Students at the University of North Colorado, in Greeley, started clamoring for lunches-to-go in the early 1990s, just as the trend for portable meals started to heat up. The university had recently made changes to class schedules, shortening the time between classes and thus forcing many students to skip lunch altogether. They weren’t happy about it, to say the least, so foodservice officials seized the opportunity to meet student demands while injecting some life back into their midday meal business.
The portable meal concept grew quickly in Greeley, prompting those officials to offer it at dinner and then, a year later, breakfast. In short order, students were as likely to be carrying meals of some sort between classes as they were backpacks, portable music systems featuring cassettes or CDs (remember those?) and, for a privileged few, laptop computers.
Fast-forward to today, and grab-and-go meal volume amounts to almost a third of overall board plan business, according to Hal Brown, director of dining services. “It’s a program that has evolved over the years,” he says. “We had so many students requesting it, and, working through our food advisory board, we adapted to the needs of the customer.”
Brown and the UNC campus are not alone in that endeavor. Nearly 70% of non-commercial operators participating in FoodService Director’s first annual Portability Business-Builder Study offer menu items that are intended to be consumed away from the dining hall. This includes the ever-growing grab-and-go category, consisting of foods that are specifically formulated for portability and, typically, utensil-free consumption (see charts accompanying this study); as well as meals that are portioned and packaged at the time and point of service (otherwise known as “take-out”).
Most operators discussing their portable meal business say their portable meal volume is on-par with what study results show: portable meal items account for 25% of total foodservice sales, ranging from 14% in schools to 35% in higher education. Portable sales at operations in the western United States are higher (35%) than all other areas: South, 26.4%; Central, 24%; and Northeast, 19.2%.
Some of the nuances of non-commercial foodservice pose special challenges to successful portable meal implementation. For example: at UNC, like many other campuses, officials wrangle with how to fit grab-and-go meals into meal plans. “We are very cost-conservative on how much we can put into [portable business],” Brown says. “Meal plans were designed to feed students in the dining room, so we have to be sensitive to our missed-meal factor as well as to customer needs.”
To do both, operators often set up dedicated portable meal stations, if not full-fledged facilities offering carryout meals and nothing else. At UNC, for example, there are two Gourmet to Go units on campus. Both offer a brown bag meal for three main dayparts that students assemble almost like a reimbursable meal in a grade school. For $4 at breakfast and $5.50 at lunch or dinner, customers make a center-plate selection (cereal and muffin at breakfast, say, or sandwich at lunch), then add a fruit and a beverage. Desserts are included at lunch and dinner.
Yogurt and bagels are the most popular breakfast items, Brown notes. A “simple” turkey sandwich on a baguette tops the lunch/dinner offering, while tuna kits and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches are close behind. They’re the do-it-yourself variety, which students assemble using squeezable packets. Other items include carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing, soup cups, hot and cold cereal in carryable containers and fresh fruit.
“We try to control the protein items, and the key to [controlling fruit costs] is if [items] are ripe and in season,” he adds. “We are studying and looking at different hot [meal] options— that’s one of the things students keep requesting, especially during the winter. We’re offering hot chocolate and coffee, but haven’t made the jump to hot food yet.”
Many foodservice directors in higher education can say that their portable meal business is rooted in efforts to adapt to students’ changing lifestyles. In this and other market segments, facility modifications drive the shift as well. For example, the cafeteria at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., will soon go under renovation, according to Regina Toomey-Bueno, director of food, nutrition and transport. During that time, there will still be customers to serve—so a temporary servery offering pre-packaged items will be set up in the seating area.
This servery “will be much smaller than our regular servery and we’ll need to move customers through quickly,” she says. “So we expect a sharp increase in portable foods.” The current facility has a deli bar offering seven or eight varieties a day, and that will rise to a dozen once construction begins.
“Plus we’ll be promoting soup more as a to-go item, and offer a soup-and-sandwich combo,” she adds. “Since we’ll be offering less hot food, we’ll make the effort to make cold items more attractive than they are today.”
Toomey-Bueno indicates that her operation’s portable volume roughly equates to the 25% non-commercial average. Most of that is pre-packaged salads, sandwiches and burgers, as well as hot foods that are wrapped to go. Both the temporary servery and the new café, once it opens, will feature a number of grab-and-go display cases, both refrigerated and non-refrigerated. There will also be a hot sandwich slide.
Another factor driving growth of portable meal business pertains to the health appeal of items that are inherently portable—namely, salads, wrap sandwiches, and fruit or vegetable cups. That’s certainly the case at the Omaha, NE, headquarters of The Gallup Organization, where customers are looking for a lot of low-carb and regular wraps, points out Kerry Moore, Swanson Corp.’s foodservice director there.
Other popular portable items among Gallup’s customers include pre-made, grab-and-go salads (especially chicken and Caesar), cut fresh fruit and yogurt-fruit-and-granola parfaits. “We’re always expanding our wraps and sandwiches into the healthy area,” she adds. “And we try to promote them as healthy items.”
Moore notes that grab-and-go items generate 15% to 18% of total sales, with more on the way. “I would expect it to grow as we offer new items,” she says, and also because customers are used to being served quickly when they dine out.
More than half of all operators expect their portable sales to increase this year, with schools registering the highest number of positive responses. That may be because schools have the most room for growth in portable business: only 14% of current volume is consumed away from the cafeteria, according to the FSD survey. But that may change as school food authorities modify facilities and services to become more responsive to the needs of students—with the goal of increasing their participation.
For example, Somerset (PA) School District implemented a grab-and-go program in its high school, middle school and four elementary schools this year. “We put a full reimbursable meal into a package and students love it,” says Toby Horner, divisional vice president for Metz and Associates, which manages the account.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are featured prominently in the meal, he adds, in keeping with the market’s efforts to combat childhood obesity with more healthful choices.
Most operators expecting portable sales to increase this year say that will happen because of their need to respond to customer demands. Almost a third, though, plan a shift in preparation and service to the portable format.
So you offer foods to-go—but do your customers know you do?
Foodservice operators often say that demand for portable meal options is not difficult to spot. It’s often the case where customers make their needs known clearly—stating them verbally as well as with their dollars.
In fact, 58% of operators expecting portable sales to increase say that’s in response to stated customer demands, according to FSD’s Portability Business-Builder Study.
But that doesn’t mean operators just sit back and expect the pre-packed salads, heat-and-eat burritos or other portable items to fly out the door on their own. The need to market portable meals may not be necessary with respect to customers already familiar with it, but what about new hires? What about diehard “brown-baggers?” Or the fact that you offer portable items for catering?
Alan Lamoureux, corporate foodservice manager for J.M. Family Enterprises, a vehicle distribution and processing firm in Deerfield Beach, FL, says portable meal options available at his cafes are marketed in several ways: at new-hire orientations, in posters and table-tent cards, and via intranet postings.
On the run: At headquarters, there are two cafés, each averaging 335 meals a day; at three separate facilities in Jacksonville, daily lunch volume is 100. Of that, 7% of sales are portable items. “We offer a variety of portable menu items in grab-and-go and take-out styles,” Lamoureux, says, “allowing associates to get a quick, wholesome meal on the run.
“We also have an order form on our cafeteria’s home page [allowing] customers to order meals to go, which are based on our daily lunch menu.”
In addition, the cafés offer packaged and refrigerated dinners for take-home (or back-to-office) in display merchandisers. “Sales are growing as we increase availability, variety and healthier choices” of portable items, he continues. “We expect this piece of business to continue to grow as we listen to feedback on what [customers] are looking for regarding convenience, quality and value. We continue to improve the execution of our preparation and packaging processes to make the portability concept easy and effective.”
Electronic marketing—namely, Web site postings and e-mail advertising—is tailor-made for the typical portable meal customer, several operators suggest. “E-mail is probably our biggest advertising [method] right now,” says Regina Toomey-Bueno, director of food, nutrition and transport at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, NJ. Messages to employees communicate menus, specials and service changes.
All menus are posted on the hospital intranet and sent out in paper form weekly. “Plus, there’s a weekly hospital newsletter and we put in ‘teasers,’” she adds.
All on its own: Other operators say portable meal sales grow through less-specific marketing efforts. Dave Bayne, director of nutrition services at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is one such operator.
Portable sales grew last year for the fourth year in a row, he says, most likely due to “general marketing” efforts. “We’re looking at our entire program again, but we’re not looking to re-invent the wheel,” he notes.
Packing It In
Your portable meal may be only as good as the container in which you package it.
How can you turn brown-baggers into, well, plastic-clamshellers? With a better clamshell, some non-commercial foodservice operators say.
Precisely 50% of operators participating in FSD’s Portability Business-Builder Study say they plan on increasing their portable meal business this year by purchasing new kinds of packaging materials that enhance portability, maintain food safety and—maybe most importantly of all—hold up well in transport.
Foam containers are the most commonly used containers, according to the study: 71% of operators use them. Containers with clear lids—whether clamshell, plate or bowl—are also high on the list, indicating a growing emphasis on food helping to sell itself.
The clear choice: “Everything [we serve] is in clear containers,” says Kerry Moore, foodsevice director at The Gallup Organization in Omaha, Neb. “They’re expensive containers, about twice the cost of foam, but we feel the presentation sells the food.”
Foam and plastic are the dominant materials, according to survey responses, with only about one-third of operators saying they use paper containers. At Citigroup in Centen-nial, Co., “we don’t have [any] dishes or flatware,” says Linda Anderson, foodservice director. That means there’s less need for dishwashers, equating to some savings in labor.
“Normal” foam clamshell products are used with entrees, she adds, while soups and salads are taken to-go in containers with a black bottom and clear plastic tops. “We use foam and plastic for everything, not just to-go.”
The quest for more functional packaging continues: