Moving fast with fresh opportunities


Cleveland-based Heinen’s Grocery Store has a stellar reputation for its fresh department, including a bountiful offering of grab-and-go foods. But Chris Foltz, Heinen’s chief innovation officer, wants to improve on stellar. He realizes the abundant opportunity within the category, with grab-and-go foods playing a major role.

Heinen’s, a regional chain with 22 stores located across northeast Ohio and Chicagoland, began in 1929 and has always focused on leading-edge solutions, says Foltz, who has been with the grocer for about 16 years. On a recent day Foltz stood in a center-store aisle at a Heinen’s location, envisioning what the future holds for grab-and-go products. Foltz realizes the center store is struggling and needs to shrink. He sees the fresh department growing into the center store with an array of protein and side dishes as grab-and-go offerings.

“A refrigerated case could go here with 10 protein selections and 20 side dishes,” he says. “Next to the case could be a graphic about how to mix and match the proteins and side dishes.”

Then customers can not only visually see what is available, but also they can imagine what proteins to pair with what side dishes.

“One of the things we’re working on is the store of the future,” Foltz says. “Down the road we’re going to have more refrigeration and perishables and less dry goods. It’s just the way the world of grocery is changing.”

Indeed, retailers can differentiate with grab-and-go products. Heinen’s current offerings are a testament to that. In its service case, Heinen’s offers several prepared proteins featuring on-trend flavors such as parmesan-crusted scallops, garlic-grilled shrimp, nut-crusted tilapia, parmesan-crusted orange roughy, teriyaki pepper steak and sundried tomato chicken breast as well as several prepared side dishes, including bleu cheese potato pancakes and grilled asparagus.

On a refrigerated shelf nearby there are prepared packages of stuffed cabbage, chicken tenders, turkey meatloaf, pulled rotisserie chicken, beef stew and other products. In addition, there is a comprehensive salad bar with differentiated offerings, including roasted cauliflower and Maryland-style crab salad. Heinen’s also sells smaller-portion packages of cookies, cakes and other sweets.

Foltz says the service case was dominated by traditional prepared salads (such as pasta and potato) when he began working for the grocer about 16 years ago. But Heinen’s decided to incorporate more prepared meal components around the what’s-for-dinner theme in the service case and moved the salads to the salad bar.

“People architect their meals around proteins — animal, fish and vegan — not around salads, although salads are very important,” he says.

Regarding fish, Foltz sees a great opportunity in grab-and-go foods with prepared seafood, a reason why Heinen’s service case offers several seafood items. While Heinen’s offers an attractive selection of raw seafood, it’s the prepared seafood that really gets consumers’ attention.

Foltz believes many customers are fearful to cook seafood, afraid they will ruin it.

“So we want to have a lot of grab-and-go seafood that is cooked perfectly,” he adds.

Foltz is well aware of consumer eating trends, especially among younger shoppers who love to snack and don’t often eat three square meals a day. Snacks are also convenient, another driving factor in eating trends.

According to a recent report from market researcher Nielsen, U.S. consumers are reaching for snacks to satisfy their hunger cravings between meals, and some are using them to replace meals entirely.

“Fifty percent of eating occasions evolve around snacking,” Foltz says.

Scanning the service case, Foltz remarks that Heinen’s needs to offer healthier selections.

“One of the things we realize is we have to be relevant in health and wellness,” he says. “It’s something we are investing heavily in. We believe the grocery store really needs to be the health care clinic of the future.”

Health and convenience are two factors driving innovation at Expresco Foods, which manufactures fully cooked and ready-to-eat proteins for retailers. The Montreal-based company offers artisanal and convenient grilled protein meal and snack solutions to be sold as grab-and-go products under private brands. Its offerings include hand-made grilled skewers and strips.

“These are the types of foods that people are looking for — high-protein on-the-go options that are fun to eat,” says Michael Delli Colli, marketing manager for Expresco Foods.

Delli Colli says the company is also hitting on consumers’ requests that are free from a growing list of undesirable ingredients.

“Consumers are more educated and smarter than ever so they also have higher expectations [regarding ingredients],” he adds.

To help it up the ante in healthier offerings, Heinen’s recently opened a new 60,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in the Cleveland area and will cook many of its grab-and-go products utilizing sous vide, a cooking technique that uses precise temperature control. Food is sealed in plastic bags and cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath or steam. Cooking in a sealed film results in a high-quality product that retains its moisture, flavor and texture. Product is also cooked consistently and shelf life is improved without additional preservatives and additives. Food safety is also improved — because nobody touches the food once it goes in the bag, several potential sources of contamination are eliminated.

Consumers simply need to “retherm” the products while in sous-vide cooked bags and/or finish them with a sauce or condiment, Foltz explains. “It’s a wonderful way to cook,” he adds. “We can control the process better.”

Foltz believes sous vide will have a tremendous positive impact on Heinen’s grab-and-go offerings. The taste and quality of the products will have consumers coming back for more.

While Foltz says what Heinen’s offers in the grab-and-go category is relevant, he says the retailer wants to keep with its history of offering leading-edge solutions. That means not just cooking differently, but keeping up with and even creating flavor trends in the category, which help differentiate. Clearly, Heinen’s does that with offerings like bruschetta asiago chicken and broccolini with fried garlic.

Delli Colli is not afraid to try new flavors in Expresco Foods’ products. He advises retailers to capitalize on taste in their regions and offer limited-time offerings according to seasons and even sporting events.

“We have received requests for coffee- or expresso-infused flavors for proteins,” he adds. “It’s important to offer consumers items that they can’t get every day.”

Another factor that’s important is marketing and merchandising — simply getting consumers to envision the possibilities for meal solutions and snacks through grab-and-go products.

Heinen’s does that well. On its website, Heinen’s offers a tasty solution for picnickers:

“A great addition to any picnic is an easy-to-make baguette sandwich. All you need is a baguette from the bakery, a bit of flank steak or beef tenderloin from prepared foods, a touch of blue cheese spread from the gourmet cheese department and some fresh arugula from the produce department. Cut the baguette into six even pieces, then slice slice each piece in half length-wise. Cover one side of each piece with cheese spread, then layer on some arugula and meat, put the other half of the baguette on top and enjoy!”

With summer around the corner, Heinen’s verbiage is enough to get consumers pining for picnic season.