Rethinking the Self-Serve Food Stations

They may return, but they won’t be the same.

February 16, 2021

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Almost a year after the pandemic began, foodservice operators and equipment suppliers continue to evaluate the role of the self-serve food bar, according to GroceryDive.com. Even as rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine ramps up, industry insiders are uncertain if consumers will want to return to the serving themselves salad or other foods in a grocery or restaurant.

"I think consumers are going to have a hard time going back to the way salad bars are perceived to be … there's a mental barrier there that I'm not sure we're going to get past," said Robyn Novak, vice president at Nelson Worldwide, an architecture firm that has worked with major retailers including Kroger, Target and Whole Foods. "But at the same time, what a great opportunity for a brand to think about how you create the theater that they create now in the bakery, in the cheese shop, in the deli, in the sushi counters."

Many foodservice operations have implemented safety measures for hot bars and salad bars, such as one-way lanes and regularly sanitized utensils, which have significantly altered the pre-pandemic experience. Other retailers have loaded the existing stations with pre-packaged items. That shift has helped grocers craft new ways of making eating at home easier and more enjoyable, according to Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, a research firm specializing in food retailing.

Pre-packaged prepared items have bounced back from the nearly 30% year-over-year sales drop they posted in the early weeks of the pandemic, Roerink said. "One big lesson in pre-packaged sales has been the need for a variety of portion sizes to accommodate for the different household sizes, budgets, etc.," she said. "This is directly due to consumers looking for a little help in the kitchen these days, mixing and matching items cooked from scratch with items that they just need to heat-and-serve. Retailers have a real opportunity to better integrate some of the deli pre-packaged sides in the meat case to make the connection for the shopper."

Packaged items also help grocers add life to their prepared food departments. Pre-pandemic, retailers averaged 180 selections in the prepared food department, said Roerink, noting that selections dipped to 158 in May as companies focused on top performers. It has since climbed to 167 in December.

While focusing on convenience in the near term, retailers are considering ways to refashion stations like the salad bar, which is where sales have been declining.

"As we build new stores, that's definitely going to be in our minds as we create these foodservice areas," said Paul Kneeland, vice president of fresh operations of Gelson's Markets, a chain in Southern California. "Maybe we don't need that big of a salad bar anymore. Maybe it's half the size, where we would expand on pre-pack. Or maybe we do things behind the glass that would satisfy [the] customer's needs, although it's not the same, he said adding that there could be a combination of bars that feature salad on one side and hot items on the other to develop more space-efficient self-service sections.

At Heinen's, the 23-store supermarket chain in Illinois and Ohio, salad bars have been shut down for nearly a year, with no plans to reopen them anytime soon, said Chris Foltz, chief innovation officer. Heinen's has relied on a growing selection of packaged salads, which earn a higher profit margin since they're less costly to produce and maintain. However, the company plans to pilot a salad bar with half the normal range of ingredients at one of its stores  and may experiment with new types of fresh-food bars in the future. 

"I could envision a protein salad bar, chicken salads, turkey salads, steak salads, that typically grocers don't have a very good selection of, but customers want," Foltz told GroceryDive.com, noting that consumers are still attracted to the self-service concept in grocery stores. "We believe at some point in time there will be relevant solutions that customers want that are self-service and customizable, like a salad bar used to be, but it might not be the old salad bar," he added.

Recognizing the shifting landscape in foodservice, equipment companies are modifying stations to increase flexibility. Hussmann, which supplies salad bars, refrigerated cases and other units to stores, has developed a kit that can be used to retrofit salad bars so they can display products in tiers instead of on a flat surface, said Francie Dannemiller Jenks, a business development manager at Hussmann.

Hussmann is also working with retailers to install doors on refrigerated units that house bagged salad ingredients and other items that were once out in the open. "It should be a huge thing, especially if we're going to pre-packaged, because putting something behind a door actually should make the lifespan longer because that product is sitting inside an [enclosed] refrigerator," said Ryan Petrick, another Hussmann business development manager.

Whether grocers eventually return their salad bars and other self-service stations to pre-pandemic operations depends on how consumers' mindsets have shifted—something that remains unclear, said John MacDonald, director of meal solutions and marketing operations for The Giant Company.

Giant recently introduced a meal solution that allows customers to purchase a range of prepared foods arranged in a single box.

"What we're trying to do ... is change our focus to saying, 'what is the problem I'm solving' first, before 'what are the constrictions that I have as a retailer?'" MacDonald explained. "If the solution to that problem involves a service element, then that's what we’ll go after. If the solution for that problem involves a self-serve element, and we’re in a culture where self-serve is still relevant, then that probably will be something we consider."

Find opportunity within the COVID-19 crisis and discover answers to guide your post-pandemic plan by exploring the COVID Survival Pack—a four-hour learning experience filled with tips and advice for navigating a range of operational challenges, including people, vendors and systems in a post-pandemic workplace. Watch the COVID Survival Pack today.

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