May 2019

Feature

Clearly Labeled

Today’s consumers demand transparency and sustainability with what they eat.
Pat Pape

Attend any sporting event, social occasion or water cooler gathering and people are likely to be discussing food, ingredients, labels, diet trends and which brands they trust—or don’t.

What is dubbed “transparency” has become one of the biggest influencers driving consumer purchase behavior today, according to Nielsen, the consumer research organization, and transparency builds customer trust.

A recent survey conducted by Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) found that shoppers want increased transparency and a closer connection to their food. In fact, 75% of respondents said they would switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information beyond what is printed on the physical label. When asked the same question in 2016, only 39% of respondents said they would change brands.

It’s critically important that your product is good, and that it’s good because you use good ingredients.

While consumers want meals and snacks that are quick to prepare and eat, they also demand better-for-you options, locally sourced products, “clean labels” with fewer ingredients and more of anything considered natural, healthy or organic. From manufacturers and restaurants to convenience stores and food trucks, businesses are responding.

The Hershey Company has created an interactive, online Sourcemap that shows where the company’s various food ingredients originate. McDonald’s has replaced frozen beef patties with fresh beef, eliminated artificial preservatives in McNuggets and introduced cage-free eggs.

Dunkin’ Brands recently nixed artificial dyes in its donuts, baked goods, breakfast sandwiches, coffee flavorings and select frozen beverages, replacing them with colors created from fruit juice and other extracts. The move is part of Dunkin’s “ongoing efforts to offer guests great-tasting, high-quality products and cleaner menu labels,” said Katy Latimer, vice president of culinary innovation, Dunkin’ Brands. “We’ll continue to work hard to meet the needs of today’s busy, on-the-go consumers and offer them delicious foods and beverages with cleaner menu labels,” she said.

Local and Cage-Free

More than a year ago, food transparency became a strategic focus for Rutter’s, the 74-store chain based in York, Pennsylvania. The company promoted long-time employee Cheri Booth to category manager for fresh and local products and announced it would seek out local merchandise. Today, the stores have 85 different local offerings, and Rutter’s showcases the products and their sources on the company’s website, complete with videos telling the suppliers’ stories.

“We’ve developed ‘local’ tags for any item that fits that definition,” said Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice, Rutter’s. “When customers see that local label, they may choose to buy more intentionally.”

According to the Label Insight and FMI study, 69% of consumers say it is important or extremely important for food manufacturers to provide detailed information about what’s in their products and how those products are made.

Before deciding what area was officially “local,” the chain consulted with a state merchant’s association and a group of Amish farmers. It was agreed that “local” describes any product produced in the state of Pennsylvania or within 100 miles of the chain’s corporate office, a radius that includes parts of West Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. Today, Rutter’s local offerings range from fresh tomatoes and watermelon to beef jerky, mushrooms and blueberries.

In addition, “We were the first and largest convenience store in the country to announce we were going completely cage-free on our eggs,” Krebs said. “In another few weeks, we’ll be completely no-antibiotic-ever on all our chicken lines. We have several clean-label items, and we tell customers that right on our kiosk. We even have cage-free mayonnaise.”

While a few independent retailers have announced that they will offer local products, Krebs thinks that the local trend is moving slowly into the c-stores.

“Customers aren’t saying, ‘we won’t eat in your stores unless you have cage-free eggs,’ and it was an investment on our part to provide them, but we think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I think 99.5% of the people are pleased that we’re supporting local businesses and sourcing local produce. It’s been a big success for us.”

Clean and Simple

Transparency is important to Larry Jackson, owner of Good to Go Market and the Bullhead Pit Beef food truck in the Baltimore, Maryland, area. “Transparency is the backbone of what we do,” said Jackson, who will open a restaurant and brew pub in Columbia, Maryland, this month. “We try to keep everything simple. We want people to know that what we’re selling is different from what they’d get at a typical fast-food restaurant.”

75% of [survey] respondents said they would switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information, beyond what is printed on the physical label.

The store’s foodservice program and the food truck both use high-quality ingredients and limit the number of ingredients in each menu item. “We try to use farm-fresh ingredients so there isn’t a lot of explaining to do,” Jackson said. “Because we don’t use ground beef, and we know the cuts of meat we’re using, the customer can more accurately determine the nutritional value of what they’re eating. Because we don’t use processed foods, we can say that there aren’t other additives, and we can cater to people who want to avoid gluten or carbs.”

Sometimes customers ask questions about ingredients in the food, especially sauces. Most frequently, they are concerned about salt content, artificial sweeteners and colors, MSG, gluten, peanuts or peanut oil.

Kyle Lore, corporate chef for Maverik convenience stores in the Salt Lake City area, doesn’t like food products with a list of ingredients the length of a paragraph, and he believes most people feel the same way. But he also thinks consumers are easily confused by the terminology commonly used by today’s food industry.

“Consumers have been inundated by the litany of terms that are thrown at them,” he said. “How do you define sustainability, all-natural, organic? It becomes so muddy, and there has been a bit of a pushback from customers. They see [a claim] printed on a label, and they don’t feel like they’re getting quality. They just think they’re paying more. It’s critically important that your product is good, and that it’s good because you use good ingredients.”

Maverik carries traditional c-store products, such as hotdogs and refrigerated burritos with an extended shelf life. But when it comes to cooking up fresh foods, ingredient quality is mandatory. Earlier this year, the chain introduced a proprietary cookie made from fresh ingredients, including butter and brown sugar. They currently sell for $2 each, except during special promotions when they are two for $3.

“It’s a gourmet cookie and better than most of those you get at a fast-food restaurant or grocery store,” said Lore. “People really like the taste of them. They say, ‘I love your cookies. They’re so much better than X.’ Even when traffic is slow, cookie sales continue to increase.”

“Transparency started in big cities, and it’s pushing its way to broader America,” summarized Krebs. “The younger generation is saying ‘we want to know everything—where it comes from, where it was processed and even about the bottles it comes in.’ Transparency is only going to grow.”

Sustainable Practices

Sustainability is a big part of transparency, and shoppers want to support businesses that adopt sustainable practices. A survey conducted by Nielsen found that 81% of global respondents said businesses should help improve the environment.

Ten years ago, Rutter’s became one of the first retailers to place recycling bins outside every location. Last year, the chain announced it would replace Styrofoam with recyclable green packaging. Other efforts include energy-saving LED lighting and solar tubes that harvest sunlight. “Sustainability is a goal for our entire organization,” said Krebs. “It touches the customer from the time they pull into the lot until they leave.”

When Maverik in Salt Lake City puts out an RFP, management wants to know how far a supplier must travel to deliver merchandise. “If two companies are offering the same product, and one is in Florida and one is in Idaho, we’ll pick the one in Idaho,” he said. “The one in Florida would be burning a lot of diesel to get here. We have more than 300 stores in 10 states. If we can get what we need in one of those 10 states, that’s probably the one we’ll go with.”

At Jackson’s Market and food truck, employees try to keep packaging to a minimum and avoid Styrofoam. “Styrofoam is bulky, and even when you throw it away, it takes up a lot of space,” said Jackson. “Instead, we use paper-based packaging. And we don’t use straws on our food truck. It’s something people use once and throw away.”

Occasionally, Jackson must subtly educate customers about sustainability. “We prepare food that is ready to eat so you don’t have to cut it,” he added. “We have forks and spoons but not knives. But people still ask for knives because they’re used to having one. We say, ‘well, did you try it yet?’”

Pat Pape

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a writer. Her portfolio can be seen at patpape.wordpress.com.