The improving economy, along with a renewed commitment by food manufacturers to create variety and value in their food product, is a reason vending operators should reconsider their food programs.
Throughout the recession, convenience store food sales have remained strong, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores, and fast food restaurant sales are on the rise, says the National Restaurant Association’s 2010 Restaurant Industry Forecast. With the economy no longer severely declining, consumers are spending more on convenience meals, and food purchases can lead to higher snack and beverage sales. Offering food in vending machines is a good way for operators to maximize sales, especially with the right products.
Customers are already telling vending operators what foods they want, or in the case of a high stale rate — what they don’t want, according to Cole Richardson, sales and marketing manager for WOW! Foods. WOW! Foods is a new food manufacturer started by the Richardson family, which once owned Pierre Foods.
Richardson believes increasing fast food restaurant sales are due to consumers wanting a quality entrée they often can’t find in vending. WOW! Foods has entered the market with the intention of providing food that is the same quality as these fast food restaurants. “Some vending operators think ‘I have a captive audience. I can put whatever I want in the machine,’” said Richardson. “We (WOW! Foods) think like a restaurant owner.” For Richardson, that means quality sandwiches in branded packaging that has a reasonable price point.
What makes a sandwich restaurant quality? Richardson said it starts with the bread.
Quality ingredients are critical
“We now have bread that goes through the freeze/thaw process, the microwave, and still tastes like fresh bread,” said Richardson. Add leaner meats with no fillers (additives that bulk up the weight of a food with less expensive ingredients) or preservatives as well as well-liked condiments, and consumers are getting a product for a $2.75 suggested vending price that they would pay $3.00 or more for at a restaurant.
Creating restaurant-quality sandwiches was a driving force behind Pierre Foods’ successes as well. Mike Medina, director of marketing for Pierre, talks a lot about quality assurance and a great taste for a great value. “We’ve worked hard so that sandwiches you’d buy from the vending machine are comparable to the QSR (quick serve restaurant),” said Medina.
He’s noticed almost opposite trends in the types of food vending customers are buying: big portions that deliver value, and smaller portions that meet the demand for snacking and eating on the go. Because Pierre was already providing big portions with its Big Az burger, it focused on the second trend, developing the mini sandwich line from popular varieties of sandwiches.
White Castle Food Products LLC has confirmed the rising demand for smaller sandwiches in its consumer research, noted Kelly Collins, marketing supervisor. The company recently conducted research as part of an effort to redesign its product packaging.
Collins said consumers are increasingly viewing White Castle sandwiches as snacks as opposed to full meals. “They consider us a snack occasion,” he noted. He said research found parents are using the sandwiches to keep kids satisfied until the main meal is served, while adults eating on the go are looking to the sandwiches as well.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported the line between snack food and meal-time dishes is blurring as restaurant chains are launching a host of new substantial snack foods that seem more like full meals.
Don Miguel Mexican Foods is riding both the popularity of smaller portions and the increasing popularity of Hispanic products. Ron Mendoza, c-store project and sales coordinator who also handles vending and foodservice, said mini tacos are best sellers in the vending channel, compared to a 14-ounce burrito in c-stores. While sales have dipped a little during the recession for vending, Mendoza sees an optimistic future for handheld heated foods.