Competition is cooking at the supermarket down the block

“Grocerants”—a term that first came to my attention during our company’s Restaurant Leadership Conference in March—was bandied about a lot during the Food Marketing Institute’s annual trade show in Chicago this week.  It came through particularly loud and clear during the Supermarket Chefs Showdown—a culinary competition held by FMI for chefs who helm the stoves in the nation’s major supermarket chains.

As we reported in Restaurant Business’ 10 Groundbreaking Concepts in May, supermarkets are marketing themselves as all-in-one dining destinations, many with full-service in-store restaurants and bars. The 15 chef finalists who competed in the Showdown cooked up some pretty impressive dishes—dishes that could just as comfortably be set on a restaurant table as in a supermarket case.

Since foodservice is becoming such an important profit center in supermarkets, I was asked to be one of three judges. Along with a consumer magazine editor and a country club chef, we tasted 15 dishes divided among five categories: Breakfast to Go, Affordable Family Meals, Ethnic Dishes, Holiday Party Platter and Desserts. Here’s a look at five trends these supermarket chefs are cooking up to compete for your restaurant customers.

chef cooking

$5 bowls

At Roche Brothers supermarket in Massachusetts, Chef Brian Dunn offers four meals-in-a bowl: Indian, Asian, Mac ’n Cheese and Italian. Each includes a protein, veggies and a starch, available to eat in or take out to heat up at home. All sell for $5, even the lobster mac ’n cheese, which Roche admits took a bit of back and forth to yield a good profit margin. He sells about 800 over a period of two days. For the contest, Dunn whipped up Shichimi Togarashi Shrimp Noodle Bowl, using his own Japanese togarashi spice blend made with pepper flakes, peppercorns, white and black sesame seeds, ginger, grated orange peel and nori.

shrimp bowl

Breakfast in a jar

In the grab-and-go breakfast category, two of the entries were presented in jars—one hot and one cold. Chef Kirsten Shabaz of Valley Natural Foods in Minnesota presented Eggs in a Jar, baking a seasoned egg mixture with cheddar, broccoli and ham in a half-pint mason jar. The recipe was inspired by one of her children, who never has time to sit down to breakfast before heading off to school.

Chef Amy Gleason of a Hy-Vee supermarket in Omaha created a Cinnamon Scented Farro Breakfast Parfait, layering Greek yogurt, preserves, fruit and farro in a small jar that she closed with a lid and labeled for the takeout case. Gleason taught a class on ancient grains, sparking her interest in getting farro into a breakfast item.

Interactive catering platters

As restaurants expand their catering operations, supermarkets are upping their game. A standout in the party platter category incorporated interactive elements. Chef Elizabeth Davis of a Hy-Vee supermarket in Davenport, Iowa, presented an artful arrangement of sashimi, blood oranges and other citrus, matchsticks of jicama, carrot and cucumber and crispy wonton strips on a flat basket. Accompanying this was a carafe of sesame-plum sauce dressing. Davis instructed the judges to drizzle the ingredients with dressing and fling it up in the air with chopsticks—as is the custom at Asian celebrations. Then we all dug in to sample the dish, a beautiful complement of textures, flavors and colors.

catering tray

Korean crossovers

In the ethnic category, I was disappointed when they pulled away my plate of Korean Braised Short Ribs after just two bites. This dish, prepared by Chef Dustin Miller of Giant Eagle supermarket in Pittsburgh, was so well executed and complex, I wanted to take the rest home for dinner. The braise was flavored with lemongrass, chili sauce, garlic, ginger and shiitakes, but the big surprise was the addition of dates. Their sweetness balanced the salty and sour notes in the recipe. Crispy daikon and black and white sesame seeds added crunchy contrast.

korean dish

Kimchi and other pickled vegetables, a major trend on the restaurant side, crossed over to a bologna sandwich in the hands of Chef Alois Maierhofer, also of Giant Eagle supermarket. He soaked daikon, carrots, kohlrabi and jalapeño in an Asian vinegar marinade, then layered the pickled mixture over breaded, fried bologna on grilled rye bread spread with mustard aioli. It tasted like a Korean-accented Reuben sandwich.

Healthy flavors

All the chefs reported that they’re paying a lot of attention to the health-conscious shopper in the prepared foods they offer. A Hummus, Baba Ghanoush and Khyar Bi Laban platter prepared by Chef Keoni Chang of Foodland Super Markets in Hawaii, played up the flavors of the Mediterranean with clever substitutions, such as peanut butter and edamame in the hummus. An Asian Black Rice Salad entered by Chef Yolanda Chatman of a Kroger supermarket in Georgia also used edamame, along with kale, sweet potatoes and red cabbage. It was served in a red cabbage “bowl” for a hearty and healthy vegetarian entree. Presentation played a big part in both recipes.

dips pita

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