COOKING: It's Buyer Beware at the Deli Counter



I felt the need to write this post after my husband and I had experienced some "snake-oil salesmanship" tactics at a 3 different grocers' deli counters. When you are sitting in line looking at the meats and the prices, are you drawn in by the sale prices on certain high-end brands? Pay attention, and don't be bored because you've been waiting in line for 30 minutes to get your number called. When they pull the half sliced hunk of meat from the bowels of the deli case, is there still a label on it? Do you know what it is? Never knew you had to pay that much attention?

I'll explain our three experiences to you, so you know what to be aware of. My uber-Italian mother complained about these practices at one of her favorite grocery stores, and I thought she was just being...well, Italian. But I believe her now.

Incident 1:
This first is the most typical. I saw on the sign at the deli counter that they had Mastro Prosciutto di Parma on sale, with the sign all nice and big on the leg of prosciutto with the proper label. I asked for a half pound. The woman grabbed a saran wrapped covered chunk from behind and quickly went to slice it. I saw that the label didn't have Mastro on it. So I stopped her and said, "Wait a minute! That is not what I asked for, nor what's on the sign." She said, "Well, it's what's open and I have to slice from this, otherwise I have to open a whole new one of the one you want." I said, "I don't care, it's what the sign says, and you have to open a new one. If you don't, get your manager, or you can forget it." She begrudgingly opened a fresh leg of the brand I wanted.

So moral here is, the deli counter entices you with the high end brand's sale price, but passes of a cheaper product, or something they want to finish off (hopefully without you noticing).

Incident 2:
This is where they are confusing brands and signs, making you think you are buying a high end product when in fact they will pass off a cheaper product. The tricky thing, especially with Italian deli meats, is that there are category descriptors and then brand names that carry the same verbiage. You really need to know what you want and ask questions, because the deli counter uses this ambiguity to their advantage, either for profit or to get rid of older product.

So this next incident was "the mortadella incident" at another grocer.




I saw the sign in the deli counter saying they had San Daniele mortadella on sale for 3.99 lb (above). I thought, "Holy COW! That's a deal for that brand!" Here's the rub, the sign was over the Mastro brand, but very, very hidden. And this is where things get murky. San Daniele is a high-quality brand of Italian deli meats. It is also a descriptor of a curing process in the San Daniele region versus, say...the Parma region. It's like "Chianti" for wine. So technically, the sign should have specified the brand if they didn't technically have the San Daniele brand on sale. I wasn't planning on buying mortadella that day until I was taken in by the sale sign. I watched the attendant and she pulled out a loaf of Mastro, with the descriptor of San Daniele in smaller type on the label. I asked her why that wasn't San Daniele, per the sign? She said it was. She argued with me a bit, and asked if I wanted to see the manager. I told her to come to the front where I was standing and I showed her the real San Daniele label on another product in her own deli case.

She said, "OH! I didn't know". And I explained that the sale sign was dishonest.


The moral here is, make sure you understand what the sale sign means before getting the attendant slicing anything. Brands and descriptors get confusing and deli managers like it that way. Have them show you the piece they are slicing from so you know it aligns with what they are putting on the sale sign.

Incident 3:
This incident was most dismaying because it happened at our new favorite store in the Chicagoland area. This retailer is taking over everywhere on account of their commitment to quality, an exceptional shopping experience and great value. But maybe their deli attendant didn't get the memo.

There was a sign for Black Label Barilla Prosciutto di Parma on sale for an awesome price. My husband asked for a pound of "The Prosciutto di Parma" and pointed to the Black Label sale sign in front of him. Because my husband did not say "Black Label" the man grabbed the "Arcademia" Barilla brand that was not only the mid tier line, but was more expensive that the nicer one on sale. My husband realized what was going on halfway through slicing, and said, "Wait a minute, are you giving me Arcademia?" and he said, "Yeah. You didn't specify." and my husband said, "But I pointed at the Black Label sign, right in front of me!" and he said, "Oh I didn't see. Do you want me to redo this?" Of course, my husband at that point was not going to be wasteful and just said, "Whatever!" I am sure the deli managers count on you not making them toss good food and go along with things. That's why they want to get slicing immediately before you notice anything awry.

The moral here is, be very specific about what you are asking for, and keep a close eye on things. If you don't, they'll pick for you and it seems they'll pick what's better for the bottom line versus your recipe or taste buds.


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