Getting your arms around the deli category

The deli category is a broad one—it covers all those cold cuts, cured sausage products, smoked meats, sliced cheeses and condiments that make up the bulk of your sandwiches, entree salads, antipasto plates and catering platters. Deli products show up on other parts of the menu too; smaller quantities are cross-utilized in soups, sides and entrees. The size and scope of this category can soak up a good share of your purchasing dollars.

Meat Rules

Processed meats account for the largest piece of deli purchasing. Here’s a rundown of their features and specs.

Whole muscle vs. structured meats
When premium deli sandwiches and platters are a restaurant’s focus, whole muscle meats are usually the choice; boneless hams, turkey breasts, brisket and top round are the most common examples. Shapes range from round to oval, square, slab or tavern (a “D” shape or semi-oval). The industry is moving towards producing whole muscle meats for foodservice, says Brett Lopp, director of product management in meats for Sara Lee Foodservice, which sells Sara Lee, Hillshire Farm and Galileo brands. Structured or formed deli products use pieces of meat that are bound together and pressed into uniform cylinders or slicing logs; water is added for moisture.

Unsliced vs. sliced
Although many operators prefer purchasing whole deli meats and slicing them on premise, it’s necessary to have skilled labor and good slicing equipment in house. “You get fresher product and better quality when you slice to order,” says David Locke, executive chef of New York NY Fresh Deli, a concept based in Mesa, Arizona. “It’s a bit more cumbersome for our franchisees to do their own slicing, but we spec the type of slicer they need and the exact setting for each product.”

Pre-sliced and shaved deli meats have long been available, but the latest products are improved in texture, flavor and quality. Many processors are working with new technologies and better ingredients to upgrade their lines, incorporating global flavors and cutting back or eliminating artificial ingredients. Newest on the market are Hormel’s all-natural and Bread Ready lines and Hillshire Farm’s 4-ounce foodservice
bubble packs of sliced ham, turkey and beef—pre-portioned to save sandwich-making labor.

“Natural” is a buzzword in meat processing just as it is in other food categories. The USDA defines natural as “meat that is minimally processed with no chemical preservatives, no artificial flavorings and no artificial coloring.”

“The number one trend right now is natural,” agrees Bill Dion, senior product manager for Hormel. “Foodservice demand for pre-sliced, 100 percent natural, no preservatives deli meat is huge.” Hormel’s Natural Choice line, available in both pre-sliced and bulk, also boasts 45 percent less sodium than the company’s regular sliced meats; choices include roast turkey, smoked turkey, smoked ham and roast beef.

At the time we went to press, the USDA was reassessing its natural label for deli meats. The controversy revolves around using sodium lactate as a preservative; currently it is an approved additive but some manufacturers argue that it is actually a refined chemical. If new labeling language passes, sodium lactate could no longer be used in a “natural” product to control listeria and prolong shelf life—but it would still be allowed as a flavoring agent.

Standard turkey, ham and roast beef are still the “big three” when it comes to restaurant inventory. Most foodservice purchasers will buy the plain deli meats, then modify them with a special sauce, dressing or condiment to make a signature sandwich, says Lopp of Sara Lee. Still, manufacturers keep up with today’s tastes by making meats with on-trend flavor profiles. These are some of the flavors to note:
Smoking deli meats with aromatic woods. In addition to the ubiquitous hickory, processors are now using apple wood, mesquite, cherry wood and others. 
Authentic products and seasonings. European-style meats are gaining popularity. Examples include traditionally cured Genoa salami, mortadella studded with pistachios, black forest ham and genuine prosciutto di Parma. Latin-accented meats, such as Cuban roast pork for Cubanos, are also gaining distribution.
Extreme flavor profiles. Sara Lee offers intensely seasoned Bold Buffalo, Extreme Cajun and Smokin’ Chipotle seasonings with its turkey breast line. Also on the market is roast beef encrusted with three peppercorn varieties and ham glazed with curried mustard.
Customization on the rise. In a move to distinguish their sandwiches with proprietary ingredients, operators are contracting with manufacturers and distributors to create custom deli meats.

Recent advances in processing and packaging address perishability and safety. High-pressure pasteurization (HPP) uses water-based technology to kill bacteria. At Hormel, meats are placed in a patented TrueTaste chamber and 87,000 pounds of water pressure per square inch is applied; this USDA-approved technique kills harmful pathogens without affecting flavor. The company’s Bread Ready sliced meats now boast a refrigerated shelf life of 120 days.

Manufacturers including CMS (Carroll Manufacturing & Sales) make post-pasteurization shrink bags that can withstand the high pasteurization temperatures necessary to kill bacteria. Ryan Till, product manager for CMS, explains:  “After a processor cooks the meat, it is removed from its sterile environment, allowing bacteria to multiply. Meats placed into the post-pasteurization bags are vacuum-sealed, then sterilized at 210°F for 10 minutes to kill any bacteria introduced during the transfer.”

How to make structured meat: Price and quality determine the binding process.

Premium tier products
The process: Whole muscle meats are tumbled; the tumbling brings the natural proteins (collagen,
for example) to the outer edges of the product.
These proteins then help hold the product together after cooking.
Used for: Ham and turkey; for roast beef, a whole
single muscle is utilized without tumbling.

Middle tier products
The process: Cut-up pieces of meat are bound together with modified food starch. A variety of starches are available; these starches hold up to five times their weight in water.
Used for: Ham, turkey and roast beef.
Bottom tier products

The process: Carrageenan, a dried seaweed that holds up to 25 times its weight in water, is used to bind the pieces of meat.
Used for: Primarily turkey and occasionally ham.

Slicer 101 

New York NY's staff trains franchisees and employees on slicer safety and sanitary food handling. "We go into great detail regarding cleaning, disassembly and assembly, from the important 'pull the plug' after using and before cleaning to 'never leave the slicer until it's fully put back together'," executive chef David Locke explains.

There is no "one" slicer that fits all applications, notes Bob Adams, VP of sales for Globe Food Equipment in Dayton, Ohio. A heavy-duty automatic slicer is a good choice for continuous, all-day slicing, while a manual machine works best when slicing meats to order. Adams recommends slicing as thin as possible for better flavor and a more appealing sandwich. New York NY specs most meats and cheeses to 1/8-inch thickness or less. "The thinner the slice, the more tender the mouthfeel. Plus, we like our sandwiches to have more height," Locke says.

When switching from one meat to another or from cheese to meat, it's important to wipe down the slicer to prevent cross-contamination. Globe recommends using a mild detergent diluted with water to clean the equipment.

Product cutting 

Deli Ham
Brett Lopp, Director of Product Management, Meats
Sara Lee Foodservice
Downers Grove, Illinois

  1. Read the ingredient statement. Ham is a smoked product. Determine whether the smoked flavor is natural (smoked over wood or provided by another natural source) or smoke flavoring (derived from atomization).
  2. Open the package and cut into the ham. It should be pink to rosy in color with a distinct grainy texture and defined muscle structure.
  3. Check moisture. Water content variesby the quality of the ham. Dry ham (the highest quality) has less than 5 percent added ingredients (mostly water); natural juice ham contains 5-9 percent; water-added ham has 9-19 percent; and “ham and water product” is 20 percent. The USDA designates these figures.
  4. Taste the product. Two primary smoke flavors are used in processing—hickory and mesquite. The North favors hickory or hardwood and the South, mesquite. Neither should be overpowering.

Deli Turkey
David Locke
Executive chef, New York NY Fresh Deli
Mesa, Arizona

  1. Read the ingredient list. The relative quality of the ingredients will help you gauge product quality. Beware of extensive lists with an abundance of chemical additives. And work with a reliable supplier to ensure consistency of quality.
  2. Examine the packaging. Jot down the date the product was packed and the use-by date. These tell you the maximum shelf life with the least degradation of quality over time.
  3. Check moisture content. Product should come off as close to freshly roasted as possible. If it is too dry, it will break apart and have an unpleasant mouthfeel; if too moist, it will be mushy.
  4. Note appearance. Cooked turkey breast is available as both “single muscle” and “structured” or “formed.” Single muscle offers higher quality, better taste and texture and more visual appeal; formed turkey breast is lower-priced and not as attractive. Turkey looks closer to fresh when it has a golden brown skin or a browned edge when sliced.
  5. Taste the turkey. It should have a meaty flavor, fresh aroma and be slightly juicy but not slimy or slick. Any off flavor or excessive moisture can indicate spoilage.
  6. Audit the processing facility. Be sure all the appropriate safety measures and HACCP controls are in place to minimize the risk of foodborne illness.

Operators Talk Deli

Three top purchasers share their buying smarts

Matt Riddleberger
Director of purchasing, Firehouse Subs
Jacksonville, Florida
Signature: Hook and Ladder—smoked turkey breast and Virginia honey ham topped with melted Monterey jack cheese

Buying strategies
The major issues I face are consistency of product, ability to customize and fluctuations in pricing. To meet the first two challenges, we use one manufacturer to provide and custom-label all our meat. Our deli meats have signature flavor profiles and our breads are also custom-formulated, plus we use one vendor for all our condiments.

We work primarily with two broadline distributors out of five distribution centers. This keeps products moving, assures freshness and guards against extreme price increases. Most Firehouse locations get two deliveries a week and use our POS system to place orders directly at the broadliner’s Web site.

Smaller vendors also help us with customization. For example, we offer 50 hot sauces so patrons
can personalize their sandwiches. Some are created exclusively for us; we take the distributor out of the negotiating process so minimum volumes are not a problem.

Geoffrey Rhode
Corporate executive chef, Dagwood’s Sandwich Shoppes
New Orleans, Louisiana
Signature: The Dagwood—hard salami, pepperoni, cappicola, mortadella, deli
ham, cotto salami, cheddar, provolone, red onion, lettuce, tomato, fresh and roasted red bell peppers and Italian olive salad on three slices of firm, Pullman-style bread

Buying strategies
A successful deli sandwich concept starts with good bread. The killer French bread for our Roast Beef Po’ Boy comes from a 100-year-old plant in New Orleans, for example, and a small bakery in Tampa makes unbelievable Cuban bread for our Hot Pressed Cuban. Before signing these suppliers on, I made sure they could keep up with our growth as we added units.

In the deli meat category, we worked with manufacturers to get exactly what we wanted, such as true Genoa salami and rare, oven-roasted top round beef. In some cases, we used a product already in the line, while others had to be customized.

Every product—down to the mustard and mayo—is thoroughly evaluated in our R&D test kitchen. To find the right pickle for our Cuban, we must have tasted dozens—from awful to unbelievable—and had an intense “pickle conversation” before we chose the winner.

David Locke
Executive chef, New York NY Fresh Deli
Mesa, Arizona
Signature: Cuban Panini—roast pork, ham, provolone, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickle grilled on a Cuban roll

Buying strategies
I purchase from processors who have been reliable in providing us with high-quality products. Sometimes I look at custom products (special rubs and flavor profiles), but we do most of our own development, giving base meats a twist with a house-made condiment, such as an artichoke or olive spread.

Our delivery schedule has changed because delivery costs have gone way up. We try to keep it down to two to three deliveries per week and put more inventory into each; our meats have a long enough shelf life. I also try not to lock in prices with suppliers; staying on the open market gives me more flexibility with price fluctuations. It seems that as soon as fresh meat prices increase, processed meats follow.

Q&A with Alan Hiebert
Education information specialist
International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Madison, Wisconsin

How much deli meat should an operator buy?
A made-to-order sandwich program with three bread options, three meat options, three cheese options and three condiment options yields over 80 distinct sandwiches. Add a special meat of the week and you’ll have something novel to offer with good inventory control.

What form and package size is the most practical?
Purchase as much as you can sell in a week. Turkey, ham and roast beef get used up fairly quickly, so it may pay to buy larger size logs or pieces and slice it yourself. For specialty meats, pre-sliced vacuum-sealed 2- to 3-pound packages are handy.  

How long can deli meats stay fresh?
The general rule for traditional products is that once you crack the plastic packaging, deli meat should be used within seven days. Of course, that means storing it in the walk-in at 40°F or below.

Talk about safe handling guidelines.
Employees should wash hands and then put on fresh gloves when slicing or prepping deli meat. Change gloves when they become damaged or contaminated with raw proteins. Sandwich-making and other work surfaces in the kitchen should be cleaned and sanitized after each use to avoid cross-contamination.

Is the “natural” trend in deli meats here to stay?
This is a significant trend in deli products, but I also see a push toward organic and sustainable products. There’s also a growing sense of ethics in all our food choices—humane treatment of animals is an issue with deli meats as well.

Spread the news

According to a Packaged Facts report on sandwich spreads, the market for ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise is stagnating, albeit at $3 billion. Mayonnaise still dominates with a 59 percent share, followed by ketchup and
mustard. But Americans are favoring bolder, spicier condiments for their sandwiches. “More innovation is necessary to keep up with America’s more sophisticated palates and desire for exciting and novel flavors,” the report notes. Products that make use of ethnic ingredients are becoming increasingly popular; these include habanero, chipotle, wasabi, miso and guacamole. So-called “upscale” condiments are also hot: honey mustard, roasted garlic, pesto and wine-infused spreads are gaining ground.


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