Foodservice within grocery locations, convenience stores and other food retail outlets has evolved into a $36 billion industry, according to Fare magazine. With category growth driven by the recent economic recession, retail grocery operators must capitalize on any and all opportunities to improve foodservice offerings to keep pace with changing consumer preferences.

At a basic level, consumers seek consistently high-quality prepared foods, available quickly to accommodate their busy lifestyles. Consumers also demonstrate the desire for greater variety: more flavors, more types of cuisine, more healthy options. Meeting these demands simultaneously can prove a challenge for retail grocers looking to keep operating expenses, such as labor and food costs, manageable.

During this year’s International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) annual show, representatives from Sealed Air’s Cryovac® food packaging brand had a number of conversations regarding how retail grocers are evaluating their foodservice operations to serve customers more active and engaged with food decisions than ever before. Many of these conversations included updates about the latest packaging innovations designed to enhance operational efficiency within the foodservice at retail environment.

When it comes to foodservice at retail, consumers want more options. A recent Supermarket News survey found that nearly one-third of shoppers would purchase more prepared foods inside retail establishments if a greater variety of components was available.

The same survey also brought forth a consumer foodservice wish-list more closely resembling that of a full-service restaurant – grilled chicken and fish, rotisserie chickens, fresh vegetables and homemade soup, along with a greater mix of ethnic foods, local ingredients and seasonal cuisine alongside traditional favorites.

As retailers stock more items to accommodate a lengthier – and costlier - menu, to maintain profitability they must find ways to improve efficiency elsewhere. One such consideration is in the packaging of the foods and ingredients used in retail foodservice operations. Packaging innovations designed for close-quarters cooking in spaces without full foodservice kitchen facilities can help reduce the labor required to deliver restaurant quality meals to consumers looking for such quality in meals that fit their lifestyles. For example, ovenable material enables proteins to be pre-seasoned or pre-marinated for consistent quality, then cooked in the oven inside the packaging. This eliminates the time and labor otherwise required for preparation, and utilizing ovenable packaging also makes cleanup less time consuming and labor intensive.

Likewise, microwaveable materials offer advantages for retail grocers looking to expand foodservice menu options without breaking the bank. Pre-packaged, heat-and-eat meals can help retailers stretch their menus with seasonal, trial and limited time offers. Requiring only a few minutes of microwave reheating, these meals offer high-quality entrees and sides prepared faster and on-demand. With heat-and-eat meals, retail foodservice operations also enjoy the benefit of preparing items only as they are sold. Other meals remain refrigerated and can be sold as long as their refrigerated shelf life lasts, considerably longer than cooked meals that must be discarded if not sold during daily operating hours.

Another way packaging can help retail supermarkets control costs in the foodservice operation is by changing the way staff handles food. Easy-open packaging can benefit retail grocers’ foodservice operations in a number of ways. First, the packaging eliminates the need to use knives or other sharp objects to open the meat. This improves workplace safety and reduces the risk of cuts or other incidents. Second, opening without knives reduces the opportunity for introduction of pathogens, as employee instincts are to use the nearest sharp object – often not sanitized properly – to quickly open products and serve customers. Eliminating the need to use knives to open products also avoids cuts and gouges in the product that can damage the products or at the very least impact the appearance and appeal to customers.

In addition to newer packaging solutions, there are also many tried and true packaging options used in traditional foodservice, such as flexible pouches used for soups and sauces, that offer the ability to reheat the product in the package. In addition to reduced time and labor, pouches reduce product waste and cross-contamination.  

For retail grocers, evaluating in-store foodservice operations and determining opportunities to adopt innovative technology – such as the latest packaging advancements – can mean significant differences in efficiency. We’d like to hear from retailers about their experiences. What trends have you noticed in terms of customer requests in your in-store foodservice department? What packaging challenges can be addressed to improve operations?