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Can grocery salad bars survive the pandemic?

Many grocery salad bars, like this one at Whole Foods in Cedar Park, have been closed during the COVID-19 crisis. Will they come back?

Dierbergs Markets BB #:159059 in Missouri made the national news for its clever repurposing of its self-serve salad bars with little bottles of liquor, but it does bring up a dark spot in retail amid the COVID-19 crisis: the fate of salad bars in the long run.

As retailers are looking at double-digit year-over-year sales increases thanks to foodservice being largely shut down over the past 10 weeks, this is giving them a good opportunity to take a hard look at the essentials, especially as we possibly face a longer-term recession.

SKU rationalization has been brought up in several of the Retail Roundtable discussions I’ve attended as part of the weekly Produce Marketing Association Virtual Town Halls and I think it will extend beyond weird flavors of pickles and multiple pack sizes within categories.

Do we really need all of these frills at the grocery store? Is it really necessary to have a self-serve salad bar? Or an olive bar?

I had a chat with Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics about this topic, and she says deli-prepared foods are down 35-40%, consistently, since the COVID-19 crisis began in March, and self-serve soup, olive, and salad bars sales dollars are down 70-80%, due to many of them being closed entirely.

Will they come back?

In our discussion, Anne-Marie brings up a point that I hadn’t really considered as an American. We’re a little weird with our love of self-serve fresh food. Many other places in the world, Europe and Asia specifically, often discourage self-service even in a supermarket produce department.

Now that the pandemic has us taking more precautions at the store, and people more aware of contagion and germs, will we go back to grabbing the tongs and serving up salad?

I’m not so sure.

I think retailers are looking at the square footage they have and wondering where they can carve out some space to make their online grocery fulfillment in-store a little easier. Having and entire department completely closed, while maintaining double-digit sales growth in the rest of the store, doesn’t bode well for self-service salads.

Dierbergs store director Rick Rodemacher told NBC News a fresh option was originally put in the salad bar, “but it didn’t go over so well because everyone’s been stressed out.” A group of employees suggested swapping out alcohol to “make people smile.”

In the meantime there’s always the salad “bar”(or “breakfast bar” – one store repurposed its salad bar with cereal ingredients instead). I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more proud of my home state. Only in Missouri.

Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.