When it comes to offering sandwiches and other to-go foods at convenience stores, the right packaging can make or break a sale. Retailers and other experts share how they use packaging to catch the eye and whet the appetite of customers.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
A growing number of c-store retailers are putting more emphasis on fresh foods but, in many cases, they don’t think about packaging until the end of the development process. As a result, a too-large number of fresh and delicious grab-and-go sandwiches and other to-go foods sit unsold in coolers until their sell-by dates run out.
“Your grab-and-go packaging conveys more than what food is inside; it conveys your entire brand message,” said Harry Milloff, a partner with Franklin, Mass.-based food and beverage industry advisors, the Moseley Group. “It’s a big communication device, a touchpoint not only inside the store, but even after the food has left the store.”
Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) agreed that convenience store operators should understand that packaging is more than just a cost to them, it’s a branding opportunity.”
“Just think about how often you see people carrying branded cups from one of the giant coffee chains, letting you know that there’s one close by,” Dyer said.
Packaging doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to be effective. In fact, Milloff explained, the best packaging is minimalist either clear or with a clear window to emphasize the quality of the product inside. The branding element could be a simple logo on the sticker label.
“Highlight the key ingredients of the sandwich by positioning them in the packaging so that they clearly show, for example, with the cut sides facing out,” said Milloff. “There’s no better way to encourage an impulse purchase than with a tempting visual.”
At Git ‘n Go Market with four stores in eastern Tennessee, basic plastic wrap does the trick for keeping sandwiches in full view and making sure that they stay fresh.
“We actually train our employees how to wrap sandwiches so they’re nice and tight and so that the folds don’t obstruct the customers’ view of the food,” said company CEO William Baine.
Even though some people still have the tired “roller grill mindset” about convenience store fresh food [i.e. prepared food left out for long periods of time], the industry has to work harder than quick-service restaurants to overcome that image, Baine said. At Git ‘n Go, customers can be confident that their sandwich will be fresh because it has the date it’s made right on the label.
FRESHNESS & SAFETY
In the early years of Honey Farms Stores’ fresh foods program, sandwiches were presented in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), otherwise known as reduced oxygen packaging, said Marketing Director Karen Campbell. During this process, the oxygen is flushed out of the package and replaced with a different gas or mixture of gases before sealing to inhibit oxidation and growth of microbes. This extends the shelf life of the product “tremendously, sometimes as much as 17 days,” Campbell said.
After the sandwich underwent the MAP process, it was placed in a windowed bag for display. That meant double the packaging materials and labor for Honey Farms.
In keeping with the fact that the company’s sandwiches now are made to have only a 3-5-day shelf life, Honey Farms, which has 33 locations in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire, recently revised its packaging to a single step, eliminating the MAP process.
“Now our products are in clear containers so that all of the product can be seen,” Campbell said. “We have also upgraded our labeling to promote a fresher look and high-end product quality.”
Campbell noted that smaller subs and rolls in the company’s proprietary Beantown line are wrapped in cello to best display them at retail. Wedge sandwiches are packaged in triangular containers. Most of the other subs are packaged in plastic, tamper-evident showcase containers with a 360-degree seal.
“The seal not only prevents the packaging from being opened and the product compromised, it also helps maintain the integrity and shelf-life of the product,” she added.
FPI’s Dyer acknowledged that tamper-evident packaging is one of the biggest issues grab-and-go foodservice providers face today. It’s an important component whether the foods are prepared in stores, in a proprietary commissary or come from an outside supplier.
Campbell explained that Honey Farms worked with its supplier Garber Brothers to develop packaging options that would make freshness and safety paramount considerations.
“When developing a new product, we always consider packaging as part of the process and spec out the packaging to new vendors,” Campbell said.
Kent Kwik Convenience Stores, with 42 locations in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, packages its proprietary Kwik Eats Express sub sandwiches made fresh in its kitchen with 12-by-12-inch cello wrap that is heat sealed.
“Not all cello wrap can be heat sealed; we’ve tried a lot of them and melted more than a few,” said Stormy Williams, the company’s director of operations-foodservice division.
“This wrap is unique because it can go from hot to cold, from freezer to cooler to hot box without changing color, getting brittle or melting,” said Williams.
Wedge sandwiches are packaged in containers with a safety seal. The company switched to the safety seal packaging about three or four years ago.
“We’ll do anything to make people who don’t really know us to feel more comfortable buying food here,” said Williams.
Packaging Provides Information
Packaging will play a central—and in some cases, active—role as the produce industry moves forward with its food safety efforts, said Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
Packaging does a lot more than hold product: it conveys information, he said.
“When you pick up a head of lettuce or (an) apple, you don’t know what brand it is, but with more packaging, you can see traceability down to the package label,” said Gorny.
In the future, food packaging innovations will extend even further.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more time-temperature indicators—basically, sensor technology through nanotechnologies that are becoming readily accessible,” Gorny added.
In the March 22 issue of “The Packer,” a publication for the produce industry, Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, explains that “smart packaging is on the near horizon.”
He explained that the packaging will have sensors that turn the label a different color when they detect a certain gas or aroma indicating the presence of salmonella.