Before the pandemic, pantry service was a fast-growing segment in workplace refreshments. That came to an abrupt stop when many of the nation’s businesses pivoted to remote work amid extended stay-at-home orders. But now that people are returning to offices in greater numbers, employers are looking for new and creative ways to make work more fun and retain employees in a historically tight labor market.
One approach to keep employees happy is to subsidize snack and beverage amenities on work premises. While the practice of employers providing free refreshments to employees is not new, many are now prioritizing subsidies for generous snack and beverage programs. With demand for workplace benefits mounting, there’s never been a better time for operators to add pantry services to complement their micro markets, vending and office coffee solutions.
Here are some tips from leading operators and product suppliers on how to start – or restart – a pantry service in 2022.
Make snacks the main attraction
Judson Kleinman, the founder and chief executive of Parsippany, NJ’s Corporate Essentials LLC, believes pantry service can play a strategic part in luring employees back to the workplace while also having a positive impact on a company’s culture. “For many of our clients, the pantry really is the centerpiece of the office,” he said. “When our office clients welcome visitors, they don’t show them the whole office. They say, rather, ‘This is where our snacks are.’”
However, for organizations installing a pantry program, Kleinman cautions against going too big too fast. “I liken it to a kid in a candy store,” he explained. “You don’t want to give them everything all at once. I think it’s good to have a little bit of an offering and then every 30 days add something else. That way, when people come into work, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, look, we have something new.’ It keeps it fresh and exciting. I think that’s really important to focus on.”
Host a sampling event
Kimberly Lenz, director of foodservice sales and procurement at San Francisco’s Associated Services, recommends product sampling events for micro market and vending operators looking to add pantry service. Lenz often schedules product samplings to maintain enthusiasm for her clients’ pantry offerings.
“Our customers love to see, taste and try new snacking products,” she said. “We can make recommendations, but it doesn’t have the same impact as when they can actually hold it in their hands and try it themselves.”
COVID-19, however, has altered how Lenz can propose new offerings. “Pre-pandemic, we would sit in a kitchen and open up a bunch of different samples for employees to try,” she said. “Two years into the pandemic, people are still social distancing and remain wary of sharing stuff, so we’ve been sending samples to offices rather than delivering them ourselves. It’s been a different way of doing things, but we’re still getting positive feedback from it.”
Stay on trend
Snack variety is essential in a pantry, which includes healthier alternatives to traditional cookies, pastries and candy. Located in the Bay Area of California, Lenz is in a great position to be on the forefront of consumers’ ever-changing dietary trends.
“As soon as we start to see a trend, we try to learn about it and identify what snacks we have that already fit within it,” she said. “Gluten-free, vegan was huge for a while but now it’s keto, and you don’t want to convert everything in the pantry and reset the product mix. We try to educate people through labeling and signage on what items they already have that conform to the trend.”
Look beyond snacks
The latest fads aren’t just limited to snacks. “Over the past several years, specialty coffee – especially local roasters – has been huge,” she said. “There’s so much innovation right now. There are prebiotic drinks, probiotic, kombucha and tonics. Now we’re starting to see more requests for things like Olipop and other unique beverages. Those are the kinds of drinks being offered to try and bring people back to the office and create some excitement.”
Occasionally, Lenz has seen products stocked in pantries that are brought in from outside sources. While some might view that as an area of concern, she has found it to be a positive experience.
“We’ve been introduced to a lot of really great snacks from our customers,” she said. “It’s typically something local, and if it’s high volume and we think we can offer it to other customers, we’ll start to bring it on for them. In other situations, sometimes it’s an item we don’t want to provide, either because the volume’s not there or we don’t have a good source to get it. In that case, we’ll assign a shelf on their fridge, or we’ll give them one bin on the snack rack. The relationship is the most important aspect with our customers, so maintaining that relationship is important.”
When it comes to attitudes toward pantry service, there are three categories into which companies fall: those that are sure they want it; those that don’t; and those trying to decide if pantry service is right for them. Tammy Stokes, vice president of refreshment services at Five Star Food Service, uses a combination of data and promotions to help the decision-making process.
“We have to educate the client and get them to understand what’s going on in their market and the overall industry,” she said. “You need to look at the client’s competitors and what they’re doing, and then you can be a good consultant and perhaps offer some best practices to bring snacks, food and pantry in as a culture changer.”
Stokes recalled recently installing a pantry in a company that was bringing back workers for the first time since the pandemic began. “They had never had pantry and snacks before,” she said. “We kept it limited in the beginning; about eight SKUs crossing those day points for them while their café was shut down. We did a huge reopening and were on site with the coffee, cold brew and snacks, and we also did giveaways. We asked our [product] broker community and manufacturing partners to kick in and give these employees a huge welcome back in the lobby every day. I think when you’re trying to convince a client on the benefits of pantry service, you’ve got to be there, and you’ve got to get engaged.”
Some businesses are looking for more substance from their pantry providers than just quick snacks and beverages. “Several of our customers want to provide a meal replacement,” Stokes explained. “We have actually opened up a program we call Pick Two. The employee can pick two pantry items – sandwiches, wraps, salads, parfaits, bistro boxes, veggie cups, things like that – from a cold cooler, and then they can pick two dry snacks for the day along with two beverages. They get that choice every single day.”
However, the advantages of Five Star’s Pick Two program don’t end there. “There’s a leftover cooler where fresh food pieces get emptied into every day,” Stokes noted. “The employees get to take those items home, and that’s a huge benefit right now in the pandemic for their families and for people who need food at home. Any leftovers that aren’t taken home are then donated to charity. I think we’re going to see a lot of this and we’re going to be tested and challenged from an operator perspective to answer the needs. All of that was developed just by listening to the customer and really trying to create a program that wasn’t in our wheelhouse.”
Talk to a product broker
As a product broker, Michael Kelley, national account project manager of Burdette Beckmann Inc., fulfills multiple roles in the creation and maintenance of a pantry service. He advises any operator considering breaking into pantry service to work closely with their broker on product and supply strategies.
“Brokers are an extension of our supplier partners in the field,” he observed. “We are consultants to the operator, supplier and distributors, and we provide them with product knowledge and category information to help them make better selections for their pantries, vending and micro markets.”
Given their position in the industry, brokers like Kelley are uniquely qualified to enable businesses to make informed decisions. “Our main goal is to be a consultant with our clients, and we’re able to provide them with the data that we receive from the manufacturer,” he said. “With the supply chain issues that are going on right now, we must be very selective on products that we’re recommending, so we really rely on the information that is provided by the suppliers. We’re also able to see the trends not only on a national basis, but a regional basis, as well, so it’s helpful in making best practices for the clients.”
Study the demographics
Just like micro markets, vending or office coffee, running a successful pantry service begins with understanding demographics of a location. “There are massive differences between the generations,” explained Malcolm McAlpine, business manager of branded snacks and confections at Mondelēz International Vending. “Boomers snack to reward themselves, Gen X to boost their mood, millennials are finding comfort and Gen Z to relieve boredom. Different snacks resonate with different age groups, and you have to think very carefully about having the right mix of products for the consumers.”
Although preferences vary by generation, there should be one common element in a pantry’s contents: it must offer nationally recognized brands. According to Nielsen data, the sale of branded snacks surged 9% during the pandemic while private-label foods decreased by the same margin. In times of uncertainty, McAlpine observed, these data suggest that people gravitate toward known and familiar products.
“If you’re going to put a cookie in a pantry, it should be an Oreo,” he advised. “It’s the biggest selling cookie in the world. And if you’re going to offer a cheese cracker, you’ve got to have Cheez-It.”
As people return to the workplace, concerns about COVID will linger. Apprehensions about safety within an office extend to the pantry. “Exposed fresh food is not welcome anymore,” McAlpine said. “A safe environment is imperative. Low-contact, low-touch options are going to be preferred. Offering prepackaged and sealed sandwiches, salads and branded snacks is really, really important.”
With so many moving parts vital to the success of a pantry service, the 30-year CPG marketing veteran said that data are the only metric that can truly be relied on.
“I always quote W. Edwards Deming: ‘Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion,’” McAlpine said. “When you’re building a planogram, you should build it around data-driven category management information to make sure it’s stacked with the snacks the employees want. There is so much information out there. Reach out to your broker, to your salesperson and to your manufacturer, and make your decisions based upon the data.”
Whereas data are valuable tools when designing a program, it’s communication with the client that could turn a good pantry into a great one. “Be open to feedback,” McAlpine urged. “Although pantry products are being given away to employees, they’re still consumers and your client is still paying for them. Be open to the positive and negative feedback, listen closely and act accordingly.” ■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Voisin has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years. In addition to Automatic Merchandiser, his work has been featured in nationally distributed magazines such as Racing Milestones, GameRoom, The Phantom of the Movies' VideoScope and Autograph Collector. He is also the author of the book series, Character Kings: Hollywood's Familiar Faces Discuss the Art and Business of Acting.