What Will Happen to Our Endangered Deli Meats?

·5 min read
Pickle and pimiento loaf slice
Pickle and pimiento loaf slice

After I read Josh Wussow’s account of slinging Krakus ham while working at a grocery deli, I started paying more attention to what’s behind the deli counter. Now, each time I place my order, I eye the Krakus and think, “Who orders that?” I’ve never seen such a purchase happen with my own eyes. My curiosity only grew once I couldn’t track down any Lebanon bologna.

“We stopped carrying it,” the woman behind the counter told me. “Only two older folks were ordering it. We kept having to throw it out.”

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After this encounter, I pictured the two customers who used to come and order this meat, and the fact that because not enough of their cohorts joined them, the meat was, at least at this grocery store, dead. Is this how deli meats die? The question haunted me for days. Are there other deli meats that are dying because not enough people are ordering them?

Pimiento loaf, where are you?

I decided to explore the concept of endangered deli meats through a lens of the one that sounds and looks the weirdest to me: pimiento loaf, which it turns out is often called “pickle and pimiento loaf,” or “P&P loaf.” P&P loaf is a close cousin to the olive loaf, to the extent that I found I couldn’t really research one without dipping into the world of the other, and I’ll have to use them interchangeably throughout here. To be fair, they’re pretty similar: a mishmash of meats with little bits of stuff mixed in, formed into a loaf, baked (like bread!), and then sliced like deli meat.

The question I was seeking the answer to: Do young people buy pickle and pimiento loaf? If not, is it endangered? As older people stop buying deli meats—my gentle way of saying they die—will there be no one to buy these things anymore, and will, therefore, the loaves die as well?

Young people aren’t buying cold cuts as much as their elders

If you for some reason feel you would like to make your own olive loaf, which to me sounds like hell on earth, I did you a solid and found you a recipe (you’re welcome). If you don’t feel like making your own, why not go buy some and eat it? Chances are, anyone under the age of 30 isn’t going to. In fact, this population isn’t buying much deli meat at all.

The North American Meat Institute told me the organization does not have sales numbers on pickle and pimiento loaf, nor any of the detailed data I was looking for. It was suggested I reach out to market researcher Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics, LLC. The information she provided only compounded my fears for pickle and pimiento loaf’s fate.

Like NAMI, Roerink said she didn’t have as specific of data as I was asking for (what, no one studiously tracks the performance of pickle and pimiento loaf?), but she did say that younger people’s deli meat habits are different from those of their elder counterparts.

“Younger folks aren’t big on using service counters,” said Roerink. “They are not big on using the meat counter or any counter. They prefer self-serve and often customization through an app or kiosk.”

However, Roerink said, engagement in deli meat—especially through premium sandwiches and wraps—is high. So it’s not that deli meats aren’t being consumed, but younger people may be less inclined to go to the deli counter and order them. They’d prefer to eat them on a sandwich that’s already been made, customized to their liking.

For what it’s worth, deli meat sales overall are trending down, but it’s unclear whether that’s related to the cost of groceries or a general distaste. A report from 210 Analytics and marketing firm IRi analyzed grocery sales in June 2022 and found that although the dollars spent on deli meat in June—$645 million nationwide—were higher than a year ago, the increase was due to inflation, not higher sales.

“Both units and pounds were down more than -7% when compared to the same weeks in 2021 due to inflation of +16%,” says the report.

Ever ordered a pickle and pimiento loaf sandwich at a deli?

Here’s where we get into hypothesis country, because as I’ve said, and as experts have said to me, there aren’t solid numbers on pickle and pimiento loaf. But here’s my theory: If younger folks are most boisterously engaging with deli meat through prepared sandwiches, the deli meats that will survive the decades to come are the ones that are in those sandwiches. So I looked at many, many deli menus. There were a whole lot of salami, ham, turkey, chicken, and pepperoni offerings. Even a bologna or two. What I didn’t find was a single prepared sandwich that contained any pickle and pimiento loaf or olive loaf. In fact, when I Googled such a thing, I got three results of note:

  1. Muffuletta sandwiches, which have olives on them and got mixed up in a search that included “olive” and “sandwich.”

  2. This recipe for a sandwich the author calls the “Hillbilly Club sandwich.”

  3. A video with a clip from Friends in which the butt of the joke is the fact Joey would eat an olive loaf and ham spread sandwich, something even a dog won’t do.


Joey’s Olive Loaf and Ham Spread Sandwich | Friends

This isn’t a eulogy for deli meats. Yet.

A quick Instacart search showed me numerous opportunities to buy olive loaf, and I’ve confirmed that it is still on offer at the deli counters, at least where I shop—though admittedly I am in New England, which this subreddit blames for pickle and pimiento loaf. But like the Krakus, I’ve never observed it being ordered by anyone, not with my own eyes.

Roerink did say that some retailers are using marketing approaches that label some foods as “old school” to try to get younger people engaged, and it has worked well. Vintage clothes are in, why not vintage meats?

Whether it’s through an “old school” branding or a good old fashioned sidling up to the deli counter, the matter of pickle and pimiento loaf’s survival might just be in your hands, fellow kids.