The new Slices Deli, opened last winter at the Aramark-operated Center Court dining facility at University of Cincinnati, takes the made-to-order concept to the next level by assembling sandwich components in front of customers for a more personalized and customized approach.
There's a perpetual "deli challenge" at work in onsite foodservice: how to balance those everyday menu staples that represent tried-and-true profits with the need to infuse enough new life into the program to attract customers who want more inventive options.
Recently, onsite operators have developed a variety of approaches —from clever marketing to creative new combos, spread and breads, reconfigured designs, and even a return to true, Old World authenticity—to reinvigorate this menu category.
The Magic Words
Simple words, big impact¯that's the story behind the phrases "locally grown" and "locally made" when attached to product descriptions these days. And it turns out they work magic for the deli, too.
At Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, Aramark-operated Montague's Deli underwent a "brand refresh" last spring that involved several operational alterations. But one seemingly minor change —purchasing breads made by a local bakery—proved a key move, especially when advertising and other marketing efforts let the customers in on the local angle.
"There's a huge sustainability push by students now, and bringing in breads from a local bakery fits right in with that," says Foodservice Director David Ingala.
Capitalizing on that theme, dining services will introduce three new artisan cheeses crafted by a local vendor into the deli repertoire this fall. Expectations are high that students will embrace these local specialties as well. With names like Womanchego (a take-off on the trendy Spanish cheese, Manchego), Vivace Bambino (a mild Swiss-style) and Hooligan (a stronger flavor profile, but "great melter"), how can they go wrong?
Working with representatives from the campus Hillel group, dining services at the University of Rochester partnered with a local kosher market last winter in an attempt to upgrade the Nosh Kosher Deli.
"The Hillel group referred us to this true kosher deli/market just five miles away as a source for meats and other products," explains Guest Services Manager David Feist.
Previously, Feist had to purchase kosher meats in large quantities and freeze much of it, but now the market delivers meats and side salads twice a week, "so we're serving a fresher product," he says.
"We gained a huge amount of credibility among students by switching to the market as our supplier. They love the products, but equally as important to them is the issue of sustainability and buying locally."
When students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities saw the state-originated "Minnesota grown" logo popping up on their deli sandwich labels, the value perception of those sandwiches shot up, according to Marketing Program Manager Suzanne Hedrick.
"We sell about 350 sandwiches a day made with Minnesota grown produce," she says. The items range from bell peppers to tomatoes, radishes, jalapenos, and more. "Students are really happy to know we're using it."
CulinArt's Director of Culinary Development Roger Beaulieu notes that even the simple marketing effort of advertising deli sides like cole slaw made with locally-grown cabbage has a distinctly positive effect on his company's B&I audience.
"It's an important factor in perception among customers now. It's certainly worth taking the time to work with the produce vendor to identify and source local supplies, and then promoting that where you can," he says.
While promoting sustainability helps improve customer perception of the food, there's still nothing like splashy, new and different menu items to rev up customer anticipation and boost sales.
As CulinArt's Beaulieu points out, "The Deli comprises a substantial part of the lunch business, but there's some fatigue inherent there, and people can get into a rut."
To spruce up typical deli offerings, CulinArt recently unveiled its new Up Market sandwich promotion in certain B&I locations that could support the average 50 cent increase in sandwich pricing needed to recoup the higher costs of artisan rolls and specialty breads. Rotating selections like Grilled Steak with Caramelized Onions & Smoked Gouda; Adobo Chicken with Peppers, Onions and Chipotle/Lime Aioli; and Tuscan Prosciutto with Sundried Tomato Herb Spread have captured the fancy of customers, and earned the program success.
At Harvard University, a retail unit in the business school whimsically offers their M.S., Sandwiches with a Degree of Specialty, to appreciative diners. The recently updated menu sports intriguing options such as a Sesame Soy Chicken Sandwich with Asian Slaw of Napa Cabbage, Carrots and Scallion; and Portobello Veggie, made with balsamic roasted portobellos, red bell peppers and eggplant with garbanzo bean purèe and spinach. To change up things a bit, dining services asked the local bakery that supplies bread for the shop to start cutting the slices doubly thick.
"It's the same fantastic bread, but the perception of value has increased with the extra thickness,"says Communications Coordinator Jami Snyder. "There's a home-style feel to it now," which, she notes, has contributed to "unprecedented patron counts in that location."
The spiffy new Slices Deli, opened last winter at the Aramark-operated Center Court dining facility at the University of Cincinnati, takes the made-to-order approach to the next level. When customers request a chicken salad sandwich, for instance, the servers don't dip up a scoop of chicken salad; instead, from their mise en place, they gather the separate ingredients that go into the site's signature chicken salad, freshly toss them together on the spot, and then pile it on the customers' choice of fresh bread.
"This kind of action in front of the customers results in very high satisfaction, as well as high participation of faculty and staff, which we didn't have here before the renovation," says Foodservice Director Omar Rayan.
Fresh-made potato chips, fried up onsite and seasoned with spices and other flavorings, add another customized touch to the unit's deli presentations.
At the University of Maryland-College Park, space restrictions in cafes and small food outlets require that deli items be made at a central sandwich kitchen and satellited out to 14 different locations.
To bring an upscale flourish to sandwiches destined for the Bistro La Tech in the new Kim Engineering Building, unusual breads from a local bakery (such as olive, rosemary potato, sesame semolina) will encase high-end deli meats, chicken breasts and meat salads, along with an assortment of fresh herbs, greens, roasted vegetables, cheeses and other items. At the site, customers request their choice of pre-packed sandwich and then add their own flavorful sauces from a wide-ranging selection merchandised in attractive squeeze bottles. The flavors range from roasted yellow pepper sauce to creamy horseradish, spicy chipotle, sweet hot mustard and more.
"We're still considering a pesto sauce, but it's hard to get that to work in a squeeze bottle because of the texture," explains Assistant Director for Dining Services Communications Bart Hipple.
Old World Charm
Getting back to basics and generating an authentic, original New York deli-style menu and ambience is an approach adopted recently at several onsite facilities, to much acclaim.
At Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York, Associate Director of Foodservice Operations Paul Hubbard opened up Skyline Deli as a stop-gap measure a year ago during a remodeling process.
"We originally intended it to be a temporary location while renovating," he says. "But it was so popular that it's now a permanent fixture. It's open seven days a week, and we also use it now for late night feeding."
With several styles of "upscale" knishes, cream sodas, hot deli food made from a rotating carved-to-order whole meat selection (from pastrami to turkey, corned and roast beef), fresh-made sandwiches, mashed potatoes and cold sides, the site caters to eat-in, carry-out, as well as take-home customers, who can buy items by the pound, "just like at a traditional deli," notes Hubbard.
In addition to improving its offerings with a new local supplier, the University of Rochester's Nosh Kosher Deli recently incorporated more authenticity into its program with equipment for serving hot sandwiches and a line of kosher convenience items.
Harvard University Dining Services, known for innovative, on-trend foodservice concepts, decided to go retro this fall, and unveiled its own New York style deli for residential dining, complete with locally-baked rye, challah and other breads, kosher pickles, deli meats and matzo ball soup.
"The idea is to keep this extremely traditional," explains Executive Chef Larry Kessel, proving that the "old is new again" idea just might be ripe for exploring as a method to revitalize the deli¯ as well as other menu areas.
Purchased or made onsite, spreads can instantly transform a staid sandwich into a contemporary, upscale nosh. Some interesting varieties and flavorful combinations to consider:
Mayos and aiolis: