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Survey: Operators Looking for 'New Twists on Familiar';Distributors Must Question Market Testing of

NEW YORK - Foodservice operators are looking for food manufacturers and, by association, distributors to provide new products that feature new flavors and shapes as well as address their operational needs, according to a survey by Cognitio, an industrial researcher based in Carmel, IN.

The study, called "The New Product Scorecard 2004 - Operators Rank the Year's Best New Products in Foodservice," listed the following operator challenges that need to be addressed by new products in order of importance:
  • Increase profit/reduce costs (23%)
  • Improve product quality/presentation (19%)
  • Operational ease/reduce labor (19%)
  • Health or nutritious (12%)
  • Solve specific product needs (i.e. breakfast, vegan or vegetarian, desserts, snacks, soups, grab & go, sandwiches, center of the plate, vending, sides, seafood and ethnic) (9%)
  • Newness or uniqueness
  • Packaging or portion size
  • Get customer or kids to try item
  • Keep up with trends
  • Available from distributor
  • Supplier information/marketing support/customer service
  • Variety
  • Food safety/sanitation

    In an interview with ID Access, David Palmer, president, summarized the operator new-product expectations as centering on trendy flavors and new shapes and form variations as well solving operational advantages and increasing margins. The former two he included under a catchall banner that he called "new twists on the familiar."

    For example, instead of just regular biscuits, Palmer suggested that operators would be intrigued by cheddar, garlic biscuits.

    "Instead of chicken strips - teriyaki chicken strips. Instead of scones - blueberry scones. Instead of bacon, there's jalapeño bacon. They are very familiar products but with new twists," Palmer explained. "On the other hand, sometimes there are more complex flavors like apple wood smoked bacon or Korean chili garlic sauce."

    As for shapes, Palmer noted that operators are not specifically interested in little niche products, rather in modifications with products that are already proven to have broad-bases of appeal.

    "Instead of regular biscuits - drop biscuits which will have an irregular shape. Instead of battered onion rings - onion tanglers. Instead of chicken nuggets - popcorn chicken bites. They are very familiar products but delivered in a new form, which allow operators to offer something different and up charge for it," he indicated.

    Palmer said commercial and noncommercial operational demands include products that would help operators cut costs, improve portion control or reduce sanitation risks.

    He offered as one example individually wrapped chicken breasts with easy-to-open packaging, noting that it would provide sanitation control because kitchen staffers would expose only one breast at a time to the atmosphere and hands. Another example he offered were pressed chicken breasts.

    "Operators want to pound chicken breasts to a thinner or flatter shape for certain applications. This product is already thinned and flattened to reduce labor handling and provide consistency," he said.

    Distributors should take their cues from operator-customers' insistence that new products be fully tested and researched before they are introduced to the marketplace.

    "Operators told us what leads to success with new products and what leads to failure," Palmer said. "Operators as well distributors should be asking suppliers what type of product testing has been done, have the operator's need and product performance and quality been validated in testing. They have also told us that the reasons for failure are product quality deficiencies, the product doesn't work well in their kitchens, or it was a weak idea to begin with."

    By asking these questions, Palmer advised, DSRs and distributors can avoid wasting time placing products with their customers that don't have sticking power.

    Palmer stressed that the survey showed that operators want new products that have been "road tested by being placed in real live operations prior to being launched to the marketplace." Survey respondents indicated that it wasn't enough for manufacturers to conduct focus groups or solicit feedback from national accounts because they may overlook practical problems that could emerge once the product is handled in a foodservice kitchen.

    Distributors should feel confident that a product is suitable for the marketplace when they hear the manufacturer confirm that it has been road tested in real live situation for a short period of time to identify problems before launching, Palmer said.

    Among the reasons for new product failure, according to the study, are:
  • Product quality deficiencies (62%)
  • Poor operational performance (18%)
  • Weak idea or concept (16%)
  • Poor price or value (14%)
  • Poor appearance (10%)
  • Unwanted product ingredients
  • Poor supplier support
  • Fresh product better than pre-made one
  • Lack of market research

    In examining the satisfaction gap of new products, the survey revealed that operators' wish list is headed by new products that would help them achieve a good profit margin, though the amount was not stated. The gap also showed they're eager for products that would set them apart from their competitors; work well operationally in the kitchen; have been thoroughly tested; are highly merchandisable; consistent with consumer trends; truly different than other products in the market; and reduce labor.

    Palmer said that new product leaders satisfy additional operator demands for knowledgeable and helpful reps that keep them informed and spend time with them. He added that this applies to DSRs as well.

    "As operators respond to that kind of question, they're not so much caring which business card he has in his pocket but how he's helping the operator," he noted.

    Innovations in beef and seafood also surfaced as an area of opportunity for suppliers, and likewise distributors, inasmuch as they appeared in fewer replies about satisfaction than did chicken and pork, Palmer pointed out.

    However, with entrees, operators indicated that they tend to shun pre-made products, opting for those that offer operational benefits and allow them to customize their flavor palettes and presentations. On the other hand, uniqueness, newness, coolness and pre-made are the hallmarks of successful appetizer introductions.

    "Operators don't want to make appetizers from scratch because it is too labor intensive, require too many unique ingredients while operators require quick preparation," he said.

    According to the Cognitio survey, the top 10 out of 317 manufacturers cited that do the best job of bringing valuable new products to foodservice operators are: Tyson Foods, Kraft Foods, General Mills, ConAgra Foods, Sara Lee, Hormel Foods, Nestle, McCain Foods USA, H.J. Heinz and Rich Products.

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