The roots of the American deli run deep.
Deli connoisseur and author of Save the Deli, David Sax says the first Jewish delis popped up in New York and other North American cities in the 1870s. At the time, they were basic butcher shops, typically offering a humble spread of cured meats.
It was in the 1920s and 30s when delis really started to grow in popularity and become ingrained in American food culture, Alison Herman writes at First We Feast. That interest waned somewhat in the latter part of the 20th century and early part of the 21st century but now — nearly 150 years since their conception — delis are experiencing another resurgence and are set to take over fast casual dining in 2018.
There’s a Revival of Classic Jewish Deli Items
Diners all over the country are rediscovering smoked meats, cured meats and other Jewish deli classics, according to McAlister’s Deli corporate executive chef, Will Eudy, who spoke to Kevin Hardy at QSR Magazine. Just because these flavors are a century old doesn’t mean that people have seen them — especially younger generations. Many people have simply never had the chance to go to a Jewish deli and get the full experience, he adds.
While latkes and smoked meat sandwiches may be commonplace for most New Yorkers, there are many areas of the country where this type of food has yet to catch on. But it’s poised to. Eudy says that pastrami and corned beef are gaining popularity at the Atlanta-based chain and that they plan to release a new pastrami melt in 2018.
What Was Old is New
It’s a Renaissance of sorts, says Julia Moskin at The New York Times [subscription required]. She writes that we’re living in the new Golden Age of Jewish-American deli foods, with many young cooks in New York, mainly Jewish-Americans, fully embracing the foods of their predecessors.
There’s a movement happening where all of the old school favorites are once again held in high esteem, and there’s an emphasis on preserving the recipes and techniques of old before they’re gone forever.
Moskin cites a quote by Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Old World Jewish foods company Gefilteria that hits the nail right on the head. “It turns out that our ancestors knew what they were doing. The recipes and techniques are almost gone, and we have to capture the knowledge before it’s lost.”
And this is an attitude that’s not just permeating New York but throughout much of the US. Features writer at Portland Press Herald, Meredith Goad, talks about the traditional Jewish deli food revival that’s happening in Portland, Oregon. Mile-high pastrami on rye, chopped liver and brisket have made a monumental comeback and are wildly popular with a new generation of eaters.
It doesn’t top there: We’re actually seeing a trend where the popularity of classic deli food is growing globally as well. Larissa Dubecki, food critic and author of the book Prick With A Fork, writes at Good Food that delicatessens are huge in Australia right now. She says there’s a rebirth happening where up and coming delis are paying homage to Jewish-American classics with pastrami being a particular favorite.
A Growing Demand for Fresh, Convenient Food
The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) talks about a new trend where the deli now has a prominent role in top retailers and that customers are seeking out fresh, premade meals.
They also provide some statistics that really shed light on this growth. During the 52 weeks ending on February 27, 2016, weekly deli dollar sales per store saw a 5.8 percent increase, and volume sales were up by 3.9 percent.
A big part of the appeal of delis is the freshness of the food. It provides diners with a healthier alternative (that’s still delicious) to hyper-processed foods.
Registered dietician Timi Gustafson says younger eaters are more health conscious than previous generations, and millennials are leading the charge in terms of making healthy diet and lifestyle choices top priority. She references a Nielsen report on global health and wellness which found that millennials are often willing to pay premium prices for healthy foods.
“There are tremendous opportunities for food manufacturers and retailers to get in front of this health-oriented movement by providing products and services their clientele wants,” Susan Dunn, president of consumer products research at Nielsen, is quoted by Gustafson. “While diet fads come and go over time, innovative, back-to basics foods that taste good, are easy to prepare and provide healthful benefits will have staying power.”
This is great news for deli owners and brings us to our next point.
Artisanal Foods are In
In Food Processing Magazine, Lauren R. Hartman expounds on the growing consumer concern for healthy eating. As it continues to escalate, so does interest in natural, artisanal foods, with people choosing to look beyond the standard, mass-produced foods they were so accustomed to when growing up.
Instead, consumers are hungry for high-quality ingredients and old-world methods. It’s all about time, care and quality.
When it comes to defining the term “artisanal,” Hartman provides a quote from Seattle-based bakery and deli La Panzanella that sums it up perfectly. “For us, it’s food made in, or close to, the traditional way with simple, understandable ingredients, from a family recipe or a recipe that has been handed down—food that people will remember and want to share with family or friends.”
Paris Wolfe makes another interesting point in The New-Herald Lifestyle saying that there’s been a resurrection of historic meat processing practices including cured meats. She explains there’s a trend where chefs and deli owners are butchering whole animals in house, allowing them to take advantage of lesser-used cuts. Also, artisan delis tend to favor high quality products and use fewer additives.
Speciality Cheeses Are Seeing a Huge Spike In Demand
There’s massive growth in demand for speciality cheeses too, writes Cathy Siegner at Food Dive. Shifting consumer attitudes toward dairy fats mean people are seeking foods free from processed ingredients. The result is that whole-fat cheese sales have grown, while low-fat, reduced-fat and fat-free cheese sales have declined.
The Convenience Store Decisions team cites an International Dairy Deli Bakery Association report that says specialty cheeses account for the lion’s share of consumer dollars at 66 percent of all cheese sales. Although you might attribute that to the fact that specialty cheeses tend to be costlier than regular cheeses, it still shows how big the demand currently is.
Siegner writes that it’s the more adventurous eaters like millennials, gourmands and foodies that specialty cheeses are especially popular with. She adds that delis are increasingly becoming a prime destination for specialty cheese shoppers.
Fast Casual is Growing By Leaps and Bounds
Deli owners, even small mom-and-pop outfits, can benefit from the increasing popularity of fast casual dining. Food writer Tim Carman describes in The Washington Post just how big fast casual dining has become in America, which he calls the “fast casual nation,” and says movement has changed how this country eats.
Fast casuals are influencing and attracting chefs and restaurateurs from all over the hospitality industry, writes Carman. He adds that the trend is making it so traditional fast-food chains must improve their ingredients and refine their quality to stay competitive.
While fast casual makes up the smallest portion of the industry at 7.7 percent compared to 49 percent and 44 percent for full service and fast food respectively, its growth vastly exceeds the rest of the industry, writes the team at FranchiseHelp. And those numbers are pretty impressive, with an increase of fast casual restaurants across the country of 500 percent over the past two decades.