2006 Portability Study: Portable meals gain ground

Sixty-eight percent of all operators expect their portable sales to increase this year.

Labor gains: Labor savings, in fact, is another motivating factor in the switch to portable foods. About 10% of operators say they can realize higher profits on pre-packaged items. And, while 41% said in 2005 that portable meal service saves labor in a way that boosts profitability, fully two-thirds are saying that this year.

Why else do operators implement or switch to portable meal service? For one-third of them, it's because their overall customer base is increasing, and take-away service, especially grab-and-go, speeds customer throughput. "We have 1,650 kids in the high school," says Linda Staniszi, foodservice director, Shelton (Conn.) Public Schools, and three meal periods in which to feed them. "They can't leave the cafe, but they get 22 minutes to eat, so they want foods they can grab quickly."

And for 16% of respondents, administrators are taking away seating areas and designating them for other corporate or organizational purposes.

For some operators, it's a chore to get customers to leave their desks or workstations. So they turn the tables, so to speak, and go to the customer.

"We do a lot of desk drops," says Anne Marie Solomon, associate vice president of merchandising and promotional development for Aramark. In the last six to eight months, she has coordinated four promos on portability and convenience, on items such as bite-size scones, mini cookies and pizza roll-ups.

More than 20% of operators surveyed conduct such promos, via coupons, discounts, e-mail and other methods, in order to boost portable meal sales, but double that amount (45%) prefer to set up dedicated destination stations, the FSD study shows.

Almost 50% installed new and improved merchandising displays, but the No.1 method is purchasing new kinds of packaging that enhance portability, maintain food safety and hold up well in transport.

Balancing act: "I don't allow trays to leave the dining area," says Spicer of Presbyterian-Plano. "Packaging has to be covered and sturdy enough that customers can balance a dessert on top of an entree package and carry a beverage in their other hand." To meet different needs, she uses a variety of packaging types, including clear plastic "when it makes sense. Our sushi is sold in clear-top packaging; we also use it for some desserts and salads.

"For the most part," she adds, "we go with the old reliable foam clamshell."

DeMoss at the University of Kentucky agrees about the importance packaging plays in presentation. "It needs to be smart-looking and high quality," he says. "We use black bases with clear lids because people have to see what's in the box. We're getting more requests for half-sandwiches and salads packaged in the same container." He's also looking at new packaging products that sport dividers.

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