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?"
Branded stations can even extend the brand umbrella over a variety of offerings not traditionally associated with the name. The Betty Crocker Kitchen at the University of Southern California retails the cookies, muffins and brownies the brand is known for. But it also now sells bagels, which is not a Betty Crocker product.
"One of the issues was, we wanted to have bagels, and General Mills doesn't really make any bagels," explains Mike Gratz, USC's director of hospitality services. "But bagels are an important part of a bake shop, so we worked to get an arrangement where we use some of their ingredients to make our bagels, which we can then sell under the Betty Crocker brand. It's the kind of episode that illustrates how a good relationship with a manufacturer can work."
The bagels help the Betty Crocker station stay busy throughout the day, an important considerations says Gratz. "A big mistake with some of these concepts is limiting them to only certain times of the day," he says. "You really want something that can attract customers over most of the day."
That has been the case with Columbo station USC has operated for the past seven years, which not only offers a range of delicacies that appeal across multiple dayparts but has allowed the department to take advantage of some hot consumer trends, such as the smoothie craze. "General Mills did a great job of getting involved in that and it has been a very popular brand for us," Gratz offers.
Cross-daypart operation is not a problem for the Sara Lee Sandwich Shoppe at the University of Missouri's Union Square food court, which complements three other in-house branded concepts in the servery. The Sara Lee Shoppe does about half the Union Square's total business, says Manager Linda Sanders.
Open from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon, the station offers bagels, rolls and muffins in the morning and pastries, baked goods, made-to-order sandwiches and salads the rest of the day.
Sanders says the only real restriction the station has from Sara Lee is the use of the company's deli meats in the sandwich offerings but she says she also tries to use Sara Lee baked goods as much as possible.
Sanders says she is conscious of the value of the Sara Lee brand in helping her sell product and makes sure it is never compromised. "People know the Sara Lee name and I'm not going to put some noname product in there that doesn't have the same quality," she says.
ConAgra's Healthy Choice retail brand helps King's Daughters Medical Center in Ashland, KY, provide customers with meal choices that are perceived to be "healthy" in its Parkview Cafe retail dining operation. The Healthy Choice options are scattered among the different stations depending on menu emphasis—pizzas on the Italian station, entrees at the entree station, etc.— and designated with signage.
"We went with Healthy Choice because it immediately tells people that they can expect a heart-healthy meal," says Food Service Director Dave Stevens. "They are familiar with the brand from retail so there's an immediate connection."
Most certainly. Since the inception of the Healthy Choice meal options six months ago, the line has been selling some 240 meals a day, Stevens says, success he adds would not be possible with generic choices.
"We use national brands because if students complain we can demonstrate that we use the same products here that they use at home," -- Head Chef Bill Connors, Univ. of Illinois-Carbondale
Other than identifying branded products used as ingredients in recipes and using brands to build station concepts, the most pervasive use of retail brands in onsite foodservice is in retail grab-and-go and c-store applications, areas where brands clearly stand out without any extra effort because products come pre-packaged with the brand name clearly visible.
Grab-and-go cases in onsite environments brim with Dannon yogurts, Kellogg's cereals, Uncle Ben's rice bowls and a universe of familiar bottled beverages, packaged snacks and condiment brands: Pepsi and Coke soft drinks, Minute Maid juices, Frito Lay chips, Heinz ketchup, Grey Poupon mustard, Smuckers jams.
But even in these brand-identified contexts, manufacturer-produced merchandising aids and programs—from simple racks dedicated to a single supplier's products to elaborate merchandising displays that tie in to broader manufacturer promotions—can help increase sales.
For example, Nestle, owner of the Stouffers Lean Cuisine frozen calorie-controlled meals line, is kicking off a six-month " Destination Lean Cuisine" sweepstakes in January (the grand prize is a spa vacation) that involves foodservice as well as retail operators. This is the kind of promotional after-burner that no onsite operator can hope to develop and field working individually but which are routinely available through manufacturer branded tie-ins.
In a similar vein, cookie manufacturer Otis Spunkmeyer has worked with the American School Food Service Association ( ASFSA) to develop themed promotions during the annual National School Lunch Week period each fall.
In 2002, the company's "Red, White and Blue" cookie program nearly tripled sales of its products in schools during September and October. This past fall, the company offered resources like sample media tools and templates and educational activity sheets to school FSDs on the NSLW website, which received three times the hits it did the previous year as school FSDs took advantage of the free materials. Spunkmeyer also provided disposable message cameras as a giveaway premium to schools that menued its cookies during NSLW.
Display's the Thing
Even without the promotional goosing of contests and giveaways, branded product displays can drive sales in retail environments in ways that generic, ad hoc product racking can't match.
For example, while almost any snack display will attract a certain amount of business in a cafeteria or c-store environment, a company like Kellogg's can provide an added push by arranging its arsenal of highrecognition snack brands—Club and Wheatables crackers, Rice Krispies Treats, Famous Amos cookies, Pop-Tarts pastries—on the most effective floor and counter rack options and providing marketing support to make them as effective as possible.
If logos are evocative, brand sysmbols are downright powerful. The Pilsbury doughboy instantly communicates all the consumer perseptions associated with that brand.
The branded display can be a simple rack arrangement of product or an extension of a brand with specialized equipment suitable to a grab-and-go environment, such as a Toll House cookie warmer from Nestle or a SuperPretzel hot pretzel dispenser from J&J Snack Foods, which has extended its product reach from packaged salty snacks to this kind of branded hot food offering through the SuperPretzel line.
Pie in the Sky Expectations
Not all brand identities translate from retail to foodservice, of course. To be effective, the brand must occupy a category in which there is not only a value associated with the brand within the category, but the category itself is not seen as generic.
For instance, when Arlington (TX) ISD attempted to brand pizzas on its school lunch lines, it found that "kids didn't particularly care about the brand on the box. As long as the pizza tasted good, they bought it, whatever name was on it," says District Foodservice Director Sandra Proski. She speculates that the students were not overly familiar with the retail brands the district was employing and so they tended to judge the product on its base merits without brand-influenced preconceptions. When the district did introduce one brand that was sure to be familiar—Pizza Hut—in some locations, the impact was measurable.
But other operators have found considerable success with branded pizza concepts. For example, Schwan's Food Service has been highly successful in placing branded pizza stations in a variety of onsite locations, such as a Freschetta station at the University of Pittsburgh and a striking Red Baron station at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, NY.
We Have a Wiener
If pizza sometimes has difficulties branding its offerings, hot dogs represent a category that lends itself to retail crossover branding perfectly. The product is usually sold in branded packages at supermarkets, habituating consumers to think of them in terms of brands. Further, because those brands represent readily-identifiableflavor and quality variances, the distinction between brands is discernable, prompting brand-driven purchase decisions. Finally, hot dogs are a classic foodservice menu item.
Hence it is natural that retail-branded hot dog stations crop up in all sorts of onsite locations: the Bryan stand at Nissan, the Oscar Mayer Hot Dog Construction Company outlet at the Columbus Zoo, the Hebrew National hot dog cart at Marist College and the Nathan's Hot Dogs stand at the University of Massachusetts.
"Nathan's met our objectives when we were looking at branding our hot dog stand three years ago," says U-Mass Dining Services Director Ken Toong. "People recognized the brand—10 percent of our students are from the New York City area—and it placed first in a blind taste test we held before making a decision."
Today, U-Mass operates three highly successful Nathan's locations in retail and residential dining as well as concessions and Toong has been looking at other branding tie-ins. One is a recently opened Greek cuisine station using the Kronos brand in its retail food court, put in to try to leverage the high profile Greek culture is expected to get with next summer's Olympic Games in Athens. So far, it's been a success, being the second most popular of the food court's eight stations, says Toong.