By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
As more convenience stores venture into the realm of foodservice, they are quickly learning that packaging has to be more than just an afterthought.
No matter how good your food product is when you make it, if it doesn’t maintain an appetizing appearance or its original flavor and texture until the customer consumes it, your program is doomed to fail, said Lynn Dyer, president of the Falls Church, Va.-based Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI).
Packaging manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware that the needs of convenience stores are different than those of quick-service restaurants and other foodservice channels, Dyer said. In addition to being conducive to grab and go, there are also separate considerations if the packaged food is going to be held in a warmer or cooler until purchase. Manufacturers are recognizing the opportunities in providing c-stores with packaging that fits their specific needs.
“For a grab-and-go product, the main thing is that consumers want to see what they’re getting; they associate seeing the product with freshness,” Dyer said.
Visible packaging outsells packaging that doesn’t show the product, agreed Ted Roccagli, director of partnerships and preferred vendor programs for Dallas-based Empire Petroleum Partners, which works with 1,400 stores in 29 states.
“A lot of people are hesitant to purchase what they can’t see,” Roccagli said.
Clear plastic packaging has even made its way into the hot dog, pizza and fresh-baked cookie channels, Roccagli said. He pointed out that Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip Corp. keeps its hot dog buns in clear plastic containers in the warmer. Pizza producer Hunt Brothers displays its pizza slices in cardboard containers with see-through plastic windows.
Roccagli has also seen bags with clear windows used to merchandise warm-from-the-oven cookies.
Product transparency has become just as important as packaging transparency, Roccagli said. “Stickers that say ‘made fresh today’ or a simple expiration date on a sandwich can go a long way in assuring consumers that their sandwich is fresh.”
Stickers or labels can also call out better-for-you options. Roccagli pointed out that many consumers want to see the calorie count prominently placed on the package so they can more easily make more healthful choices.
Stores that sell chicken and whole pizzas should choose packaging that works in both the warm and cold cases, Roccagli said. To be eligible to sell to customers with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), the food products must come from the cold case.
“Being able to sell chicken and pizza from the cold case increases sales and minimizes waste,” he said.
Experience has also convinced Craig Stanley, foodservice manager for the 10-unit, Medina, Ohio-based Stop‘n Go convenience stores, that clear plastic packaging is the best choice for selling both grab-and-go and made-to-order sandwiches.
“The latest trend we are seeing is a brown wrap bag with a clear viewing panel, but we’re sticking with our clear hinged containers for food products we sell out of our coolers and our fresh deli,” he said. “We think that letting the customers see the entire product sells best.”
DISPLAY AREA DECISIONS
But clear packaging doesn’t work best for all products. For some of the items that are held in the warmer box, Stanley just started using an open-ended, heavy brown cardboard wrap sleeve.
“It looks like a sturdy French fry box,” Stanley said. The sleeve, he said, holds up well in the warmer and product can be seen at the open end.
“Packaging for the warmer is always a challenge,” Stanley explained. “Many options are available but, in many cases, the cost is prohibitive. They also don’t show the food item or protect the food from drying out or otherwise losing consistency in the warmer.”
Finding the right packaging at the right price allowed Stop ‘n Go to begin offering its sausage biscuits and gravy ready-to-go from the warmer rather than just made to order. For this item, the stores now use a plastic container with a black bottom and clear top.
At Stop ‘n Go packaging is a major consideration right from the beginning of any product research and development process.
“We have had items derailed because we couldn’t come up with the right packaging solutions,” he said.
According to Stanley, packaging for the chain must meet three criteria: Can the customer view the product; what is the best cost for best functionality, or “not too flimsy or too luxurious;” and is the packaging flexible enough to be used for many types of items?
Clyde’s Market, which has 41 stores in south Georgia, found packaging to be such an issue that the company discontinued its fresh sandwich program, said A.J. Gambino, director of marketing and operations. Seasonal heat and humidity, which is common in the South, also made the sandwiches spoil quickly when they were displayed in the coolers, which are located at the front of the stores.
Additional heat was also generated in the store delis that offered hot food items.
The company even tried using a clear plastic container and separating the lettuce and tomato from the rest of the sandwich. It didn’t help much.
Now, Clyde’s Market is focusing on promoting its fresh hot food-to-go offerings. In eight (with one more coming next year) of its stores, Clyde’s operates a proprietary foodservice program known as Aggie’s Deli. Aggie’s offers fried chicken, fish and shrimp with various sides. The concept has been in place for several years and the company is very focused on building the brand.
“We’re building brand recognition to give consumers the confidence that they are getting a fresh, high quality product even if they can’t see it through the packaging,” Gambino said.
For a while Clyde’s tried using plastic
containers to merchandise its hot foods, Gambino noted.
“The problem was you could see the moisture set up under the food and that could create sogginess,” Gambino said. “We went back to Styrofoam shells because they hold the heat better and they don’t create as much moisture.
To showcase the brand and maintain maximum freshness, Clyde’s puts a piece of waxed paper imprinted with the Aggie’s logo over the food in the container. Breakfast sandwiches are still made in the stores. They are wrapped in waxed paper.
Some stores have a constituency that is concerned with packaging being green, sustainable and eco-friendly.
“You have to know and understand your demographic,” Dyer said. “If being green is an important aspect of your brand, you have to carry that out through packaging. And if you’re looking for a way to differentiate your brand, this is one way to do it.”
In a report detailing the results of FPI’s annual Trend Survey, the organization found that demand for products that can be recycled and/or composted continued to grow last year. Millennials in particular want to see packaging that is recyclable, said Roccagli.
“Eco-friendly packaging is coming into line price-wise now,” he said. “With so many consumers wanting it, it’s becoming more readily available and affordable.”
The FPI, which represents about 85% of the nation’s packaging manufacturers, offers free membership to convenience store retailers. The organization will also work to match up retailers with manufacturers that can best fit their needs.