Is it the right time to reopen food bars?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/FG Trade
Feb 26, 2021

For years, I had a near-daily ritual of visiting the hot bar and salad bar at the grocery store across the street. It was not a cost efficient habit, but convenient nevertheless. The novel coronavirus pandemic ended my routine.

As essential retailers retooled their operations to continue doing business safely, my local grocer replaced its salad and hot bars with pre-prepared carry-out offerings. Fast forward to last week. I walked in and went for a pre-prepared salad, now the cornerstone of my bi-weekly, masked in-store shopping trip, and found the food bars open. It felt like the first touch of normality entering my life in 11 months. Still, I’m not sure if it is a good thing.

Since experts ruled out contaminated surfaces as a significant source of COVID-19 transmission months ago, and the store was virtually empty, I felt comfortable filling up. I realized, though, that selecting food and wrestling with closing a plastic container were taking time and distracting me from my usually vigilant focus on social distance. I imagined peak hours bringing problems.

The grocer’s move is undoubtedly tied to Illinois’ steadily declining COVID-19 cases and deaths.

In the city of Chicago, where I live, cases and deaths in long-term care facilities are at their lowest since August, according to the Chicago Tribune. There remain, however, significant unknowns about how the pandemic will progress in the coming months.

Researchers worry that “escape mutations” may allow new viral strains to partially or entirely evade the vaccines on the market. What this means for case counts, vaccine strategies or timelines is not clear.

While globally, Israel in particular appears to be outmaneuvering the virus with comprehensive vaccination, the U.S. lags behind that. Federal and state officials place widespread vaccine availability as being months away.

We have already seen how easy it is to get ahead of ourselves when there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. Last summer we often spoke about the pandemic as if it was ending, despite the CDC cautioning that winter promised an unprecedented public health crisis. I hope that normality is finally within reach, but fear that grocers could again put customers in the wrong mindset by easing up early.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is now the right or wrong time for grocery stores to start reopening food bars? Do you see retailers changing how they operate self-serve food bars once they are able to reopen them?

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"Have you ever watched what people do at these salad bars?"

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31 Comments on "Is it the right time to reopen food bars?"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Sure, open them if you want to. I won’t be using them. And it’s not just because of health concerns. It’s also because I think most of them are a rip-off – especially Whole Foods. I can get a reasonable takeout meal or snack from a restaurant for the same price as a box of food with heavy stuff (mashed potato!) at Whole Foods. Now that more restaurants are offering takeout, I wonder how relevant the food bar will be.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Gee, Neil, I sense you are not a Whole Foods fan.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Ha! We do actually shop there weekly! I like the food counters and the fresh produce. However, I think Whole Foods has always been a very overrated retailer. It gets so many things wrong and misses so many opportunities. It could be great, but it falls way short and comes out as being OK. I find that frustrating! And none of this is down to Amazon. Whole Foods had issues long before Amazon came on the scene. As for the food bar: it really was a big rip off and I don’t miss it at all!

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I don’t disagree with you on any of those counts.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I think it’s crazy to reopen food bars right now because it’s too soon. It feels good to see light at the end of the tunnel but we really don’t know how close it is yet. Most people have not had the first vaccination, let alone the second.

I live in Illinois too. Masks are mandatory here but we still can’t rely on people to wear them properly in stores. Why would a retailer take that risk? Food bars have always been a little gross but now they could be deadly. I’ll pass.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I’m okay with their re-opening if you’re okay with the store’s hygiene. That said, I’d have only pre-wrapped or my own utensils and I’d wash my hands when I got home/to the office. But then, I live in Georgia where I’m not sure a majority believe in COVID-19, so I’m a bit more cautious who I hang with and where.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

If it is, then you may as well walk in the middle of traffic as you would be taking a big risk if you do. Have you ever watched what people do at these salad bars?

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Now I want to know what you’ve seen…

VeeCee
Guest

I used to maintain a salad/hot bar for a corporate cafe. Trust me, you don’t want to eat the food. It has nothing to do with how the food is prepared, refilled, etc. It has everything to do with the customers that use it, and this has nothing to do with COVID. I would stand near the station to make sure everything was filled, and constantly cleaned the area. I have seen customers use their hands to pick food, take a bite of something, and put it back, use the same utensils in a variety of items, including meat and non-meat products (not cool for the vegan/vegetarian customer). I have seen customers “sample” the soup using the soup ladle and putting it back into the pot for others to use.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

YIKES!!!

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

At a trade show in Europe a few years ago, I saw a contraption out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that mechanically put together a meal from about 40 options ranging from salads to small entre portions to sides. It organized everything into different sized bento-style boxes that had as many as 10 compartments. The customer ordered the components on an app or at a kiosk and the whole thing was assembled in minutes. One step closer to the Star Trek mode of ordering…

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Too soon for food bars in grocery stores and too soon for salad bars in restaurants. Also, too soon for the cruise favorite buffets on cruise ships. We’re not there yet. When we get there, I do not envision a customer or cruiser helping themselves to food via self serve. I do see the option of trained staff doing the task. Cruise lines will probably go this way. The question for food retail and food service is the cost of staffing to do something which customers used to do.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

After reading the first several comments of my colleagues today, it appears that open or not, nobody (me included) is going near a food bar anytime soon.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Absolutely nobody is going near a salad bar anytime soon.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I agree. I never used one in a supermarket and never will. I have to confess that I have done so at a few restaurants but, sneeze shield or no, won’t be doing so for a long time if ever again.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Food bars were becoming extremely irrelevant and disappearing altogether from most delis and grocery stores. Before the pandemic, there were health, sanitary and hygiene concerns with food bars. This has led to the salad bar as we knew it to become a relic of another time.

The emergence of Chopt, Sweetgreen, and other prepared food bars speaks to the fact that the modern consumer doesn’t feel safe, or get value from a traditional salad bar. This business model was already on the way out and, certainly, in a COVID-19, and post-pandemic world, there really isn’t a place for salad bars, where the consumer has so many other choices.

storewanderer
Guest
3 months 25 days ago

This is simply not true. Grocers in the western US have been adding self serve areas and food bars at a faster clip than ever. Every single new store built in Northern California opened during 2020 (a few Raleys, a Safeway, a Holiday) are sitting with unused self-serve salad bars and/or hot foods bars.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

It’s debatable how relevant self-serve food bars at grocery stores were pre-pandemic and the pandemic rightfully shut them down. It’s too soon to bring them back and I have to wonder if customers are really demanding their return yet? There are many options, including a staff-based option which many grocery stores already had and is what so many fast-casual restaurants do as well. Customers are used to that. Plus, the self-serve food bar typically wasn’t a cost-effective choice. Based on the comments here so far, it’s clear almost no one has an interest in using them even if they do open now. My suggestion to grocers – wait a bit longer.

Al McClain
Staff

I agree with many of the commenters that salad bars can be unhygienic and that some consumers can’t be trusted to behave properly when utilizing them. However, have you ever spent time in a restaurant kitchen? Having worked in a deli many moons ago, there were lots of gross practices that were out of view of the customer. Today, I have the “luxury” of reading the weekly restaurant inspection report in the Miami Herald. Suffice to say that chain and independent restaurants, high-end and low-end, often have major hygiene issues that are unseen by diners. Thank God for food and restaurant inspectors – we just need a lot more of them.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Oh hell no. I will be fortunate enough to get my first vaccine shot next week, but food bars have vanished from my thinking completely. I miss my occasional stop at the wing bar at the grocery store, but turns out my frequently used grill does just fine with wings as well.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

Look, if I were a grocer and heard two comments about the safety of our self-service food bar, in five minutes it would be behind glass in the counters serviced by a “chef,” at normal pricing with signage stating “for your safety.” That would certainly reposition my competitors and afford me the opportunity of better “top of mind awareness” against them. AND I think customers would appreciate our concern for their safety.

VeeCee
Guest

Your idea is spot on! I used to maintain a salad/hot bar and I would LOVE to do it again, but not allowing customers to “self-serve.” I think the way to go is to have an attendant (me!) serve the food for you, even if it is just a simple salad. I love to engage in conversation with customers, and I would enjoy questions about ingredients, etc., and I think it would make the experience more personal and positive for the customer.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

The world does not always operate by logic and rational thinking. I can’t see how self serve buffets can be reopened anywhere, anytime soon. This means for me “portion control” and restraint have finally been taken out of my undisciplined hands. An unintended benefit.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Should we just focus on Covid? The implicit answer would seem to be “yes,” since they were open prior (to the pandemic), but to me at least it seems illogical to be frequently asking how we can improve food safety, and yet ignore what’s probably one of the weakest links.

Translation: I suspect many of them will never reopen, and those that do will probably be quite different (much more prepackaged, less self-serve); which in many ways is too bad, since salad/hot bars were a relatively inexpensive way for stores to differentiate themselves.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Now is the right time to open food bars, only if they are staffed by the merchant, and the customer cannot serve themselves or touch any part of the food bar. If the retailer staffs, controls, and determines a safe distance for customers to come, then food service bars can work. Anything less than this is a foolish, deadly, proposition.