Food service is a major opportunity for suppliers of organic and sustainable foods, from café chains such as Starbucks and Pret A Manger through to major natural health food stores, supermarket chains, chefs and caterers are cooking up a major point of difference to attract customers increasingly aware of environmental and sustainable food sourcing.

Market researcher Packaged Facts says sales of prepared foods and ready-to-eat foods at retail will reach $32.45 billion in 2012, up 7.5% from 2011. The prepared foods retail net extends across a wide number of retail formats, but supermarket chains command majority share. Supermarkets garner 60% of prepared foods purchase visits, trailed by Wal-Mart (15%) and convenience stores (12%).

Packaged Facts says the market for store-made meals and prepared foods--which include rotisserie or fried chicken, hot pizza, hot food bars with Asian-style entrees, sushi bars, deli sandwiches, and soup and salad bars--is doing well in this period of economic doldrums. That's partly because meals cost are not on par with fast food and family restaurant options, they beat them--making them accessible to a wide range of household incomes. Strong, high-quality store-brand portfolios are a significant advantage for prepared foods retailers in keeping the price points of prepared foods down, and part of the winning formula. Retailers from Costco to Kroger to Safeway to SUPERVALU continue to grow and leverage their private label products in conjunction with developing their foodservice programs.

Although classic comfort dishes often hold sway in prepared food programs, supermarkets are increasingly providing and marketing fresh food items consistent with ongoing health trends, and supermarkets receive generally positive marks from consumers regarding prepared food healthfulness. Whole Foods Market has particularly been a trendsetter in educating customers on health, food and diet. Its Health Starts Here program, Wellness Clubs and Whole Kids Foundation not only serve to educate Whole Foods customers, they also build customer relationships and good will.

Most convenience store foodservice platforms, on the other hand, still operate under the assumption that the people buying them do not want to put health concerns first. According to Packaged Facts, this ignores the fact that millions of consumers do want to eat healthier fare--and many might appreciate a tasty but healthy option even at a convenience store.

And serving consumers is not just about providing quality, cost-effective, convenient, and healthful foods, according to David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts. It's also about providing an atmosphere that draws people in. This is why more and more supermarket operators are integrating "neighborhood" messaging into their strategies, and a reason big box players such as Walmart are experimenting with smaller box formats.