"Foodservice packaging" is usually synonymous with "plain." White bags, brown boxes and black type is often as good as it gets.
But two companies out to change that stodgy image with their foodservice packages are Nature's Pleasures of Wolcott, NY, and Tumaro's of Los Angeles. In each case, brand recognition is the goal behind the graphics.
The product sold by Nature's Pleasures is a 2.4-oz pouch of fresh, sliced apples with a 14-day refrigerated shelf life. Relying on the same processing/packaging technology it uses for its 8-oz and 2-lb retail packs (see Packaging World, October '97, p. 26), the firm brings these small, single-serve portions to school foodservice programs in New York, Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Illinois. Sales manager Jeff Cahoon explains the bright graphics this way:
"We didn't want to send out anything that wasn't prominently branded and appealing," says Cahoon. "After all, Johnny's bound to go home and tell Mom he had sliced apples at lunch." When that happens, Cahoon says, he hopes some mention of the brand is a part of the conversation, so that when Mom and Dad are in the supermarket they'll be more inclined to buy Nature's Pleasures' retail packs, too.
Cahoon says the pouch for schools evolved out of a 2-oz pouch his firm was selling into the airlines industry. Food brokers handling the airlines accounts suggested the schools as a natural target for such a package format. It appears they were right.
'Like a finger food'
"Whole apples served in schools too often get thrown away instead of eaten," says Cheryl Buckley, coordinator of school nutrition services at New York's Rochester City School District. "We're finding that the sliced apples are consumed more consistently. It's like a finger food, and students love finger foods."
Buckley acknowledges that the sliced apples cost more per pound than fresh, whole fruit. But with sliced apples, there's no core to throw away. Everything you pay for is edible, she says. Even if the sliced apples do cost more, she adds, the district is willing to pay a slight upcharge if buying them means that students are eating more fruit. She also stresses that bowls of fresh, whole apples are still available to students. The pouch just gives them an alternative.
When the schools program was first launched, Nature's Pleasures shipped the same 2-oz pouch it had been sending to its airlines customers. But school nutrition standards set by the state require a slightly larger portion, so now both airline passengers and students receive a 2.4-oz package from Nature's Pleasures.
Automated coring and slicing operations at Nature's Pleasures are just as they were when PW last visited. So is the important rinse in an ascorbic acid solution that the sliced apples undergo. The rinse retards browning of the apple slices, says Cahoon. And because ascorbic acid is nothing more than vitamin C, adds Cahoon, the apples remain free of chemical preservatives and consequently retain their fresh, natural taste.
At Nature's Pleasures, the school-bound pouches are produced on either an Ilapak (Newtown, PA) or a Sandiacre (Richmond, VA) vertical form/fill/seal machine. Nature's Pleasures uses the same roll-fed pouch material that it uses for sliced apples sold at retail, though Cahoon elects not to identify the current suppliers. The material is a 2-mil extrusion lamination of oriented polypropylene and a blend of linear low-density polyethylene and metallocene LLDPE. Added to the LDPE extrudate that bonds the two laminates together is ethylene vinyl acetate that brings extra toughness. The two-layer lamination's oxygen transmission rate, 140 cc O2/100 sq"/24 hr, allows the fresh apples to continue respiring at the desired rate.
Also contributing to the pouches' 14-day shelf life are the backflushed gases selected by Nature's Pleasures: CO2 to retard ripening and microbial growth; O2 to keep the product from becoming anaerobic, which might cause off odors; and N2, an inert gas that prevents the package from collapsing in on itself as other gases are absorbed into the tissue of the apple.
Corrugated shippers, each holding 100 pouches, are used to send the apples to a central distribution site in Rochester. From there the cases are sent to individual schools. Throughout distribution and storage, temperatures below 50°F are maintained.
Also in a flexible package, but aimed at a different foodservice segment, are flavored tortillas from Tumaro's Inc. This startup food marketer broke into the tortilla business at the retail level with a line of tortillas that measured 8" in diameter. When its jalape"o-cilantro, pesto-garlic, spinach-herb and other flavored tortillas quickly established themselves as consumer favorites, expanding into foodservice with a 13" tortilla seemed awfully appealing.
"When we began selling to hotels, restaurants and other foodservice accounts, we used a simple, clear, plastic bag," says Bob Redar, executive vice president. "But then, as our branded retail product grew in popularity, we felt we could capitalize on that popularity if we incorporated the brand identity on our foodservice package, as well."
"At the same time we contemplated graphics," says company president Herman Jacobs, "we also realized how appealing a reclosure feature would be. It costs us a bit more, but it gives us a real point of differentiation. As far as I know, we're the first to use such a feature in a tortilla package for foodservice."
Supplied by several vendors, the bags Tumaro's fills for its foodservice customers are delivered premade and wicketed. Flexo-graphic printing in four colors shows the company's name prominently on the front. Also printed on the front are the 10 flavors the company offers. Workers simply circle the flavor being packaged, which allows Tumaro's to use the same bag for all 10 flavored varieties. On the back are useful menu ideas and even detailed instructions on how to fold a "wrap" sandwich.
Tumaro's tortillas are shipped frozen. The firm recommends that foodservice operators keep them frozen and thaw before use. If kept frozen, they're good for 90 days. The 2-mil low-density polyethylene bag material has a 4% ethylene vinyl acetate content to prevent cracking under frozen conditions, says Redar.
At the firm's Los Angeles facility, workers load tortillas by hand through the open bottom of a bag and then heat seal the bottom closed. At the top end, just above the zipper, the bag material is perforated, so foodservice operators can remove the top and then open the zipper.
Tumaro's packs 12 tortillas in each foodservice bag. It's worth noting that the foodservice operators targeted are not traditional Mexican restaurants that use enormous numbers of tortillas. For them, a dozen tortillas would vanish long before a zipper reclosure feature was ever necessary. Tumaro's customers are more mainstream restaurants. In these establishments, "wraps" and other dishes utilizing tortillas, while increasingly popular, are just one part of a broad array of foods offered. So for these foodservice operators, being able to reclose a bag of tortillas is a desirable feature.
Naturally, the bright graphics and reclosure feature didn't come cheap. Redar figures the bag now used is three times the cost of the one it replaced last February. But the added cost, he says, "is money well spent." Customer response to the new package has been "phenomenal," says Redar.