Nourishment by the pound: Behind the scenes at grocery store hot bars

SETTING THE BAR: Asheville Whole Foods team members, from left, Chris Wallen, Heather Delisle and Mike Giordano continually monitor hot-bar food levels and quality. Photo by Jayson Im

Throughout his years of restaurant work, Dan Sobalsky saw the advantage of plating each dish. Carefully arranging the components for optimal presentation, when the food went out to the customer, there was no question how it would look.

Now as the food service director at Katuah Market, that control is out of his hands in regard to the Biltmore Village grocery store’s hot bar. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sobalsky does his part by grouping dishes that go together, but when he walks out to maintain the hot bar and takes a glance at customers’ plates or to-go boxes, more times than not they defy these plans with unexpected pairings — a diversity he nonetheless celebrates.

“That’s one of the good things about offering a hot bar with so many different items: Customers will put together whatever they want,” Sobalsky says.

The freedom to mix and match various offerings in a combination of one’s choosing is a big reason hot bars rank among Asheville grocery stores’ top sellers — or for Katuah, the top seller.

In response to this demand, those in charge of hot bars put plentiful thought into this part of the store to help sustain its popularity, being sure to have a minimum number of protein options, both meat and vegetarian, with plentiful side dishes. As for what comprises the menu each day, Katuah owner John Swann and store manager Richie Whitson want Sobalsky and his cooks to make everything from scratch, but beyond that they leave the crew to their own creativity.

“They both give me very, very much free range,” Sobalsky says. “Their hands aren’t in it at all. They trust me to develop recipes.”

Independence is also in play at larger companies with multiple stores. According to Earth Fare executive chef John Godo, it’s up to each location to decide what items to put on the hot bar. Among those choices is a large group of recipes that have been tested through the home office and at approved test stores.

“They have access to those recipes but the freedom to be creative in-store as well,” Godo says.

Items such as Swedish meatballs, hot German potato salad and ratatouille with red sauce and tofu were concocted at the South Asheville store by senior food service manager and trainer Eli Barnard and his fellow chefs specifically for the clientele of that location.

“Being the corporate store, we’re also a test store, so we’re able to do quite a bit of things here,” Barnard says. “We have more freedom because we bring in high-level chefs and bring in fun things that we can execute here.”

Consistent with the high degree of planning involved in each day’s menu, when dishes go out to the hot bar, their placement is far from arbitrary — a factor that’s especially key at larger bars like Whole Foods Market on Tunnel Road.

Whether for year-round themes such as comfort food or the recent global cuisine “Destination” feature (the first of which is Ethiopia), Whole Foods regional marketing specialist Jennifer Wozniak notes that products “are grouped in a way that makes sense for a customer to build a plate, offering an entrée with complementary side dishes.”

Godo says that Earth Fare aims for a colorful bar, not wanting everything to be brown and boring, and despite Sobalsky’s oft-thwarted suggestions, each morning he carefully fills out an Excel document outline of Katuah’s hot bar, composed of blank squares for each spot.

In doing so, Sobalsky makes sure vegetarian options are at least one tray away from a meat option and has begun dedicating a section of the hot bar to allergy-sensitive items, preparing four to six options daily without salt, gluten, nuts, dairy and no or very little oil.

“For our meat option, this means baked chicken that we do not season with salt or spices. For the veggie option, we take the freshest veggies we have that day and steam them with no salt or seasoning added. We then offer a blend of cooked beans and brown rice as well,” Sobalsky says.

Whether working a day or a meal in advance, the various staffs prepare for days and times that are historically busy and make sufficient amounts of popular items, but in the event of an unexpected rush that exceeds expectations, the kitchens have to step up.

“A beef stew done the day before that takes a lot of time, we’re not able to replace that, but we do have a lot ready to sauté for order, so we have an option of getting that out there,” Godo says.

Monitoring the dishes’ shrinking levels and maintaining the hot bar’s overall appearance is also of great importance, as looks can be the difference between a customer taking a scoop of an item and passing it by.

“[Whole Foods] team members routinely monitor our bars and will remove an item if its integrity is compromised or if it presents an allergen issue,” Wozniak says. “We also use independent, third-party inspectors who perform regular audits to assess food handling and safety procedures in each department of every store.”

For all three grocery stores, prevention of cross-contamination begins in the kitchen. Specific colored cutting boards are allocated to vegetables as well as different kinds of meat so that one should never be used for another’s purpose.

Above all, the hot-bar chefs strive to give their customers a range of quality food that they desire and welcome comment cards and direct feedback to attain that goal. Hearing these thoughts or simply seeing a once-full pan scooped until it’s empty makes the challenge of satisfying hundreds of people each day well worth the effort.

“The positive reinforcement from the customers — it boosts our chefs’ confidence,” Barnard says. “It’s a good feeling. Feeding people legitimately healthy food is very rewarding.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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