The “Shelf” Life: Bringing Your In-house Food Product to the Retail Market

Karen Nelson
April 3, 2015
Every day customers leave their favorite restaurant having fallen in love with one particular element of their meal, a sauce, side dish, soup, etc., and think how wonderful it would be to have it whenever they want it. The truth is, bringing a product to the retail market is an important step in building brand recognition and loyalty but it is not without its challenges. Here we’ll discuss the realities of bringing a food service product to the retail market: some of the lesser known challenges and also the opportunities. There are two major concerns to consider. First, is this product going to taste the same at home, and will the brand translate through a different channel?

Operational Challenges: Production and Shelf Life

One Boston area restaurant, Life Alive, serves unique, fresh food that is energizing and delicious. There is no perfect way to describe the food, though the seemingly endless line at the restaurant gives you an idea of how tasty it is. My personal favorite, called The Adventurer, has the most delicious sauce to compliment the beets, nuts, quinoa, etc. If only they bottled the sauce! Heidi Feinstein, Founder & CEO of Life Alive admits, preservation and distribution, are a couple of the major challenges she foresees encountering when the time comes to bring products to retail. Operationally, you must consider quality and batch size. Instead of cooking your special sauce for your restaurant patrons, you have to consider bottling and shelf-life so that the masses can buy it when the time is right for them. Managing shelf-life is critical as it ensures that the product is safe for consumption. It also requires trade-offs. For example, while a shorter shelf-life may mean fewer additives, a more lengthy shelf-life is good for the bottom line.  To remain true to your recipe you may be hesitant to add preservatives. What’s more, an increasing number of consumers are hypersensitive to spotting preservatives on labels. Enter: the shelf-life extender. No, this is not a new age superhero, but it could be a life-saver. The differences between it, and more conventional preservatives, are the ingredients and the natural process through which it is derived. The FDA deems a lot of these shelf-life extenders safe and even allows labeling to be as simple as “natural flavors.” However, considering the FDA’s less than stellar history with certain health-related ingredients, (See, “Cancer-Linked Colgate Total Ingredient Suggests FDA Flaws”) this is one you will need to wrestle with on your own. Scaling up often means hiring a co-packing facility. With a co-packer, you are working with someone else’s ingredients and batch requirements. Essentially, this means that you will lose a lot of control in the production of your prized menu item. Co-packers work with their own suppliers and the supplier relationship is critical to their success. They depend on their suppliers for on-time delivery, sourcing, and manageable budgeting. Additionally, co-packers will only do a production run that meets the requirements of their batch minimums.  Again, this is a way for them to watch their bottom-line. It will take a lot of relationship building and skilled negotiation to find the right co-packer for you. Anticipate doing a lot of homework and talking to others who have experience with various co-packers.

Market Opportunities: Brand Recognition and Increased Brand Loyalty

Before you get discouraged, consider the opportunities for your overall brand. By being in stores you will keep your operation top-of-mind for those customers who see it on the shelves. Your special sauce will also reach a whole new audience of consumers you’ve not yet met. Sure, the inspiration for branching out is largely the encouragement of your current customers, but rest assured, there is a whole slew of customers who don’t know your brand yet. This is where you must be strategic to gain the most from going to retail. Janet Morgenstern Passani, Founder of Jute Marketing, specializing in brand marketing for healthy, natural living, says it’s important to consider how best to bring the original experience of dining fully to physical branding. She says, “Tell the product story, vision, and big picture,” through packaging, and most importantly, be mindful of what’s conveyed through the primary display panel (the part of the package that will face out from the shelf). The goal is to have a strong initial eye-catching moment that will lead to a purchase. It’s considerations like this that will bring your product success and ultimately translate back to your original business. Be sure to be persistent in your pursuits and be creative in your branding and marketing. Knowledge and information gathering will render you more powerful in negotiations and when developing a strategy. You will find that more and more opportunities will arise, and some other hiccups will, as well.

About the Author

Karen Nelson

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