Can grocery self-serve bars be safely re-imagined?

Discussion
Photo: Georg Beyer/Whole Foods
Nov 02, 2020
Tom Ryan

The hot food bar at a Whole Foods Market store in Denver was recently transformed into a holiday bazaar featuring toys and games. Missouri-based Dierbergs Markets earned national attention for filling its salad bar with mini bottles of liquor, beer, cereal and candy.

“We had originally put out other fresh foods, but it didn’t go over so well because everyone’s been stressed out,” Rick Rodemacher, director of a Dierbergs store in Manchester, told NBC News. “A group of the employees were talking and we thought we could make good use of the empty space and make people smile if we swapped out the salad bar for one that serves alcohol.”

Grocers shuttered self-serve stations or significantly restricted their use due to germ-spread concerns after the pandemic’s arrival. Foodservice had been a strong growth area for grocers over the last decade as Americans looked for less expensive options than restaurant take-out. For some grocers, foodservice stood out as a differentiator and supported lunch-time traffic.

Grab-and-go meals have also not been as in demand this year as social activities have been cancelled and many consumers have rediscovered home cooking.

Grocers are seeking alternatives to not only offset an underperforming area but remove an eyesore. Phil Myers, director of foodservice at Central Market in Texas, told CNBC, “A shut down salad bar that’s all steel and dark is not inviting.”

Wegmans and Albertsons are among grocers expanding selections of prepackaged salads, although that eliminates the customization that drives the appeal of salad buffets. Many are expanding offerings of cold and reheatable prepared foods.

Publix reopened its salad and hot bars during limited, peak hours, providing masked and gloved associates to assemble the salads to customers’ specifications. Robots are being used by some operators to remove the sanitary risks from having associates handle food.

Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly in Milwaukee just introduced Sally the Salad Robot. Pat Barnes, president of Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly, said in the statement, “Sally’s airtight fridge keeps ingredients safely contained from tamper or touch, so our customers can design a salad they love and can eat with confidence.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What are the best options for grocers looking to repurpose their salad and hot bars? Does the pandemic threaten the long-term viability of self-service stations for grocers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"The simplest short term option is to have store employees complete the selection process. Longer term options include capital investments like robots."
"Self-serve salad bars are not functional in this new normal so, use this space for what is most relevant for consumers today."
"Ironically, it was the 2008-2009 recession that inspired food bars as we know them today, and this situation too will inspire innovation."

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22 Comments on "Can grocery self-serve bars be safely re-imagined?"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

My local Whole Foods has reopened the hot food bar, but it is no longer self-serve and has tables at each end so it isn’t accessible. You now tell a member of the staff what you want and how much you desire and they will fill your container for you. It’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than some other Whole Foods stores that have stuck random products like bags of chips in the space. It’s interesting that there isn’t a consistent approach to this across all of Whole Foods’ stores. In other grocers I have visited, there are hot food bars where all the hot products like wings and meals are ready packaged so you can just pick them up and take them away.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

My Whole Foods is exactly the same as you describe.

storewanderer
Guest
5 months 14 days ago

Two Whole Foods in my area; one of them is as described above, but limited hours with a limited variety of food available. The other did not reopen its hot bar, but has self serve hot pizza slices available self serve all day, prepacked and stickered shut in those brown salad boxes (100% brown box that is 100% closed so you cannot see what you are getting).

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Prepackaged wings or ribs are only slightly less delicious than the ones I would have picked for myself.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Self-serve food bars in any venue – grocery, restaurants, cruise ships, etc. will no longer resemble their pre-pandemic look or operations. The simplest short term option is to have store employees complete the selection process. Longer term options include capital investments like robots. Both options involve additional costs not required in the self-service days. Another approach, using artificial intelligence, is to replicate consumer choice options in pre-packaged salad and hot foods.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

There are other options, including pre-packing soup and olives and making them available in chill cabinets. Grocers have shown amazing flexibility during the pandemic and will continue to rise to the challenge.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

This has been an issue at my local co-op. The issue is two-fold. From a safety perspective, after shutting down for six months, they now have a deli model for the hot bar — a team member assists with the selections and packaging. It’s not great, and I’m sure it adds expense and slows down the process.

This leads to the other problem: demand. This has traditionally been a lunch time business, folks drop in to grab a meal and take it back to the office. With everyone working from home the demand just hasn’t been there. I expect this is the case with many other grocers. I have a hard time seeing how this business will recover, and it’s probably time for grocers to think about other options for this space.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

My first thought was if Las Vegas can safely bring back its buffets then there’s hope for grocery stores. Vegas buffets are still all you can eat but the food is plated and served to you by waitstaff. It was at the Wynn until recently when its gourmet buffet closed because of guest feedback: guests still want the traditional buffet experience over the served all-you-can-eat format. Some Vegas buffets are still operational, others are being turned into upscale food courts.

At my local grocery store there is no more picking out donuts and rolls with tongs, now everything is prepackaged in a clamshell. Safety is still the number one priority and will be long after the pandemic is over. I am certain that there is someone out there who has a solution to this and I can’t wait to see what it is!

storewanderer
Guest
5 months 14 days ago

I have noticed a number of independent stores, Walmart, and Safeway/Albertsons locations that now have the loose trays of unwrapped donuts and bagels out again in the self serve bakery case. Take the wax paper, open the bag, and select the product. Some Safeway locations have bagels and rolls displayed in open bins (not with a door or similar) — yikes. Definitely not buying any of this stuff.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Yikes is right! Maybe the mandates are relaxed in different parts of the country? I’m in the suburbs of Chicago where restaurants and bars can no longer have people seated inside. I’m with you, I won’t buy open foods either.

During trick or treating people were distributing candy via long tubes, slingshots 10’ away, delivered by radio controlled cars, or strewn across yards and driveways. Even digging in a bowl seemed unsafe.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

The best way to repurpose salad and hot bars is to make them single serving bars that have sealed food, which is then given to the customer by an employee wearing gloves, mask, face shield, and full PPE. This is an on-demand food bar that is both convenient and sterile, yet retains all of the benefits of a grocery self-serve bar to assuage concerns from the customer.

storewanderer
Guest
5 months 14 days ago

The problem is, given how these bars are set up, the consumer cannot see what they are buying. Also the added labor for these bars that are out in the middle of the sales floor so you need dedicated labor for it. This is not going to be a viable solution long-term.

You know how finicky people are with salads and how much or how little of the various components they want on the salad.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Self-service salad and hot bars were already disappearing before the pandemic struck. With the intense focus on health, sanitation, and safety, consumers were shifting away from the classic 2000s style NYC salad bar. In its wake, customers have flocked to Sweetgreen, Le Pain Quotidien, and others who offer made to order, customizable, healthy, and holistic farm to table lunch offerings.

While that trend is resonating and here to stay, Whole Foods has already reimagined what the salad and hot bars could be. The operating model has shifted to one where they can once again offer these services, but with attendants who have the proper PPE, and all other safety precautions.

There is an opportunity for Whole Foods to offer premium packaged prepared foods from local merchants in these spaces. So they can become the one-stop-shop for their consumers.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Assuming self-serve is no longer a viable option there are four alternatives. Use the space for something else, move to crew serve, move to prepackaged or move to a combination of crew serve and prepackaged. Which choice the retailer selects will be based on the historic volumes involved, the ability to convert the area to crew serve, the items themselves and customer preference.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

My thought about salad and hot bars (buffets) is to go from self-serve to cafeteria style with an employee dishing out the food. Pretty simple concept. More labor intensive, of course. Still, it is an answer to the problem.

David Biernbaum
BrainTrust

Food bars as we know them probably will not return for several years, at least until shoppers have more protection beyond the sneeze shield alone. In the meantime food bars will need to re-open slowly, but with masked and gloved employees dishing out each item.

Some retailers are considering having coolers with prepared and packaged combinations of foods and salads.

Ironically, it was the 2008-2009 recession that inspired food bars as we know them today, and this situation too will inspire innovation.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

Without the use of robotics or making these feel like a bio-lab, moving these back to 2019 status seems like a big ask. I have seen the space used for storage but I suggest this space will be repurposed as time goes on.

storewanderer
Guest
5 months 14 days ago
For grocers who actually turned a profit with self serve bars, they are rather desperate to get the self serve bars reopened. So you have Whole Foods, who made a lot of money from self serve bars, try to do the labor investment in making them employee-serve. There is little to no customer interest in the employee-serve food bar. It is open limited hours, you cannot see the food you are selecting other than from about 10 feet away, and it appears to be a waste of labor. It may help that the Whole Foods has other “ready to eat food counters” — pizza, sandwiches to order, burger/taco to order — where you walk up to a counter and order so people are more comfortable with that format. For the other grocers, and there are many, who put in self serve bars because it appeared to be the trendy thing to do and because Whole Foods did it, did not execute them well and never turned a profit from them, they seem very content just… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I think it’s fair to say for a nation ostensibly concerned with food safety, though “ostensibly” may be the key word here. It’s somewhat surprising salad bars managed to exist as long as they have: food sitting out, untended, with few safeguards as to preventing contamination from customers. (A Martian who came down would likely be appalled.)

So it’s not hard to see this being a death blow. I feel that’s rather sad, and I’m not sure it’s warranted — the ACTUAL safety record I think is pretty good, the risks notwithstanding — but perception is important right now, and it’s hard to picture people who wash their hands nine times an hour seeing this as safe any time soon.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

I’m actually more nervous about the fresh fruit and vegetables. I’ve watched shoppers pick up almost every cantaloupe or apple or green pepper on the table before making a selection. And I then reach for the most remote item, the one least likely to have been handled. People can sneeze cough throughout these aisles. They handle the product with reckless abandon. My area happens to require masks. Thank you state and local government and local citizens!

Rachelle King
BrainTrust

On one hand, keeping a modified version of the salad bar open where employees build a salad to your specs is certainly one way to go. It keeps staff employed and still offers a personalized solution. However, there is some risk in this option, for both the employee and the customer with regard to contact safety, social distancing and general hygiene of masks and gloves.

A second option could be to offer a wider assortment of grab and go salad options. Not as personalized but still viable. However, I can see a third option that may push the envelope. Self-serve salad bars are not functional in this new normal so, use this space for what is most relevant for consumers today. Notwithstanding supply issues, if store managers could stock this space with paper supplies, household cleaners/disinfectants, snacks and a few adult beverages, consumers would flock to it. Yes, salads are important but with the rise of home-cooking, these stapes are far more in demand right now.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Pre-package the most popular items, or even better, offer weekly, daily or day-part specials that can be ordered ahead as smart alternatives to (risky) salad and hot food bars.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The simplest short term option is to have store employees complete the selection process. Longer term options include capital investments like robots."
"Self-serve salad bars are not functional in this new normal so, use this space for what is most relevant for consumers today."
"Ironically, it was the 2008-2009 recession that inspired food bars as we know them today, and this situation too will inspire innovation."

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