New Snack School Program Challenges Snack Food Professionals

Reformatted Educational Program Provides Insights, Networking

October 25, 2013

Sophie Gardner, project marketing manager at Boulder Brands, was one of the attendees at the 2013 Snack School held October 13-15 at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) in Philadelphia, PA who returned to their offices carrying ideas and knowledge that they hope to put to work.

In addition to a highly informative educational program led by experts from SJU and company tours that helped provide increased understanding of processes and procedures in both manufacturing and retailing, a major benefit for attendees was the opportunity for collaboration and learning from each other.

“It was great to gain so many different perspectives from other parts of the industry and to collaborate with members from my team,” explained Ms. Gardner. “We then split up and listened to other teams to expand our knowledge and compare our approaches to different challenges.”

That was the concept behind the program, said SJU’s George Latella. “Better learning happens when you mix different disciplines. People are exposed to a wider range of ideas from the industry.

For many participants, a highlight was the program on leadership; led by Ron Dufresne, Ph.D, associate professor of SJU’s School of Management, and workshops during which they tackled problems they had previously submitted for consideration. The teams to which Ms. Gardner referred then discussed those problems and devised possible solutions that could be implemented.

“What are leaders like?” Dr. Dufresne asked the audience. “What do they do? they’re engaged in relationship-focused behaviors and facilitate visioning. They take others’ perspective, build trust and mentor.”  True leaders, he said, are passionate about leadership, engage in humble pursuit of excellence, and recognize both gifts and imperfections. “A leader seeks, identifies, and challenges individuals and shared assumptions,” he added.

Topics discussed during the workshops included business growth, the changing consumer, cost of doing business, government issues, healthy eating – better-for-you snacks, manufacturing, organizational development and human resources. Those topics emanated from responses to the question: “From YOUR view, what three issues or challenges will have the greatest effect on your company or the snack food industry over the next 12 months?”

“The presentations were fantastic,” commented Chris Wagner, packaging team manager at Axium Foods. Ron (Dufresne) doesn’t like to stand in front of a podium. He does a great job of bringing in real world examples and engaging the entire audience. I think we all learned a lot from his lessons on team building and leadership.”

Also on the agenda was a regulatory update by Maggie Sommers, senior director of food & nutrition policy at Food Directions LLC, consultant to SFA.

“Through the SFA you all have the opportunity to have one unified voice, which is important,” Ms. Sommers told the group. “Power in numbers is key in Washington. Decision makers need to hear your good stories. You all pioneered things like 100 calorie packs and better-for-you options. Increasingly, we have the opportunity to appeal to consumers’ desires to eat healthy.”

Such input from the industry is especially important in the current political environment, with efforts in Congress and the Obama administration to restrict foods that can be purchased through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), require GMO labeling on packaging, and other efforts that can negatively impact the snack food industry.

However, as Ms. Sommers pointed out, the industry has a positive story to tell, and that was emphasized during a tour for attendees of the Herr Foods manufacturing plant, distribution center and quality assurance lab.

“We’re trying to develop product lines to appeal to consumers looking to eat healthier,” observed Herr Foods’ Phil Bernas. “We’re doing a lot of research right now as to which attributes are most important to the consumer.”

Mr. Bernas was asked during the tour if the company receives requests from consumers for non-GMO products.  “Yes we do,” he responded, “and it’s a challenge, especially with complex products with a lot of ingredients. You have to source all of those ingredients and trace. Organic is a little easier from a manufacturing perspective.”

Tours for consumers are an important part of Herr Foods’ marketing initiative, said Mr. Bernas. “We probably see about 125,000 people per year on tours,” he said. “We’re trying to build loyal customers. Most people remember that they toured Herr’s when they were 10 years old, and they always buy your products. It’s been a great format to sell your products, how clean our factory is. That’s promotion that’s hard to quantify, but it has a great effect.”

Like most snack food manufacturers, Herr Foods relies on automation and technology to increase quality and efficiency. But the process has not been at the expense of workers.
“We started automation in 1989, and it was such a gradual process that we haven’t had any layoffs in our history,” Mr. Bernas said. “We ended up getting rid of some of the jobs that people didn’t want to do anyway.”

Attendees also visited a Wawa, Inc. convenience store and a Giant Foods, Inc. supermarket for first-hand looks at how snack food products are handled and sold in those formats.

At Wawa, the company spokesperson noted that the store handles from 1,500 to 2,000 transactions per day, is open 24 hours, and experiences especially heavy traffic in the morning and at lunchtime, whether it’s during the week or on weekends.

The company carries both national and regional brands, which it has taken to other parts of the country as it has expanded – Florida, as an example. Founded in New Jersey, the company operates more than 630 convenience retail stores (360 offering gasoline).

Wawa stores, located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Florida, offer a large fresh food service selection, including built-to- order hoagies, freshly-brewed coffee, hot breakfast sandwiches, built-to-order specialty beverages, and an assortment of soups, sides and snacks. Innovation is a key attribute at WaWa, whose customers have shown a willingness to try new and different products.

During the Giant Foods, Inc. store tour, Giant’s Matt Novosel pointed out that the chain, owned by Ahold USA, continues to search for ways to “reinvent” itself as it seeks to stay abreast, even lead, a highly competitive industry.  “When the customer comes in, they immediately feel that something is different,” the company representative said, also pointing out initiatives to increase efficiency and profit. For example, with low inventory and assets retained on hand in the back room, higher profit can result.

“That requires more visits from DSD drivers,” Mr. Novosel explained. “But that leads to less labor costs for us because the products go straight to the shelves.”

The program also included a Retail Industry forum during which representatives from selected retailers of varying formats offered their insights and perspectives and engaged participants on an array of topics, including the manufacturer/retailer relationship and partnership, the snack food category, and the impact of Safe Quality Food (SQF).

Facilitated by Neill Crowley, SJU Food Marketing faculty member, the panel included Giant Food’s Matt Novosel; Bob Silk, grocery merchandiser, Wakefern Corp.; Mitchell Winick, regional merchandising manager, Walgreens; and Jim Shalis, assistant manager at the Nottingham, PA Wawa store.

The tours and the panel discussion provided attendees with an inside look at how their customers operate, what it takes to get products on the shelves, how they sell their products, and what they are looking for from snack food suppliers. “Achieving a behind-the-scenes look at how their customers operate provides crucial insight that they can share with their companies,” said Mr. Dempsey. 

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