Blazing the natural trail

Adding trendy (and pricey) natural snacks to your lineup isn’t just doable—it’s worth your while.

natural nuts

Joe Abluton, nutrition services supervisor of Community Hospitals of Monterey Peninsula, in California, has always enjoyed eating healthy. And in recent years, it seems like everyone around him has gotten the same idea. At the same time that the hospital began pushing healthier lifestyles, more customers started requesting snack options that weren’t loaded with junk, like preservatives or artificial ingredients.

“My beliefs, people asking and hospital change all came together,” Abluton says. Little by little, he began adding more natural packaged snack foods and drinks to his retail areas, like rice or bean chips, trail mix and energy bars. But between higher prices and less availability than conventional snack items, keeping with the new trend hasn’t always been easy. 

All about the Benjamins

That natural, healthy foods will come with a slightly higher price tag is a given for operators. But that’s also true for customers, which means that operators can often charge a little more without pushback—like the natural energy bars that Abluton’s customers are happy to buy for $3.50. “When people have the perception that it’s doing something good for them, they don’t seem to mind the higher price as much,” he says.

Or instead of pricing natural items higher, do what you can to keep the cost from going too low. At Overlook Medical Center, in Summit, N.J., employees normally receive a 20% discount. “But if there’s a particular item where we’re really close on margin, I might not offer the discount,” says Michael Atanasio, manager of food & nutrition and patient transportation.

But stocking the right combination of products can help keep costs in line overall. At retail stores at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the department strikes a balance between classic junk food offerings and the pricier natural items that students request, like gluten-free energy bars and bottled yerba maté or tea. “We use the product mix to put the natural items at a slightly lower price,” says Assistant Retail Manager Adrianne Stone.

And sometimes, natural snacks can even help your bottom line. Eight years ago, Rick Hughes, director of food and nutrition services for Colorado Springs School District 11, pulled à la carte snacks out of his elementary schools because he felt that snacking took away from eating healthy, wholesome meals. It’s a principle he still believes, but when kids were asking for snacks and the foodservice program needed to make more money, he was forced to strike a balance. So he started offering all-natural popcorn, bottled water and 100% juice boxes. “We still don’t push snacks. But we have them because they’re expected by students, and they help us fill a hole financially,” he says.

The right marketing moves

Even the most impressive snacks won’t fare well if no one knows they exist. This was the case at Colorado, where customers were asking why the university didn’t offer local, organic and non-GMO snacks—even though those foods were available. “The gap was we weren’t promoting our efforts to customers,” says Director of Auxiliary and Dining Services Amy Beckstrom. This year, to educate customers about her natural food offerings, Beckstrom is launching a campaign that includes posters and flag signage in the dining hall. Sampling helps, too. “We often bring in local vendor samples to increase [product] awareness,” Stone says. “And if customers get hooked, they’re willing to pay more for a quality product.” 

Atanasio sees food commercials and nutrition news as free advertising for operators who offer healthy, natural snacks. “The snacks are easy to market because the commercials do all the legwork. I know people are going to see stuff on TV, and then we’ll have it here,” he says. Still, he makes sure customers know that niche products, like gluten-free snacks, are available by marketing them on his flat-screen TVs, through email blasts and online.

Making natural work for you

If you’re considering offering natural snacks, operators recommend doing a trial run with a handful of new products. “Have it on the racks for a few months and see if it works,” Atanasio says. Some additional ideas for success include:

  • Don’t confine yourself to specialty brands. Brands that market themselves as natural tend to be pricier than their conventional counterparts, even if both items are free of artificial ingredients. When Hughes was looking for a suitable juice box, it was a conventional product made from 100% juice that ended up meeting his price point.
  • Go part DIY. Atanasio’s vendor doesn’t sell packaged soybeans, so he decided to buy the beans in bulk and package them himself. Often, doing so ends up being cheaper.
  • Work with your vendors. Most natural brands want exposure in high-traffic spots—and will even offer discounts to get it. “A lot of our vendors have been willing to give us an everyday low price because our volume is relatively impressive,” Stone says.

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