches more interesting today—not to mention what you spread on the bread.”



At Corning Inc., in Corning, N.Y., executive chef Stephanie Cady serves approximately 2,500 daily lunchtime guests. Deli sales are “substantial,” Cady says, at each of six location, in the Irwin Valley complex where the world headquarters building is located and at Sullivan Park, where she’s based. But no matter how popular the deli is, Cady knows that keeping within the parameters of the company’s Complete Nutrition Program must always be top of mind. Throughout her decade on site, she has steadily added  more fresh vegetables and high-quality, healthier meats to the basic deli line. At the same time, she tries to keep price points within customers’ budgets.

“Each of our six locations offers the same subs and deli wraps. Some are on a smaller scale depending on the number of customers served. The recipes are identical, so sandwiches include the same three ounces of meat and the same type of rolls. Consistency is very important to us.

Corning Inc. has a Complete Nutrition Program. We try to keep our entrées under 400 calories, under 15 grams of sugar, 1,000 milligrams of sodium, etc. Deli meat is a challenge; it’s hard to find a high-quality, low-sodium product.

We conduct a Customer Climate Survey, and one of the comments for Culinary was, ‘We want more healthy options in the café.’ So we teamed with corporate medical and came up with complete nutrition guidelines as indicated by the Food Guide Pyramid. One of the largest challenges, as mentioned before, was the sodium in lunch meats and the ability to make a sandwich under 400 calories. We wound up having to allow 1,200 milligrams of sodium in a sandwich and under 15 grams of fat.

We switched to Boar’s Head meats within the last six months. We tried to do one-stop-shop, but we went to Boar’s Head from an outside vendor since it won out in taste testing.

As part of our Complete Nutrition Program, we offer whole-grain sub rolls and low-carb wraps with less than seven grams of fat at all locations. We make all our tuna salad with white meat tuna from a pouch and reduced fat mayo, then ship it to all our locations for consistent product. Our refrigerated truck delivers daily from our cook-chill production center at Sullivan Park.

Our guests like new and trendy items, so we started our Limited Time Offers. With LTOs, an item runs for a two-month cycle. We market offers with table tents and on LCD screens and TVs throughout the buildings which include the menu. Now, we’re running a chicken, bacon and ranch sub as the LTO. It’s grilled chicken marinated in fat-free dressing, available as a combo with a choice of chips, fresh fruit or a side salad. A full sub combo, which could be on a 12-inch sub roll or as a wrap, is $6.75; a half-sub combo is priced at $4.63. I’m ready now to roll out the training for our next LTO, a peppercorn Parmesan turkey croissant.

Made-to-order in the deli is a bit of a wait, but it’s the value location in the café. They can get a half-sandwich for $2.15 and a half-combo—that’s a cup of soup with half a sandwich or a half-wrap for $3.26.

In addition to The Works, there’s also Brilliant Cuts, an upscale deli featuring grilled panini sandwiches. Customers can get panini sandwiches with prosciutto; or with a grilled chicken breast, etc. A standard panini, priced at $4.95 plus tax, includes lettuce, roasted plum tomatoes, roasted red peppers, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil leaves with a choice of fresh pesto or pesto mayonnaise. The concept has been a standard since the café opened nine years ago. We probably do about 50 customers at the Brilliant Cuts station between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. versus about 100 customers daily at The Works.”




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