Brands valuable, say foodservice directors

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Twenty-five years ago at the University of Notre Dame, Foodservice Director Bill Hickey used to take students and visitors on tours of his warehouse. During the tours he would point out the various brand names visible on the cases of products being stored there.

“I want students to know that we use brand name products,” he would say. “It’s important for them to see that our program stands for quality, and brands help communicate that message.”

That attitude remains strong in non-commercial foodservice today, although the reasons may differ from one operation to another. The message from operators is clear: if you want to send a message to your customers, do it with brands.

“Bryn Mawr is very traditional in the sense that national branded concepts like Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A, for example, practically have no place,” says Bernadette Chung-Templeton, director of dining services at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “With that said, Bryn Mawr students do recognize and appreciate brands. Brands like Naked Juice, Jones soda, Amy's frozen vegetarian meals, Starbucks double shots, Izze beverages and Cliff Bars do well in our retail operations.”

Chung-Templeton says these brands are popular because “the quality resonates with students’ tastes.”

She adds that brands are important even in the back of the house, suggesting that quality again is more important than name recognition. For example, she notes that Hebrew National is the brand of hot dog served in board operations, even though that fact is not advertised to students on the line.

For Jim McGrody, foodservice director for Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., when it comes to ingredients, brands are all-important.

“Name recognition is very valuable,” McGrody explains. “When I see an off-brand of ketchup, for example, it oozes cheapness. Customers pick up on that, so we’re careful to play on the quality of the brands we use.”

On the branded concept side, McGrody is less sold on the need for names like Burger King and KFC in foodservice operations, but he admits that it’s sometimes tough to buck the reputation of a national brand.

“I’m big on developing my own brands, but if you try to put your own in-house brand [of coffeehouse] up against Starbucks, you’re going to lose,” he says.

Tony Almeida, director of nutrition services at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., notes that brands can even command higher prices for menu items.

“We serve Boars’ Head deli meats in our cafeteria, and we asked customers before we made the switch. In a survey we asked them if they would be willing to pay 50 cents more for a sandwich made with Boars Head products, and 98% said they would because of the perceived quality.”

The sustainability movement has had an impact on brand awareness, particularly on college campuses as student customers either identify certain brands with a commitment to the environment or wish the foodservice program to “go local” to support the community.

“On our retail side of our operations we find that regional and local brands are becoming more popular with our customers,” says J. Michael Floyd, executive director of dining services at the University of Georgia, in Athens. “For example, two years ago when we opened a new food court we found in our customer surveys that our students did not want national brands on campus but were interested in a mix of regional, local and our own signature brands. I believe this is a direct reflection of the sustainability awareness of students and their desire to see more regional and local food choices.”

At Michigan State University, the local movement also has played a role in what brands students want to see on campus.

“Our menu development is driven more by ‘fresh and local’ rather than by any one brand,” says Bruce Haskell, director of dining services at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “Obviously we have relationships and direct buy opportunities with Coke, Tyson and other brands and use their point of sale info when it’s appropriate.

“But are brands more visible than they were five years ago? No,” Haskell adds. “Again, the fact that we use fresh and local is more of a selling point. Hudsonville Dairy, a local company, has become very popular on campus since we instituted their products in our new Brody Square dining facility.”

That doesn’t mean that Michigan State has turned its back on the nationals, however. ‘We do brand awareness communications throughout the year featuring nationally recognized brands,” Haskell explains. “That way they know it's not ‘Bill's Ketchup’ but it is a national brand. We actually use retail boxes of cereal, not bulk, in our residence hall dining areas just for that reason.”