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When it comes to merchandising in onsite foodservice environments, the food matters, but so does the brand.
When it comes to merchandising in onsite foodservice environments, the food matters—but so does the brand. Just ask Rich Neumann, associate director of board plan dining at Ohio University and the new Midwestern regional chairman for the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS). "Brands are what students recognize and equate with quality," Neumann says. "The presence of a solid, recognizable brand can double participation or more, depending on the category. So we actively promote the brands we buy to assure students that what we serve is of the highest quality."
A Plug-and-Play Brand
While most manufacturer branded concepts leverage brand names familiar to consumers from the retail grocery aisle, some manufacturers have developed stand-alone foodservice brands that establish new identities for the companies.
A case in point is Austin Blues, a barbecue concept developed by Hormel Foods for " nontraditional" settings like colleges, healthcare facilities and airports (the Hormel logo does appear in signage, but subordinate to the Austin Blues brand). Hosts pay no franchise fees, royalties, mandated advertising costs or have to commit to long-term contracts, though there is a start-up fee. They must also agree to use Hormel meat products, manage daily operations and ensure that the station remains clean and appealing.
The menu features barbecue favorites like pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches, smoked pork loin and chicken quarters, barbecued ribs and hot links. It is customizable to allow operators to take advantage of particular customer preferences, particularly in choice of sides and beverages. Dining departments receive everything needed to operate the station, from menu boards and signs to merchandising tools like danglers and hats. Hormel also offers ongoing training and support.
The brands Neumann refers to are not restaurant brands, but retail brands that made their reputations in grocery stores. OU's dining services operations brim with brand names straight out of the supermarket aisles: Jell-O gelatin, Healthy Choice deli meats, Dole juices. His operations include a Nathan's hot dog stand, a Campbell's soup station, an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie stand, a Krispy Kreme donut case and a Hershey's ice cream counter.
The department even posts a list of the retail brands it uses in its operations on its website. The site currently lists about two dozen instantly recognizable brand names, from Hunts tomato sauce and Bob Evans sausages to Kraft salad dressing and Quaker oatmeal. And both Neumann and Dining Services Director Greg Hopkins intend to add more.
Branding has become an increasingly valuable tool to drive traffic, participation and check averages in onsite foodservice.
"We want to emphasize that the brands we buy and use are the ones students are familiar with because it puts them in a better comfort zone in relation to how they view our offerings," says Hopkins.
"Customers see manufacturer brands as showing quality and it makes them want to buy more and even pay more—or at least pay more market value—and that puts cash into our registers," agrees Todd Foutty, director of foodservice operations at Cleveland MetroHealth Medical Center.
Foutty cites his switching almost a year ago from a generic hot dog to a Best Kosher hot dog product as a good example of manufacturer brand power: "We doubled our price but we also doubled our sales almost overnight" he notes.
MetroHealth keeps a retail freezer in its cafe that carries branded products like Stouffers and Lean Cuisine meals, Sara Lee desserts, Tyson chicken and Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, among others.
"People buy and share the pints of ice cream in the cafe," Foutty says. "The fact that they are branded is crucial. If they were just generic ice cream, people would think it was just hospital food ice cream and it wouldn't have nearly the same appeal."
"For a long time, school lunch has had an image that you get everything for free because of government commodity programs," adds Mary Lou Henry, foodservice director for Knox County (TN) Schools. "When we use brands kids are familiar with, it shows we buy foods from the same sources their families do. It helps our image and shows we don't use second-grade food."
In the 52,000-student, 81-school Knox system, Henry utilizes branded products like Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and muffins, Tony's and Gilardi's pizzas, General Mills and Kellogg's cereal bowls and Campbell's soups to make those quality connections.
At the University of Illinois at Carbondale, Head Chef Bill Connors found out just what power retail brands can have when he switched from using a high-quality but anonymous (to the consumer) brand to Campbell's in his campus c-store soup station. "I thought we would get complaints, but we got compliments," he says. "People want the brand they are familiar with."
Not one to buck a trend, Connors and the Illinois-Carbondale dining services staff run an operation heavy on familiar brand names—Pace salsa, Hillshire Farms sausages, Sara Lee bagels, Wonder bread, Morningstar Farms meatless products. The iced tea machine is now Lipton and the orange juice dispenser is Florida's Natural. Uncle Ben's rice bowls fly out the c-store doors at the rate of eight cases a day ("and students give up meal points to buy them!" Connors marvels). Next year, more branded promotions— danglers, logoed signage, "anything to emphasize brands"—are the mandate.
"We use national brands because, if students complain, we can demonstrate that we use the same products they use at home," Connors notes. "I've actually walked students through the coolers to show them the name brands we buy."
What's in a Name
These operations are hardly unusual. As the pressure to increase revenues while keeping costs in line grows, branding has become an increasingly valuable tool to drive traffic, participation and check averages in onsite foodserviceenvironments. Surveys show that most consumers see branded foods as familiar and reliable, with higher quality and more consistency than non-branded alternatives. Brands also tend to facilitate purchase decisions and foster loyalty and repeat business. A sizeable percentage of consumers even indicate a willingness to pay more for branded foods.
For onsite operators, brands also bring visual appeal to operations, give them access to manufacturers' sophisticated marketing tools and programs and help sustain customer satisfaction levels.
And, since most onsite operators face competition of some sort from external branded purveyors, branding in-house offerings often also becomes a weapon in the battle to stay current in the race for customer dollars.
Of course, there are various branding approaches, and many operators use a mixand-match strategy to build the most effective set of offerings. The mention of recognizable brands as components of an operation's food offerings on menus, station signage and other merchandising vehicles is undoubtedly the most common way to leverage brand equity. As operators like Ohio U.'s Neumann and Hopkins will gladly verify, there is a premium associated with lettingcustomers know you use Ore-Ida french fries or Pillsbury bake mixes.
Indeed, some brands are so powerfully evocative that operators don't even need words to explain their presence in recipes, just the well-known symbol.
"Often, I find it's better to use a logo than just a name simply because people don't take the time to read. But they instantly recognize well-known brand logos" offers Gail Finan, director of university dining services at Bowling Green (OH) State University.
If logos are evocative, symbols are downright powerful.
Take the Pillsbury doughboy. The character's image alone is enough to communicate the brand and all the consumer perceptions associated with that brand. Pillsbury makes good use of its venerable icon with "appearances" in various onsite environments, especially schools, where it can highlight special theme days and generate sales of the branded product line.
Aside from signage promoting its products' use in recipes, Pillsbury operates an active branded program through its Gourmet Baker muffin carts, branded serving vehicles that operate in various "nontraditional" locations like college c-stores.
What a Concept!
Gourmet Baker carts are an example of how some retail brands have extended into fully realized foodservice station concepts that mimic branded restaurant stations or the in-house brands developed by some onsite operators.
Such manufacturer-developed concepts generally leverage customer familiarity with and confidence in retail brands but don't charge the same license or franchise fees as those demanded by restaurant brands (while some do entail set-up or other fees, these are generally but a fraction of the charges required to operate many popular restaurant brands). Nor do they require operators to do a lot of the heavy lifting entailed by developing self-branded concepts, yet they provide the same sort of market exclusivity.
The new cafè recently opened by Valley Food Services at the Nissan Motors assembly plant in Canton, MS, is an excellent example of the uses to which manufacturer brands can be put. While the servery features the usual stations—entrèe, pizza, deli, etc.—it is also augmented by a number of self-serve stands with names like Bryan, Sara Lee, Campbell's and Nestle.
"The brand names help convey quality and familiarity in a way that simple generic names can't," says Senior VP of Sales & Marketing George Ardelean. "Why even try to duplicate the power of a brand like Campbell's when we can just use it instead?"