“People eat with their eyes,” says Chuck Berardi, regional executive chef for the Pennsylvania division of Wegmans. “I think they really have a difficult time walking by a bar that has hot food displayed when it’s so appetizing and the aromas are in the air. To me, you can’t walk by it.”
What Berardi’s saying, in other words, is that the hot bar may be the latest impulse purchase at the supermarket, the contemporary equivalent of snagging a Snickers bar or a copy of People magazine in the checkout lane. Which might explain why grocery chains are hot for hot bars.
Wegmans and Whole Foods Market are among the leaders in prepared foods: They hire chefs and prep teams for their stores and occasionally contract with third-party vendors to fill their massive collective of steam tables; together, the in-house and outside crews prepare dozens of dishes daily, breakfast through dinner. By comparison, chains such as Safeway, Giant and Harris Teeter tend to have more modest offerings, typically favoring comfort foods and relying heavily on the deep-fryer.
But is buying a meal at the supermarket merely an impulse purchase, something that’s not planned ahead of time? Feeding oneself dinner, after all, doesn’t seem to merit the same “impulse” tag as, say, grabbing a National Enquirer dedicated to actresses who look bad in bikinis. Something more must be driving the sales of hot meals, which, together with all prepared foods, were expected to generate about $19.5 billion for supermarkets in 2012, up by nearly $5.5 billion from the previous year’s projections, according to the Rockville-based research company Packaged Facts.
The term “lifestyle” pops up regularly in discussions about the trend toward hot foods in supermarkets — as in, the modern lifestyle doesn’t always afford people time to cook dinner. That’s not exactly a new idea. Joe Spinelli, a former supermarket consultant and now president of the College Park-based Restaurant Consultants, remembers how Boston Market tapped into the budding carryout segment in the late 1980s, when the company was known as Boston Chicken. Spinelli labels these types of hot, freshly made foods “home-replacement products.”