All Wrapped Up

Sandwich packaging evolves as retailer barriers persist.

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

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Blame Panera. Or thank them, depending on how you look at it. The fast-casual powerhouse (seven in 10 consumers eat there at least occasionally, according to Technomic) has changed what consumers expect from a sandwich. They want sundried tomato pesto, Italian herb ciabatta bread and applewood-smoked turkey.

You see the ramifications on menus from McDonald’s—Angus Chipotle BBQ Bacon Snack Wrap—to airports. A recent trip through the Minneapolis airport yielded a lunch of a turkey and brie panini with apples and lingonberry sauce. This “upscaling” of the daily sandwich has even reached commissaries serving the c-store industry, including Eby- Brown’s Wakefield Sandwich Co.

“We’ve worked diligently to change perceptions,” says Scott Woodruff, director of commissary operations for Wakefield Sandwich Co. The company recently rolled out a Southwest turkey wedge sandwich with chipotle mayo, and a ham wedge with a jalapeno Cheddar spread—both packaged under modified atmosphere in new paper packaging and shipped fresh, never frozen.

The real change agent here isn’t Panera, but science. Innovations in the machinery and materials behind packaged sandwiches— specifically paperboard wedge cartons—have helped improve both shelf life and sensory enjoyment. Manufacturers are introducing stateside technology that’s commonplace in Europe to keep up with consumer demand for high-quality, unique flavors in a convenient format.

But the innovations are not without hurdles. The economy has left many retailers unable to justify the retail cost and multiple-day deliveries of fresh sandwiches. For others, spread-out stores and rural locations further make it an unrealistic option.

Nonetheless, consumers want more. For all retailers, finding success in packaged sandwiches will mean working with manufacturers to balance freshness and variety with waste and costs.

Mapping Out MAP

Woodruff stands over a shiny new machine, beaming proudly. The machine is fresh off the dock from the U.K., and it’s set to fill Wakefield’s new packaging with nitrogen, carbon dioxide and lunch.

All Wakefield deli sandwiches, made in the 20,000-square-foot commissary out of Eby-Brown’s Ohio distribution center, are made under modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). Three different machines are carefully calibrated to flush the wedge and sub packaging with the right ratios of gas to keep ingredients fresh and shelf life long without freezing.

“MAP is science,” says Woodruff. “It’s not guessing, it’s not voodoo, it’s not witchcraft.”

Indeed, a look at packaged sandwiches requires a brief science lesson. Most sandwiches shipped to c-stores arrive either fresh, frozen, under MAP, or both frozen and under MAP.

 MAP is used to prolong the shelf life by removing as much of the oxygen in the package as possible and adding carbon dioxide, which slows the aging process. The amount of carbon dioxide depends on the foods being packaged, and the remaining ratio is filled by nitrogen, which neither encourages nor discourages bacterial growth.

There are two ways MAP is performed: The air can either be completely removed and the desired gas mixture then inserted, or the package can be flushed with the desired gas mixture, forcing the oxygen out.

A thorny issue with MAP is produce. Most consumers want to see freshness cues from a slice of tomato or leaf of lettuce. While meat, cheese and bread are effectively “dead,” produce is still “alive”—or at least respiring. It needs that oxygen MAP removes or else it will wilt, which is why produce packaging uses a permeable microperforated film to allow the exchange of gasses. Meats, breads and other nonrespiring ingredients need barrier films, which are not permeable.

Technically, there’s nothing you can’t put under MAP; it will just shorten shelf life. And MAP is all about shelf life. At Greencore, a convenience foods manufacturer based in the U.K., most non-MAP sandwiches have a shelf life of three to five days after production. Under MAP, a very basic sandwich can have its shelf life extended to 10 to 12 days.

“It’s all about choices,” says Stephen Young, vice president of Sales for Greencore USA, Byfield, Mass. “If you want to put out a ham-and-cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato, you’re not going to get that ultimate 10- to 12-day shelf life. Everything for us is about choices that you want to make and how you want to present the product, and then we’ll present you with what the impact is of those choices.”

Packaged sandwiches, whether MAP or not, must also battle what manufacturers call “moisture migration”—also known as soggy bread. That’s partially why condiments are kept out of such sandwiches, though manufacturers such as Eby-Brown are finding success with placing condiments between the meat and cheese to provide a barrier between the bread and the moisture.

The innovations in MAP are largely coming from companies such as Eby- Brown bringing European technologies stateside, as well as the packaging itself.

Eby-Brown recently began rolling out two new pieces of packaging made of paper. A wedge carton is hermetically sealed and gas flushed for a shelf life of up to 14 days upon delivery. A paper sub bag is also in rotation, and both items have a window for seeing the product and improved graphics capabilities compared with plastic packaging. The new packaging brings a freshness halo to the category. “We heard the U.K. had touted as much as a 30% increase in sales just from seven years ago when they went from the traditional rigid wedge packaging to paper packaging,” says Woodruff. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

The packaging looks more like something you’d see in Europe’s plethora of grab-and-go sites. “We landed on paper being the No. 1 conveyor of freshness,” says Woodruff. The packages are nearly free of oil-based plastics, helping strengthen that sustainability halo.

Shelf Life Pain Points

If shelf life is at the root of sandwich packaging, then distribution is at the root of shelf life. And it’s one gnarly root. “Distribution is the Achilles heel of success in refrigerated foods,” says Lou Cooperhouse, who has spent 30 years in the fresh-food packaging industry. He’s currently the president and CEO of F&S Produce, Rosenhayn, N.J. F&S also launched paperboard wedge packs for use in MAP at the beginning of the year.

MAP can increase shelf life by as many as 30 days, “but the key to success is a short shelf life, not a long shelf life,” Cooperhouse says.

This is why frozen remains an important element in the packaged-sandwich category. “[For] rural areas and places that don’t have the population density, a thawand- serve works just fine,” Cooperhouse says. “In urban areas, consumers are looking for a fresh product, and that expectation is growing. But there will continue to be a place for [frozen] products.”

Such is the case for Kirk Matthews, senior category manager for TravelCenters of America, Westlake, Ohio. The distances between the company’s 240 stores are wide, so a commissary is out of the question. Instead, sandwiches come in either frozen or under MAP. Most frozen products come in through distributor McLane’s warehouse, while the MAP items come through a DSD. Representatives from the DSD also visit the stores to rotate products for the retailer.

“We’re looking at doing some fresh sandwiches. But [with] the lead time between the manufacturers producing them, getting them to our distribution warehouse and turning around and getting them out to our stores, it gets you down to four or five days on shelf life, and we can’t do it,” says Matthews.

For Matthews, one of the tradeoffs of frozen vs. MAP sandwiches is margin vs. waste. Frozen items can have better margins but also can incur more waste for the retailer. “You have to know your business on a daily basis,” he says. “When does the pitch become more than you’re making?”

To help anticipate waste, Matthews builds it into his costs: “It’s OK to throw things away, and we’re trying to make [managers] understand that.”

Matthews has seen huge success with presliced thaw-and-serve cheesecake, which has a 14-day shelf life after it’s thawed. He’d love to see MAP cheesecake slices.

“Anything we can get seven to 10 days out of after it’s fully thawed—those are the big wins for us,” he says.

 Larry Bullis, director of merchandising and marketing for La Plata, Md.-based The Wills Group (Dash In), faces a similar situation. About three years ago, Bullis was bringing in fresh branded products from a commissary out of Baltimore four days a week. It was a great-looking product, he says, but it was also expensive. “Because the economy was heading south, it wasn’t the best time to have a high-retail product out there,” he says. “So we made a switch to another company, and all of our branded products right now come in frozen.”

Success at Dash In has come from strong merchandising. Bullis has been pleased with the result of using bright stickers to promote different deals—two for $4 and a 99-cent value line. “With those day-glo stickers, forget the packaging. That flat sells product,” he says.

Changing Perceptions

While barriers to entry continue, retailers and manufacturers see prepackaged sandwiches continuing to grow in customer acceptance as quality ramps up—likely making the investment more feasible.

For many consumers, fresh still means made on site, so any cues suggesting that will help the perception of a program, including private labeling and packaging that looks handcrafted.

“In my mind, it depends on a c-store’s strategy. What do you want to be known for?” Bullis says. He points to chains with made-to-order sandwiches: “You key in what you want, and you have the person back there, so the perception is they’re making that sandwich fresh. That’s the perception, even though a lot of what they’re making is processed food.”

In the end, American consumers are still a bit different from their European brethren, who are used to packaged refrigerated sandwiches. Here, freshness is often conjured by a different element: heat.

“I’m looking forward to the day when we can do a fresh delivered sandwich to the stores,” Bullis says. “But more importantly, we’re heavily dependent on hot food. We can execute that very well.”

Decision Making & Best Practices

Choosing a packaged-sandwich program involves balancing customer expectations with P&L goals. Every decision must be made with shelf life under consideration:

  • What is the right price point based on your customer base?
  • How many deliveries do you want coming to your store weekly?
  • What is the amount of time between production and when the product reaches your store?
  • What is the shelf life once it reaches your store?
  • What is your current program’s daily sales and waste?
  • For frozen items, do you have enough room to store and thaw the product?

Stephen Young of Greencore emphasizes constant reinvestment: Start small and simple, gain trust and evolve from there.

“Once you’ve built some equity with the customer around that category, now you can begin expanding on the products that are offered there,” he says.

Also, be sure to ask your manufacturer partners for proper safety and sanitation documentation, such as SQF certification from the Safe Quality Food Institute.

Retailers and operators alike express the desire to sit down at the table together in the development process.

“A lot of times, by the time we get involved, they’ve already determined the pack, the product, how it’s going to be delivered,” says Randy Hobson, executive vice president of commercial development for Berry Plastics. The company recently moved to a new corporate headquarters in Evansville, Ind., that includes a design center and model kitchen and grocery store to stimulate the consumer experience with its packaging products.

Kirk Matthews of TravelCenters of America concurs, saying he’s usually at the mercy of what’s presented to him: “I would love to sit through a class and find out the different packaging—how it’s utilized, the best way to utilize the package.” 

Packaged Trends

Packaging innovations and consumer trends from the fresh-foodservice segment:

  • Indirect flexographic printing. Used at Berry Plastics, this new technology offers very high-end graphics for crisp, photographic quality.
  • Ethnic foods. Greek yogurts, hummus, tabouli salad and baba ganoush are on the radars of refrigerated- foods packagers.
  • Healthy convenience. Ready-toeat carrots with dip, salads and other packaged produce snacks continue to grow in sales and SKUs.

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