“This is kind of a myth that’s out there: that the prepared foods team is buying from the Syscos of the world and the big food vendors,” says Scott Crawford, Whole Foods’ prepared foods coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic region. “I share the same vendors with my produce counterparts. I share the same vendors with my seafood counterparts. The standard is one across the store. There isn’t a cheaper piece of chicken coming out of prepared foods, as far as the quality standards, as what you’re going to buy at the counter.
“There’s one quality for the whole store,” Crawford adds. “So the Bell & Evans chicken that we sell in the meat department, it’s the same chicken I use on my hot bar.”
One consumer demand driving the future of hot foods is the desire for more-healthful options. Wegmans and Whole Foods have tackled the issue head on. In 2009, Whole Foods introduced the Health Starts Here program, which, among other things, offers mostly plant-based hot foods with minimal salt and little fat. In 2010, Wegmans went so far as to send a team of chefs to Haus Hiltl in Zurich, Switzerland, considered Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, to learn how to cook veggies better.
“They just really, as we do at Wegmans, take vegetable preparation very seriously,” says Jim Schaeffer, the company’s operations director of food preparation. “There was a time in America 20 years ago, if someone preferred vegetables, it would be simple steamed vegetables or maybe sauteed vegetables. People would spend more time on the center of the plate, the protein, than on the vegetable preparation. There are so many things you can do to make vegetables craveable — through spices, through different preparation methods.”
At almost any Wegmans, a customer strolling through the hot bar area can find 30 to 40 vegetable-based dishes, Schaeffer says. “That’s an area that’s just exploding for us.”
The future of hot foods at your local grocer would appear boundless. Whole Foods, for one, has already greatly expanded the offerings at both its P Street and Silver Spring stores in recent years; around two years ago, the number of hot-bar items at the P Street store increased by about 70 percent, notes Crawford.
If a Whole Foods store doesn’t have a hot bar, it’s “purely because of space,” says Paul White, the chain’s senior global coordinator for prepared foods. “It surely wouldn’t be because we don’t want them there. And it wouldn’t be because our customers don’t want them. It’s something we definitely know that our customers want.”
It would seem that supermarkets are inching closer to the Wal-mart Supercenter model, looking to cater to all your dining needs in one stop. You can grab a loaf of fresh bread, a bottle of wine and a to-go container of your favorite hot-bar items, probably for less than you’d spend at a local restaurant.
“It’s like going to a Costco. You can get about everything you want,” says consultant Spinelli. “You can probably get your car fixed one day.”