As a consumer, if asked in mid-2018 what your major complaints were with the offerings then available in the packaged barbecue sauce category, what would you have said? That’s what Uncle Dougie’s, a Chicago-based producer of BBQ sauce, or “Shelf Candy,” as they call their sweet, rich, and zesty products, was seeking to learn when it did a study of 1,000 consumers nearly two years ago.
Barbeque sauce is an extremely competitive category, as are all of the product areas in which Uncle Dougie’s plays. Says CEO Rob Johnson, “I kind of joke when I talk about Uncle Dougie’s product line that if we would have gone through the grocery store and basically selected the five categories that are most competitive, that are the most difficult to succeed in, we pretty much picked all five of those. That is our product line.”
In addition to its original and organic BBQ sauces, Uncle Dougie’s also produces marinades, seasonings, rubs, hot sauces, and drink mixes. For all its products, the company stands behind a “no-crap” commitment to clean-label integrity. Says Uncle Dougie’s, “We believe that the fresh, wholesome, natural riches of the Earth should be carefully stewarded, and that means no cheap, profit-driven shortcuts, no crappy industrial chemicals, and no artificial additives, cheap gluten extenders, or GMOs.”
In 2018, Uncle Dougie’s BBQ sauce line comprised four sauce varieties packaged in 18-oz glass jars. To deliver on its promise of “Good, Clean Fun,” the brand brings the fun through flavors that include Original Sweet & Snappy, Sneaky Spicy, Sweet Lov’n, and Smokin’ Potle, and delivers the clean with recipes that use all-natural ingredients, have no high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives, and are gluten free and non-GMO.
Despite the quality of its sauces, the company still felt it needed to find that missing “ingredient” consumers were looking for in order for their brand to succeed in the crowded category. Hence the consumer study—the results of which came as a surprise to Johnson and set the company on a course to develop new packaging that would become the first of its kind for BBQ sauce products.
Addressing consumers’ pain points
As Johnson explains, the barriers to entry are very low for BBQ sauce. “Every weekend barbecuer who makes their own sauce can find a co-packer somewhere to be able to make a pallet of it if they want to give out their sauce for Christmas, or what have you,” he says.
In order to bring real value to the consumer with its product, Uncle Dougie’s asked 1,000 consumers what they liked, what they didn’t like, what the company and its competitors could be doing better, etc.
The feedback was overwhelming: Consumers identified packaging as the major pain point. “Frankly, they were damn tired of dealing with the messy cap and spout and never being able to get the last 10 percent of the sauce out of the typical glass and plastic bottles,” says Johnson. In addition, the glass bottle itself was not ideal due to its lack of portability, especially for occasions like picnics or camping trips.
Johnson said he would never have predicted that the packaging format was one of consumers’ biggest complaints. “Just like most consumers, I have lived with glass bottles and/or rigid plastic bottles for barbecue sauce all my life, and you take the good with the bad and don’t really think anything of it,” he says.
The other feedback Uncle Dougie’s received was around consumers’ confusion over clean label claims. Their suggestion was to go “all the way organic,” because that’s a designation they understand and trust. To address this concern, the company created a product line made from USDA organic ingredients, which would eventually be packaged in its new format.
As for the question of how to make a package better-suited to consumers’ needs, the solution was pure serendipity, as Johnson explains. “We were just finishing up this research, and we get this feedback about glass bottles, and then all of a sudden, [flexible packaging converter] Glenroy happened to stop by our booth at Natural Products Expo West and showed us the STANDCAP pouch,” he says. “And the two just married up really nicely in a quite unexpected way.”
The STANDCAP is an inverted multilayer flexible pouch format that leverages proprietary converting technology from Volpak, available in the U.S. through fellow Coesia company R.A Jones. Glenroy is the exclusive pouch converter of the premade STANDCAP pouch in the U.S. Another partner in the STANDCAP package is Aptar, which supplies the flip-top closure that provides the pouch with stability and ease of dispensing.
The pouch was first used for Daisy Sour Cream in 2015, an application that won much industry attention and accolades. Since that time, it has been used for products such as ketogenic sauces, honey, and, most recently, guacamole.
Finding the right fit for sauce
During its time on shelf, Uncle Dougie’s sauce was offered first in a glass bottle, then in a rigid plastic container, and then in glass again. Part of the challenge with BBQ sauce is that it needs to be hot-filled at temperatures to 190°F. With the rigid plastic containers, after the sauce cooled, a vacuum was created that sucked the panels of the container in, making it look on shelf as though it had been squeezed. In addition, “plastic is a much more porous material than glass, so you also run into shelf-life issues,” Johnson says.
In engineering the film for the STANDCAP pouch, Uncle Dougie’s and Glenroy worked together to ensure that the barrier was thick enough to accommodate the varying acidity levels of the product, that the film could withstand hot filling, and that the pouch would provide sufficient shelf life. “Glenroy was a tremendous partner though all of this,” says Johnson. “I think they saw the opportunity we saw, and so they invested time and resources in helping us get to the right solution.”
According to Glenroy, details on the exact construction of the pouch are proprietary, “but the multilayer lamination engineered for these pouches utilizes several materials that provide strength, protection, and durability. The structure also prevents loss of flavor,” the converter shared.
Based on testing done by Uncle Dougie’s, the shelf life for the Organics line of BBQ sauce in the STANDCAP is two years, but copy on the package advises 18 months, “to be on the conservative side,” Johnson advises. This, he adds, is similar to sauce in a rigid plastic bottle, but less than glass, which can provide up to a three-year shelf life, in some cases. However, he says, “one of the things we’ve had many discussions about is that there should be almost no circumstance under which a bottle is produced and is still hanging around three years later.”
Another consideration for the film construction was the need for a window in the film for product transparency. This involved a compromise in terms of aesthetics, but an easy choice to make, Johnson says, given Uncle Dougie’s brand equity around Good, Clean Fun. “Being able to see the sauce is convention in the category, and I think it would make people uncomfortable if they couldn’t see the product,” he says. In order to have a clear window, an opaque, bright white film could not be used. Instead, to help the colors “pop” as much as possible, the graphics were backed by white ink. Each of the five sauce varieties in the line has their own artwork, flexo-printed by Glenroy in nine colors.
Another critical piece of the project was selection of the cap. The STANDCAP pouch uses Aptar’s Sierra polypropylene flip-top closure, which enables convenient, one-handed opening and closing, and with its large, crest-like shape, allows the inverted pouch to remain stable when standing—even when nearly empty. The Sierra closure screws securely onto a tamper-evident ring-pull fitment that is sealed into each STANDCAP pouch during converting.
Most importantly for Uncle Dougie’s purposes, the closure also incorporates Aptar’s SimpliSqueeze® silicone valve technology with elastomeric flow control for controlled, drip-free dispensing. According to Dave Johnson, Director, Global Business Development, Flexibles, for Aptar, there are 250 SimpliSqueeze valve options, based on the viscosity of the product, the desired squeeze force, or “ease of squeeze,” the typical amount of product being dispensed, and the ideal product stream. Aptar selected an optimized valve for Uncle Dougie’s after performing tests with product samples from the BBQ sauce maker.
“Through that process, the ultimate goal of all of this was to create a product designed around the consumer experience,” says Uncle Dougie’s Johnson. “You can imagine if we put a really disruptive package on shelf, and then people got it home and it didn’t work the way they were hoping it would or expected it to—it would be really hard for us to be successful with something like that. We wanted to make sure we followed the consumer experience all the way through.”
Pouch filling presents the biggest hurdle
Being the first to introduce a new packaging format to an established category can present a number of challenges. For Uncle Dougie’s, the biggest hurdle in the whole project was finding a co-packer “that had the ability and was willing to make the investment to get themselves set up to be able to pack the pouches,” says Johnson.
Uncle Dougie’s products are co-manufactured and co-packed by two companies—one providing co-manufacturing only and another providing co-manufacturing and co-packing of all its legacy bottled product. For the STANDCAP-pouched product, the company was initially thinking it would have to work with two organizations: one to make the product, and one to fill it. “But that would have been really cost-prohibitive, and there are all kinds of other supply chain problems with that as well,” says Johnson. “Again, because all of our sauces are made at 190 degrees Fahrenheit, if you can imagine trying to put 190-degree barbecue sauce into a big tote to ship to somebody to fill, it would take six months for that thing to cool in order for it to be safe to ship.”
Once again, serendipity intervened when Uncle Dougie’s happened to meet a co-packer willing to take on the job. Currently, much of the filling is hands-on, with the aid of an automatic sealer, but Johnson says both companies are evaluating equipment options that will bring the cost down and reduce the number of hands touching the pouch.
According to Jason Stover, Marketing Communications Manager for Coesia North America & R.A Jones, the STANDCAP pouch had previously been available to the market exclusively with Volpak horizontal form/fill/seal equipment. “Today, with the new premade structure in the U.S. through R.A Jones and Glenroy, there is a network of qualified co-packers for STANDCAP ready with fill/seal equipment, creating a complete supply chain for brand owners,” he shares.
The aha! moment
Uncle Dougie’s Organics line of (Way More Than) Barbecue Sauce in five flavors—Rich Hickory Bourbon, Chile N’ Lime, Sweet Ginger Buzz, Lemongrass Habanero, and Bang Yum Chipotle—was launched in a 13.5-oz STANDCAP pouch March 1, 2019. The sauce is available for a suggested retail price of $4.99 at a range of mainstream and natural food retailers in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, as well as on Uncle Dougie’s website and on Amazon.
Says Johnson, when people see the pouch at trade shows or consumer events, “it takes about a second and a half for their brain to go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so logical and has so much utility, I can’t believe someone didn’t do it before!’”
By adopting the STANDCAP pouch with Sierra closure and SimpliSqueeze valve, Uncle Dougie’s addresses all the major packaging-related trouble spots expressed by consumers in the 1,000-person survey. These include a portable format and the almost total elimination of the “crud” that collects on the closure throughout the product’s use and product waste due to inefficient evacuation of the product. The STANDCAP allows for 99% percent of the product to be dispensed.
Concludes Johnson, “The packaging is a real break from the category. The inverted squeeze pouches make it easier for cooks to use our sauces in recipes or for dipping. It also virtually eliminates the mess that typically collects around the lip of typical bottles. We think it’s going to change consumers’ expectations around barbecue sauce.”