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2006 Portability Study: Portable meals gain ground

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

Most non-commercial operators provide customers with a variety of portable meal options. For some, grab-and-go is, or is becoming, a way of life, according to FSD's 2005 Portability Study.

College students love their burritos, no question, especially on the West Coast, where burrito stands, taquerias and quick-service Mexican restaurants are as common as pizzerias in New York, coffee bars in Seattle or bratwurst carts in Chicago.

But what does the iPod Generation crave more, food or speed (of service)? At the University of California-Berkeley, it's the latter at the Golden Bear, the largest of four convenience store, like retail units, according to Shawn LaPean, director of CalDining.

Burritos were selling at a 100-a-day clip, LaPean says, but customer counts went up tenfold when staff converted the made-to-order burrito station to a wrap station. "Speed of service is essential," he comments. Golden Bear attracts 5,000 customers daily; with seating for 35, "virtually all business is grab-and-go," he adds.

What holds true for the Golden Bear doesn't quite hold true for the entire non-commercial marketplace, but it's getting there, according to FoodService Director's most recent Business-Builder Study on Portability, which determines the extent to which operators are serving either grab-and-go (pre-packaged), take-out meals (packaged at the time and point of service) or both. B&I is the market leader: 86% sell portable foods, with colleges a close second at 82%.

Trends show that for many wage-earners, the "lunch hour" is a thing of the past and that many employees in a variety of occupational settings work through lunch.


Back to work: Presbyterian Hospital of Plano (Texas) is no exception. "More than 60% of our business leaves the cafeteria," says Mary Spicer, director of nutrition services, "mostly because of employees taking their food back to their offices." In a new tower on hospital grounds, for example, nurses prefer to take meals from the cafeteria to their break room.

Spicer doesn't stock a lot of grab-and-go items "because we have such a good foodservice program with made-to-order items," she adds. Yet, "basically anything we prepare can be packaged to go."

Portable meal volume at Plano, at 60%-plus, is far ahead of both the hospital and non-commercial average. The FSD study shows that portable meals generate 27% of sales in hospitals and 24% across the non-commercial spectrum. Customer counts, study data show, are high: 2,327 portable meal transactions (and $2,600 in total sales) per store, per week.

In some locations, portable meal sales rise so high that operators effect a wholesale change in style of service. According to the FSD study, 68% of all operators expect their portable sales to increase this year; in 2005, 55% felt that way.

For most of them this year (63%), it's because customers are demanding it. "Only 6.5% of our resident students eat a full breakfast," says Jeff DeMoss, executive director of dining services at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. "Another 10% to 12% grab a muffin and coffee on the way to class and call it breakfast." This fall, he plans to convert two residence dining halls to grab-and-go only for breakfast.

He's also setting up a commissary to support demand for more than 1,500 grab-and-go sandwiches purchased daily. "We realized we need centrally located production to generate more product without using more labor," he adds.


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.


DEMAND DRIVES MENU QUALITY

Can you cut corners with carry-out foods? Increasingly, customers are saying: "No way!"

Grab-and-go and take-out meals generate anywhere from 18% to 28% of non-commercial operators' sales, according to the FSD Portability Study. Obviously customers are willing to sacrifice a comfortable setting such as a dining room for the convenience these meals afford. But sacrifice quality? Perish the thought.

Students at colleges and universities where Sodexo manages foodservice want freshness, speed of service and portability, according to Rob Morasco, vice president of marketing for Campus Services. They also want, no, expect, quality. "Ham and cheese on white bread is not what they want," he says. "Asiago turkey club on focaccia is more like it."

Morasco calls sandwiches and salads "the kings of portability," while yogurt parfaits and veggie crudite cups are also popular carry-out items. In fact, the demand for portable items is so great that Sodexho developed Smart Market, a cold and hot food core menu to build take-away business.

Accounts with the Smart Market concept in place experience portable meal sales increases of up to 25%, Morasco says. The program rolled out in fall 2005; by the end of the year, it was in place at 400 accounts.

Here's what other operators are offering in portable formats:

  • Cyclone Salads wrapped in paper sleeves at Shelton (Conn.) Public Schools. They're salads stuffed into a cone-shaped tortilla, according to Linda Staniszi, foodservice director. And, "sandwiches are really big. Even though we make sandwiches to order, kids pick up sandwiches in less than a minute."
  • Sandwiches, mini sandwiches, desserts, fruit cups, salads, and pepperoni-and-cheese cups at Telcordia, a Whitson Culinary Group B&I account in Piscataway, N.J. There's also a dinner-to-go program, says Mark Kirn, general manager. Dinners are packaged in 11-inch containers that are microwaveable at home.
  • Sushi bento boxes and Indian specialties at the University of California-Berkeley. "I'm amazed that students will buy bento boxes with shrimp tempura or other fried food, and microwave it later," says Shawn LaPean, director of CalDining. "But they do." They're also buying more natural and organic packaged goods.

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