How to Shop the Best Prepared Foods, According to a Deli Attendant

·6 min read
prepared foods deli trays at grocery store full of salads and entrees
prepared foods deli trays at grocery store full of salads and entrees

On any given day, the prepared foods department at a supermarket brims with activity during the lunch and dinner rushes. One employee may be rotating the hot bar items, steam rising as he lifts the

stainless steel containers, while another may be assembling a sandwich or made-to-order stir fry. And occasionally, someone comes out to tend the olive bar and the soup and salad bar. The process repeats in a quick succession as people hurry in and out, grocery shopping while grabbing a quick bite for dinner.

Read more

The prepared foods deli is, by and large, more about convenience than quality. A recent report by the Food Industry Association stated that almost a third of shoppers do not purchase meals from the prepared foods department because they didn’t think about it or assumed that restaurants had better options.

This is a complete contrast to my experience working as a cashier many years ago at a local supermarket, where I worked right beside the deli and witnessed many people opting for these meals. It got me thinking about prepared foods in general, and why shoppers are drawn to them or resistant to them. To find out, I spoke to Kirkland Allen, a former employee in the prepared foods department at New Seasons Market, which has several locations around the Pacific Northwest.

The best service depends on time of day

“We all have our moments in the day when we’re our best self and moments when we’re not,” said Allen. He started working at New Seasons Market as a deli clerk when the store first opened in 2014. Along with tending the hot bar, he also helped with dishwashing and food prep, and eventually made his way up to sous chef and buyer.

Grocery stores tend to have at least two shifts, he told me. For example, if the store opens at 7 a.m., then most likely, an employee has been working since 5 in the morning—so please do not come in at 12:30 p.m. (near the end of his shift, when he’s very tired) and start screaming your orders and demanding multiple things with lightning speed. You will not get the best service.

Always be kind to your deli attendant

If you visit the deli regularly, learn your clerk’s name (look at their name tag), say “please” and “thank you,” and get off your cell phone. Allen emphasized this heavily.

“You have no idea how many times someone’s barked orders at me while talking loudly into the phone, like they’re the only important person in the world,” he said. “It’s so rude.”

Turns out, being nice goes a long way. Why? When you’re pleasant to a deli worker you’re more likely to get extras or discounts. And if you have any specific or odd requests, they’re more likely to accommodate you. Want a bagel toasted in a particular way? Vegan mayonnaise? Specific brand of dill pickles only? Your sandwich cut in triangles? Ask nicely, and you may get them.

Deli foods go through cycles every day

Of course, we all want the hot, steaming, fresh-out-of-the-oven foods, not the ones that have been sitting on hot plates for several hours. How do you make sure that you get the best quality food? And what about that rotisserie chicken that’s been sitting under a heat lamp?

“If freshness is what you’re after,” said Allen, “then paying attention to the time is very important. Generally, hot items like rotisserie chickens need to be cycled out every two and a half hours.”

That means when you purchase any hot packaged items, you should look at the time stamp on the clamshell. (Grocery stores are required to provide this). If it says “1:00” and it is now 3:00 p.m., the item is near the end of its shelf life and will be switched out soon. You can decide for yourself whether it’s worth it to wait another half hour or so for the fresher version.

Pay attention to the grocery store’s delivery dates

Ever wonder why you see employees stocking shelves on certain days of the week but not others? This is because grocery stores have regularly scheduled delivery dates. In Allen’s experience, the stores get deliveries on Mondays and Wednesdays for most items. Therefore, if you’re looking for the freshest salads, soups, or other prepared items, then stick to those days of the week.

A good way to find out when deliveries come in is to speak to a sous chef or a deli manager on staff. “We like it when people take interest in our work and go out of their way to get the best product,” Allen said.

Don’t “put in an order” at the prepared foods counter

Huh? What do you mean, “don’t put in an order”? This one threw me off. Allen told me that it may look like the deli is one big area, but it’s really multiple departments serving different purposes. The prepared foods area, for instance, is where foods prepared ahead are placed under a heat lamp, waiting to be purchased. So you can’t place a sandwich order or request two pounds of sliced meat at the prepared foods counter. The employee will most likely direct you to walk ten steps toward the appropriate station for that request.

While it may look like employees are moving back and forth behind the same counter, they’re each assigned a specific station for the day. Some stations, such as the charcuterie area and sandwich station, require more customer-employee interaction while others are simple grab-and-go setups. If your items need to be weighed, he said, be patient, especially if it looks like the scale is having an issue.

Don’t ask to sample fluffy salads

Samples are great, and grocery stores thrive on promoting seasonal products, changing up their display to fit their needs. But not everything at the prepared foods counter lends itself well to sampling. Allen mentioned that it’s best not to request samples of “fluffy salads.” What exactly are fluffy salads? I asked. These are the salads comprised of big, “fluffy” lettuce leaves.

“This may sound like a weird one, but generally sampling cups are very small paper cups,” said Allen, “and it’s hard to fit fluffy leaves into that small cup, especially with utensils that they give us.”

The best thing to sample? Meat, heavily dressed salads, and vegetables that can easily fit into a sampling cup. My favorite: olives.

If the best possible deal is what you’re after, then perhaps the prepared foods deli isn’t where you should purchase your dinner most frequently. But with a little bit of decorum and nice manners, along with attention and genuine curiosity, you’ll get exactly what you want—even that 20% discount. Just remember to say “please” and “thank you” to the people responsible for your meal.