Prepared Foods: Get Positioned for Success


What comes to mind when you think about prepared foods? The answer may depend on the status of your own retail department. What comes to mind for National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) member co-ops is “opportunity.” Why? The reasons are numerous and compelling, including:

  • Consumer trends have made ready-to-eat foods one of the fastest growing segments of the grocery sector, fueling growth and spending at all large food retailers in an attempt to recapture food dollars.
  • The nature of the department requires unique skills, the lack of which can lead to a department that loses money and customer trust, making it a liability to the store.
  • Prepared foods is a high profile department and contributes to (or undermines) the brand image of both the store and the sector—from the sensory experience to the statements it makes to shoppers on issues such as food safety, sanitation, food politics, knowledge and customer service.

This opportunity is what led NCGA to dedicate resources to the development of a national prepared foods program. We recognize that providing leadership, tools, and training in this area is vital to our pursuit of prominence in the natural foods industry.

Program outline

NCGA’s objective is to provide a focused and marketable prepared foods program which adds value to our members, enhances the integrity of our sector and remains relevant to evolving consumer needs. The outline for the program has been discussed and refined based on member input over the last several months.

While those conversations continue to occur, the program is expected to include training, marketing and service components such as:

  • In-depth deli management/training system
  • Development of a national advisory team as well as culinary teams in each corridor (Western/Central/Eastern)
  • Annual corridor-wide deli promotions calendar
  • Quarterly in-season produce promotions
  • Monthly corridor-specific deli specials in the CAP (Co-op Advantage Program) flyer
  • Recipe and scale systems cataloging
  • Quarterly action plans and ranking of financial performance
  • Creation of an ingredient source list and retail pricing database

In keeping with NCGA’s strategic priorities, training will have a heavy focus. The proposed training system will be comprised of four modules scheduled to occur over a 24-month period. The first module is a “new deli managers” course, designed to bring new department managers into alignment with current programs and help them develop a peer network within the co-op sector. As proposed, this course would occur once or twice a year in Minneapolis and would include basic training for CoCo data tools, discussion of venues, operations, obligations, and liabilities, and, because of proximity, a tour of the Twin Cities co-ops.

The remaining three training modules include intensive training on margins, merchandising, and hiring/customer service. Each of these modules would be offered semi-annually, held on a rotating schedule in each corridor. For example, in the first half of the year, there might be a margin class in the Western Corridor, a hiring/customer service training in the Central Corridor, and a merchandising training the Eastern Corridor. Six months later, the same modules are offered, but in different corridors. This approach allows a general manager to match development to resources and still fast-track a deli manager or staff members as desired.

Building on success

Some of the proposed program components are already in place regionally. They have been refined to the point of simplified, practical execution, making national rollout less cumbersome. In fact, each corridor has contributed to the development of the national program:

In the Central Corridor, a “Fresh in the Deli” CAP feature, a “Savor the Season” quarterly promotion, an annual event calendar, and quarterly action plans with comparative performance data are all currently being executed.

In the Eastern Corridor, member co-ops tested out a margin-based training module, and in tandem with the Central Corridor were instrumental in developing NCGA’s recipe manual.

In the West, deli managers have begun the process of capturing resource and pricing comparisons, have designed and published a margin troubleshooting guide, and have begun working on the development of their corridor’s culinary team.

As a group, deli managers are excited to work together on national programs and united in the desire to consolidate resources and share information and practical expertise. The national program seeks to capture that enthusiasm, harness resources, and provide the tools to ensure we have high-performing prepared foods departments that put our values into practice and provide great-tasting, feel-good food to the public.

Consumer Trends Influencing Prepared Foods

Households are becoming smaller. More singles, seniors living alone, and one-parent families mean fewer meals cooked at home. Single-serve packaging is increasingly important.

Consumers are increasingly time-crunched and are seeking convenient meal solutions. There is high demand for ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat items.

Increased cultural diversity, particularly a rise in Hispanic and Asian-American populations, requires more ethnic diversity in menu selections.

As baby boomers age, there is increasing interest in the nutritional aspects of food and in product features such as whole grain and low sodium.


Chris Ryding is prepared foods manager for the National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]).

Add comment

Log in to post comments