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Posted: March 27, 2014

Chef Laura: Take a number

Is your deli ready to go digital?

Laura Cook Newman

There’s an area in every grocery store so dreadful, that I usually just avoid it entirely: The deli department. 

Although the bounty of Boar’s Head and bologna look enticing, the utter anarchy repels me.  Typically, I cruise by the deli, assess the mayhem and then sulk off to the refrigerated section to buy listeria-laden lunch meats.

Placing an order at the deli has always been a battle.  Without being properly armed with a pocketful of Xanax, I can’t justify subjecting myself to that special brand of agony for a few slices of capicola.

  • First, the mammoth meat case blocks the customers’ view of the lone employee.
  • Second, there’s no clear queuing system.
  • Third, I’m always behind the sweet granny who wants her pastrami sliced “just so”.

In an effort to streamline the chaos, the number dispensing tool was introduced.  This gadget created some semblance of order, as sweaty-palmed husbands anxiously awaited their winning number to be called.  It looked more like a scene from an OTB parlor in the Bronx, than a grocery store.

Ever notice during non-peak hours how customers ignore the red plastic Take-a-Number dispenser?  This in turn causes the staff’s desire to track said numbers wane.  But then - out of thin air - two, three, four customers approach simultaneously.  Some take a ticket, some don’t.  The deli employees try to catch up with the faltering system by shouting “73? 74? 75?” with no success.  They’d probably have better luck asking “Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?”

To my delight, I visited King Soopers yesterday and spied a new digital kiosk by the store’s entrance.  It was a shiny touch screen that encouraged customers to place their cold cuts order now, and then pick it up at the deli in 15 minutes.  Finally, a modern solution to this antiquated system.

The blend of innovation, technology and novelty merged into the perfect marketing hat trick and I tapped away at the screen.  A ticket popped out indicating my order number.  I took a hard left, navigating the store backwards, so that I’d strategically end up at the deli in 15 minutes with all of my shopping done.  Yay me!

I arrived at the deli, ticket in hand, eager to secure my lovingly bagged ‘n’ tagged goodies that were awaiting my precisely-timed arrival.  Ehh, not so much.

Mulling about the counter were four types of customers:

  1. Baby Boomer man in the midst of being helped.  A package of sliced olive loaf resting on the glass counter, while awaiting his low sodium Swiss.
  2. Millennial guy loitering.  His status was dubious until the employee asked if he had been helped.  Turns out he hadn’t been helped yet, but didn’t seem to care one way or the other. 
  3. Silent Generation woman, not so silently waving her Turn-o-Matic 20007 ticket in the air, insisting on service.
  4. Gen X lady wondering where her pre-placed order should be picked up.  Contemplating “waiting it out”, taking a (new) number, or cutting the whole line and demanding the Butterball that she ordered 17 minutes ago.

Number 4 would be me.

After customers 1, 2 and 3 were served, it was my turn.  I handed the staffer my digitally printed receipt that looked completely different from the “old fashioned” ticket.  She retreated to her printer, tore the order off the roll, and begins to slice my turkey. 

This system should work like a service bar at a restaurant where the bartender juggles customers in front of him, as well as keeps his ear out for the hum of the printer.  Those drink orders are placed by the servers, who expect perfectly blended daiquiris ready for pick up as they hurry by; a flawlessly choreographed system of efficiency.

Alas, I was handed my order 25 minutes after it was (initially) placed.   Although King Soopers is on the right track, this futuristic system needs extreme beta testing before the launch.   They should consider bringing in a bus full of Central City day-trippers who will surely order “old skool”, while a gaggle of Gen Y’ers tap away at the digital kiosk.

Until the kinks get worked out, I’ll be in the refrigerated section with my convenient and calming friend, Mr. Oscar Mayer.

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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Readers Respond

I wish the deli had an ATM feature. Kind of like the Sprinkles cupcake ATM in Beverly Hills. Brilliant! That coupled with the self checkout would make shopping trips a bit more bearable. BTW, when is Amazon fresh coming to Denver? I'd be their best customer! By Chef Laura on 2014 04 01
I like the old school way of taking a number. Simple, and wait your turn. As a wise philosopher once said, "let's not bring ink and paper into this." By Deli-cious on 2014 03 28
Funny stuff. I happen to like olive loaf - but only on Wonder bread with pimento cheese spread. By Charlie O on 2014 03 28
I'm with ya sis! I would rather visit the dentist than visit the deli counter. I recall a grocery chain in Massachusetts implementing this digital/kiosk system a decade ago. I used it a bunch of times and seemed to work well. Something that Wegman's does is to freshly pre-pack half pound selections and keep them in a cooler so you can grab and go. By Aunt B on 2014 03 27
Stop & Shop in Massachusetts has had this system for years. Works pretty well. You pick up the order yourself in a designated case when the store intercom announces it is ready. Sometimes takes 2 minutes, sometimes 15. Have not lost an order yet. My only concern would be that you have access to other orders and if someone thinks yours looks pretty good and doesn't want to wait for theirs, they can take it if they want to pay for it. Hasn't happened to me yet. Your suggestion about beta testing is apropos. I'm sure King Sooper will iron out the wrinkles in time. Mickey Rourke, in "The Wrestler," had a couple of great deli scenes. By PF on 2014 03 27
I'm a big deli fan - love Swiss sliced for my sandwiches - but I have to agree that there is always a level of general anxiety surrounded that dept in the grocery store. The new system sounds great - now if King Soopers would pay their employees to be trained in the system that would be even greater! By A. Pearson on 2014 03 27
oy! sounds dreadful! I "rarely" order deli meats due to these afore-mentioned ordering inconveniences. Luckily for me, I have the luxury of shopping at off peak hours, so If I see the deli person is just waiting for a customer, that's when I make my purchase, and share some one-on-one time with the slicer! It's a good time to go vegetarian! LOL By Ta Tee on 2014 03 27
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