Customization and flexibility challenge food processors supplying the foodservice market.

Golf pros play better with custom-fit clubs, tennis players play more effectively with custom designed racquets and foodservice outlets profit more by developing customized food products. This customization, while ringing profits for the foodservice chain, can test the flexibility of even the most sophisticated food processing and packaging line.

But the challenges posed by the foodservice market can be worth the rewards. As reported in January by Restaurants and Institutions, Technomic, a Chicago-based foodservice consulting company, predicts 2.6 percent growth for the foodservice segment, healthier than the 1.9 percent projected last year. The National Restaurant Association forecasts a 1.8 percent increase, marking the eighth consecutive year of growth. R&I reports that full service restaurants are battling for share of stomach from every angle -- in particular the meal solution specialists such as supermarkets and retail foodservice chains. In addition, as consumers demand more variety, a constantly changing menu is becoming even more essential for restaurants. This trend translates into even more SKUs and more customization for food processors supplying these restaurants.

Although the actual process of making food for foodservice outlets is similar to retail products, the difference is apparent in the need for flexibility. "A product line in foodservice often has more SKUs than in the retail segment," said Bob Adamson, director of marketing, SIG Combibloc. This occurs because foodservice outlets want one stop shopping, and often processors are willing to accommodate them. For example, if a national chain of nursing homes wants to order all of its juices from the same supplier and they have a need for prune and kiwi juice, even if the manufacturer does not make prune or kiwi juice, they might add these products to their line to accommodate the customer, Adamson said.

Another difference between retail and foodservice is the degree of customization. "For major chain accounts, processors might create a product like a signature mustard," Adamson said.

Getting flexible

These increased SKUs and signature products require a high degree of flexible manufacturing. "Filling systems need to be very flexible, size changeover needs to be quick," Adamson said.

J.R. Simplot learned this lesson when it expanded its Hermiston, OR, plant. The plant was originally designed to supply french fries to one major foodservice customer. In order to broaden its customer base, Simplot redesigned its lines to meet the needs of the changing foodservice market. The company added a SCF II Multi-Stage Conveyor dryer from Proctor & Schwartz (Horsham, PA) that provides uniform, perfectly-textured french fries for foodservice customers.

Simplot's various foodservice customers have different requirements for their fries, so changeover is a significant issue at Hermiston. "We may have a week where we're doing an extended run for one customer, then we'll have a week when we'll have to changeover seven times," said Leo Keizur, operations manager for the Hermiston facility. "The average is usually four times per week."

The Proctor dryer, equipped with menu-driven PLC controllers, allows Simplot's workers to store thermal processing information, facilitating both changeover and line integration. At Hermiston, all parts of the line are computerized, and operators oversee the entire process from a terminal. The line runs at 30,000 pounds per hour, Keizur said.

"We measure incoming volume and throughput, manage the dryer's fan speeds, dwell time, temperature and humidity, then print out a history of each run," Keizur said. "This makes it easy to set up drying parameters for each type of french fry or determine problems."

The Hermiston plant runs three shifts a day, 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Production is constant for 30 days, then the plant shuts down for 24 hours of maintenance and cleaning. The facility includes two large french fry lines, with both coated and uncoated product, and two lines for pre-formed products such as breakfast hash brown patties.

"Right now the trend in the industry is for coated fries, which allows for a crispier texture," Keizur said. "In fact, only 20 percent of our production is conventional fries. Another industry trend is variety. Foodservice customers are starting to try peel-on fries, new types of coatings or batters, potato wedges and other cut sizes that are new. Also, everyone in the industry is looking into ways to make french fries healthier and lower in fat."

Special products for special needs

Another opportunity for processors serving the foodservice market is in making custom-tailored products to ease the challenges found in the foodservice kitchen. Schrieber Foods Inc. decided to jump on this bandwagon with its new nylon-polyethylene foodservice cheese pouch, marketed under the brand name of Creative Catering Cheese. The pouch provides an alternative to the cloth pastry bag traditionally used by foodservice chefs to dispense cheese on hors d'oeuvres, appetizers or as a garnish. The unusually engineered, funnel-shaped pouch was produced to Schreiber's specifications by film manufacturer Curwood, Inc. (Oshkosh, WI) and specialty converter Vonco Products Inc. (Lake Villa, IL).

Traditionally, natural cheeses are chopped up and cold packed in 2 lb. and 5 lb. tubs for foodservice. Typically the chef or restaurateur preparing the hors d'oeuvres would scoop out the tub, placing the cheese in a cloth pastry bag for decorating the crackers.

"The pouch concept developed when our marketing people, who work closely with chefs in foodservice kitchens and restaurants, asked us if it was possible to produce a workable pouch to dispense a spreadable cheese," said Dan Shannon, Schreiber principal packaging engineer.

In the packaging lab, Schreiber engineers started by experimenting with different types of film and different angles and bag configurations. "Cheese can be fairly stiff and therefore hard to extrude," Shannon said. "We experimented with many films and film structures. For example, straight polyethylene would swell up like a balloon when squeezed and tended to rupture." In the end, the choice narrowed to a 100 gauge biaxially oriented nylon with a 2 mil linear low density polyethylene sealant. "It worked well and is cost efficient," Shannon said.

Funnel shaped to facilitate dispensing, the pouch measures 16 inches on each side, heat sealed, while the top, 9-1/2 inches across, is left open until filled. "It was important that the film and seal gave us sufficient toughness to withstand the squeezing and twisting of normal use without rupturing or cracking," Shannon said. "The nylon/polyethylene structure has excellent seal strength and flex crack resistance. Curwood modified our original specification for the sealant so that it provides an extremely strong seal, as strong as the material itself."

Dimensions are also critical, Shannon said, especially near the area where the plastic decorating tip is placed before filling. The user opens the pouch by cutting along a dotted line printed on the pouch, then the tip is manually lodged into the opening. The dispensing tip is tapered with a flange on the upper end that fixes it in place. A reclosable cap snaps onto the tip so that unused portions of product stay fresh for later use. Both tip and cap are injection molded polyethylene.

Foodservice accepts aseptics

In addition to flexibility and customization, foodservice suppliers are concerned with food safety, worker safety, product quality and ease of use, according to Adamson of SIG Combibloc. Aseptics are one option. "Aseptically packaged products ensure food safety, product quality, are easy to use and are safer for workers than canned products with sharp metal edges," Adamson said.

Aseptic products are gaining acceptance in foodservice kitchen, where refrigeration space can be at a premium. "The kids' aseptic juice-box market has been flat. The foodservice area is where the growth has been the last five years," Adamson said.

Aseptics are relatively new in the U.S. foodservice business. Foodservice customers are interested in solving problems such as a shortage of refrigeration space. These customers are receptive to aseptically packaged products because these products help solve their problems, Adamson said.

Products packaged in aseptic foodservice-size containers include juice concentrates, ready-to-serve juices, coffee beverages, syrups, fruit toppings, broths, fluid dairy products (i.e. heavy cream, half-and-half). "The biggest area is juice concentrates and ready-to-serve juices," Adamson said.

One product launched in an aseptic container is California-based processor Lyons-Magnus' fruit Smoothie. The Smoothie is packaged in 46-ounce Pour 'n Seal aseptic cartons. The drinks are available in six flavors: strawberry, raspberry, tropical fruit, banana, peach and mocha. "We believe that by aseptically packaging our Smoothies, we're giving foodservice operators a unique opportunity to add this popular and profitable beverage concept to their menus," said Bob Smittcamp, president, Lyons-Magnus. "The aseptic process guarantees quality, and the aseptic package means that operators can add the concept conveniently."

Foodservice in a box

In addition to aseptics, the foodservice industry is capitalizing on the popularity of convenient meal-solutions. Fast food outlets, full service restaurants and even grocery store chains are developing fresh products packaged in CPET (crystallized polyethylene terephthalate), dual-ovenable containers.

Restaurants developing a take-out program want to provide customers with a more upscale, user-friendly package, according to Mark Spencer, manager of new product development, Tenneco Packaging (Lake Forest, IL). They are looking for alternatives to the standard foam hinge-lid or the 7-inch round aluminum containers.

Supermarkets looking to profit from the popularity of meal-solutions want a package that will give food a fresh presentation as well as convenience for the consumer. "There are two things important in these packages. One is having an upscale design and the other is the performance of the package," Spencer said.

To enhance convenience, meal-solutions will often come in separate components, such as ribs in one container, a side of mashed potatoes or corn on the cob in a separate container and a fresh prepared salad in the third container. Consumers can then pick and choose what they like. "Some large foodservice suppliers want a custom package, while mid to small companies might opt to just have their name embossed on the package or go with a label," Spencer said.

Tenneco has developed new packages geared toward this market. "We have packages designed for roasted chicken and barbequed ribs. Anti-fog technology is big in this industry to ensure that the consumer can see the food through a hot container. Our newest launch is containers with dual color hinged lids," Spencer said.

Although these CPET trays are dual ovenable, how would a consumer know that the tray can be placed in the microwave and/or conventional oven? Eastman Chemical Company (Kingsport, TN) introduced VersaTray and made a commitment to educate customers about the functionality of these trays. "The very nature of home meal replacement [HMR] packaging is that consumers can heat their food purchases at home in the same container it came in," said Brad Willingham, Eastman's market manager for food and specialty packaging. "While dual-ovenable packages have been available for some time, the consumer is virtually unaware of their features."

VersaTray is a new packaging logo for use on HMR dual-ovenable trays, including frozen, ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat meal options. The logo will inform consumers that the tray can be used in both the microwave and the oven.

As the foodservice market continues to grow, food processors will continue to seek ways to meet the needs of this demanding segment. Whether it be through new packaging or processing technology, flexibility in all areas will be the key to success in this highly customized market.

Filling it up

Filling meal-solution products can also pose problems for processors. Processors selling to the foodservice market need to be concerned with accuracy of fill, speed and productivity of equipment and health and safety factors such as OSHA and USDA regulations, according to Curt Fry, plant operations, Machinery Engineering & Technology (Janesville, WI).

These processors also need to fill a wide range of sizes and customized shaped containers. The M-2 tamper evident film sealing machine from Machinery Engineering & Technology was developed with this in mind. "The M-2 can fill containers ranging from 2 ounces to 80 ounces. The machine can fill products such as hummus, salsa. It can do layered cheese cake, potato salads and diced fruit cocktail," said Richard Hansen, sales engineer, Machinery Engineering & Technology.

The machine can accommodate custom shaped containers by having custom-designed tooling for the desired shape. "The M-2 will also place a tamper-evident heat seal made of pre-cut die foil or roll film on the package. Depending on the container size and product being filled, this machine will reach speeds up to 80 containers per minute," Hansen said.

A cheesy solution

Sorrento Cheese Company began shipping its Prima Cuccina line of premium mozzarella cheese to foodservice customers in April. Prima Cuccina is formulated to maintain great stretch and texture after cooling with minimal browning, creating a uniform melt and a rich, creamy flavor. "This product has better melting characteristics than other mozzarella cheeses. It maintains its stretch and texture even as the product cools. It doesn't dry out so it would be suitable for delivery service or any location where product is placed under a heat lamp," said Fred Herman, corporate director of marketing, Sorrento Cheese Company.

This cheese has a minimal amount of browning and it doesn't burn or blister. "The lack of burning gives the pizza a fresher, high quality look. This product can be used in the gourmet-type pizzerias," Herman said.

The product is available in whole milk and part skim, and in loaf, shredded and diced varieties. While most foodservice products pay little attention to packaging, Sorrento decided to use high quality graphics on the package to differentiate it from other cheeses. "This is a premiere product and it should look the part," Herman said.