Working with manufacturers

For more than 20 years, branding has been a strong element of the foodservice landscape. For a period in the 1990s, restaurant brands looked to be the future of non-commercial foodservice, so much so that some university student unions resembled shopping malls with their food courts consisting of nothing but proven names such as Burger King, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.


Over time, interest in restaurant brands has waned somewhat, operators say, although there are stalwarts like Starbucks whose positioning in non-commercial foodservice is almost ubiquitous. The cost of bringing in such name brands, relative to the return on investment, has been a factor in operators’ reluctance to become too wrapped up in restaurant concepts.

Manufacturer brands, however, have given many operators a financially viable option. Concepts that mirror what is popular in the outside world, at little or no cost to the operators, have made these creations popular with both foodservice teams and their customers.

“Over the years I have used a few manufacturer brands,” says Jim McGrody, foodservice director for Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, N.C. “For example, I did the “Wilbur and Orville” wings concept from Tyson. It was a turnkey operation with all the branded take-out containers, signage and recipes. The results were great and it was easy for us to operate.”

McGrody says he also has worked with distributors on concepts revolving around certain products. The benefits of working with manufacturers, he adds, include labor savings, as much of the prep work on such items as sauces is already done, and savings on the cost of marketing and merchandising materials.

Tony Almeida, foodservice director at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., says he had a similar experience with Schwan’s and its Freschetta pizza product.

“We used to sell Freschetta pizza, but we never really marketed it or merchandised it really well,” Almeida explains. “So we asked Schwan’s to come in, and they looked at our space and said, ‘we really want to redo your area for you, maximize your merchandising.’ They took pictures of space and sent the photos to their designers. Next thing you know they had a computer illustration of what the space could look like. The only thing we had to do was have our engineering department paint two walls. Schwan’s sent a team in on a weekend and they transformed the whole area—new equipment, menu board, signage, heat lamps—to make it look like a Freschetta pizza store.”

Almeida’s advice when working with manufacturers is simple: “Deal with a reputable company that will stand behind their products. [Schwan’s] did what they said they were going to do and in a very professional and timely manner.”

Lenny DeMartino, manager for Parkhurst Dining Services at Highmark, a health insurance company in Pittsburgh, says that he has to be a bit more cautious than self-operators when exploring manufacturer partnerships because he needs corporate approval. But still, he has participated in many such ventures.

“We’ve done a lot of Heinz promotions,” says DeMartino, noting that Parkhurst once did the foodservice at the Heinz plant in Pittsburgh. “That was great PR for us and it really solidifies the business relationship [with the manufacturer.”

However, he notes, such promotions and branding opportunities must match the client’s mission statement. He related an incident where he tested a new french fry at Highmark. “We got a lot of negative feedback from customers because french fries aren’t considered healthy,” he notes.

Greg Black, dining services director at the University of Iowa, says, “I am firmly behind partnering with manufacturers for special events and concepts. It is a way for us to increase excitement in contract dining for our students, an opportunity to get feedback on new foods and recipes—and of course it provides brand exposure for the manufacturer.”

However, Black explains that when his department wants to add a manufacturer branded concept, he must work through the university’s purchasing office with a competitive bid process.

Similar to working with manufacturers is partnering with commodity boards on special events and marketing programs. Again, the benefit is getting free marketing and merchandising materials—as well as, at times, prizes for giveaways and raffles—in exchange for promoting a particular product.

“This past spring we partnered with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to host an “Alaska in Iowa” seafood extravaganza for our residential students,” recalls Black. “We also worked with the California Raisin Board, developing new recipes utilizing raisins and promoting healthy foods for our students. Other partnerships have included working with a local pasta producer in developing a the “ultra-grain” pasta for Con-Agra, and having the Johnsonville “World’s Largest Grill” on campus for a Homecoming tailgate party.”

Rex Healthcare’s McGrody, who also has done commodity board promotions, says that whether you partner with a manufacturer or a board, you should try to maintain control over the process.

“I think these types of programs are sound and have a useful existence,” he says. “It is good, however, to take these programs and add your own personal twist to them. In any case they do help, particularly in places that have labor issues and/or technical experience issues with their cooks.”

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