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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Prepared meals are becoming big business for food retailers -- a fact that has not escaped the supermarket industry.
While some supermarket chains are just starting to enter the arena, Wegmans and Whole Foods Market are among the leaders in prepared foods, according to a reporty by The Washington Post.. The chains hire chefs and prep teams for their stores, and sometimes contract with third-party vendors, to prepare dozens of dishes a day -- 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, stated the news outlet.
"People eat with their eyes," Chuck Berardi, regional executive chef for the Pennsylvania division of Wegmans, told the newspaper. "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."
In total, prepared foods were expected to generate about $19.5 billion in sales 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.
But what is pushing the growth? According to the news report, the term "lifestyle" pops up regularly in discussions about hot food trends in supermarkets. Today, consumers just don't always have the time to cook.
However, lack of time to prepare dishes isn’t anything new. Joe Spinelli, a former supermarket consultant and now president of the College Park, Md.-based Restaurant Consultants, recalled how Boston Market tapped into the carry-out segment in the late 1980s, when the company was known as Boston Chicken.
Supermarkets are also tapping into more eating occasions. For example, hot bars are "not just for the lunch trade anymore," Spinelli said. "Those gourmet products are more for the dinner crowd than the lunch crowd. ... They've elevated the product. It's not just meat and potatoes. It's gourmet foods."
One consumer demand driving the future of hot foods is the desire for more healthful options. 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 sent a team of chefs to Haus Hiltl in Zurich, Switzerland, considered Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant, to learn how to cook veggies better, The Washington Post reported.