U.S.A. - While consumer market researchers relate the ongoing economic boom and hectic American lifestyle to growing demand for "indulgent" confections, more and more Americans are aware of the connection between dietary choices and well-being. Operators who make the effort to locate "better-for-you" snacks and food items are finding them a valuable marketing tool and, in many cases, strong sellers too.
The two principal organizations that gauge snack and food products for their adherence to accepted dietary guidelines are the 500 Club (Madison, WI) and Heart Smart International, a multifaceted organization represented in the vending channel by Creative Relations International (Wilmette, IL). Both operate on a membership basis, offering vending and other foodservice operator members a variety of services, from access to current lists of scientifically evaluated snack items that meet wellness criteria to recipe analysis for commissary operators.
Bill Buckholz of Goodman Vending (Reading, PA) was the first operator to sign up for the Heart Smart International vending program when it was launched nine years ago.
"It's a great program," the veteran vendor told V/T, and he applies it consistently to his snack and food business.
Goodman Vending plano-grams its snack machines, and devotes a designated area in each vender to low-fat items. There are five items in the wide (chip and cake) spirals and four in the narrow (candy and cookie) coils. Selections include pretzels (inherently low in fat), branded "better-for-you" lines like Nabisco's "SnackWell's," lowfat chips and fat-free candy items.
And "Heart Smart" foods are offered in all 150 of Buckholz's refrigerated venders. "I feel the program establishes the authenticity of our lowfat product line," he said. "If I did it myself and just said 'It's good for you,' it wouldn't mean as much to the customer."
The "Heart Smart" items sell fairly well, Buckholz added. He recalls a time, years ago, when lowfat items were a curiosity, even such current mainstays as yogurt and juices were not at all in demand.
Today, there is a real demand for lowfat and otherwise healthier products, he told V/T. This demand takes several forms; personnel directors in workplaces, for example, usually want to make sure that healthy options are available to employees. "It's not unusual for them to stand next to a food machine and tell me that they want 'Heart Smart,' while they buy themselves a double meatball sandwich," he said.
This sort of thing demonstrates the marketing value of subscribing to a recognized organization like Heart Smart International, he added. "Heart Smart helps get prospective clients and meet their needs," Buckholz said. "When we show the program to clients, they're impressed."
Jim Crilley of B.W. Stetson & Co. (Bridgeton, NJ) is another long-time subscriber to the Heart Smart International service. "Personnel managers, over the years, had requested healthier foods, but the vending industry was slow to respond," he recalled. "We had been looking for a formal program to increase sales of healthier foods, and to offer the service to our customers."
Thus, when Crilley learned about the Heart Smart International program, he required no convincing. "Heart Smart offers the opportunity to advertise, promote and standardize a program for this industry," he observed.
Another program offering operators assistance in developing or finding healthier food and snack items, and in promoting them to customers, is the 500 Club. This was launched in 1989 by Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in LaCrosse, WI, and originally was a service for restaurants.
Ruth Lahmayer of Lutheran Medical Center recalls that Jim Stansfield of Stansfield Vending (LaCrosse, WI) asked whether the program could be adapted to vending. It could be, and it was.
"The program is for snack and cold food machines," Lahmayer told V/T. "Operators send us their recipes, or recipes from the commissary they use, and we analyze each to determine whether it fits the program. We give the operator a brochure for each machine that lists the approved selections and the nutritional breakdown of each."
For snack machines, the "500 Club" provides shelf markers to indicate the selections that are lower in fat. "We have machine banners that say 'Your Choice for Healthy Eating,' and we give operators a list of suggested snacks that are lower in fat and calories," Lahmayer explained.
"We suggest that vendors highlight four or five items that meet '500 Club' guidelines," she added. These include conventional and flavored pretzels, baked chips, granola bars and "Rice Krispie Treats," among others.
The "500 Club" went national about seven years ago, Lahmayer told V/T, and most operators who started with the program continue to use it. "They find it a very helpful tool in getting new accounts," she reported. "Clients are attracted by the fact that they offer a healthy eating program coordinated by a major medical center."
While marketers may have turned the spotlight away from healthier choices, Lahmayer emphasized, the demand for these choices continues to grow. "More and more people are watching their calories and their fat grams," she said.
Jim Stansfield, whose interest in the program caused it to be offered to the vending industry, concurs. "We've been in the '500 Club' since 1990," he recalled. "Our customers truly depend on the program, and they're as interested now as they were in the beginning , if not more so."
Stansfield Vending uses snack machine planograms, laid out so that "500 Club"-compliant snacks are all in the same places, in each machine. "That way, customers know where to find them, and it's easier for the driver when we change one," Stansfield explained.
Stansfield Vending has extended the program to its manual operations too. "We have three manual cafeterias, and we offer '500 Club' specials daily; they do very well," the veteran vendor told V/T.
Patrons recognize the "500 Club" logo, its icons and its color-coding system, and this recognition boosts sales, Stansfield emphasized. "Many people are concerned about their health and their weight," he reported. "It's very important to offer the customer some healthy choices. You see this in most restaurants. People expect it."
Heart Smart International also was established in response to a perceived need for healthier choices on restaurant menus, and better communication with patrons. It was introduced to the vending industry by Walter W. Reed, founder and president of Creative Relations International.
Reed had served as public relations director of the National Automatic Merchandising Association for more than a quarter of a century. He recalled that one of his major public relations tasks was to counter the perception that vending machines were purveying "junk food."
In fact, he said, vendors were doing a better job of offering balanced menus than their critics recognized. But the need to publicize the things that the industry was doing right sensitized him to the wellness issue.
Thus, a chance encounter with Heart Smart International president Philip French aroused his interest. Heart Smart International recognized the need for a vending version, and worked with Reed to develop one.
It involves two steps. In the first, a new subscriber with a commissary, or with a contract supplier of prepared foods, submits the menu and its recipes to Heart Smart International for analysis. The organization's nutrition experts recommend the changes needed to bring suitable menu items into compliance with criteria for "heart healthy" foods.
In the second phase, Heart Smart International provides visual materials for machines and product labels. Heart-healthy foods are identified with a bright red heart symbol, and point-of-sale material on the machine states that "All items marked with a red heart comply with the Heart Smart Program."
PUBLICIZING THE PROGRAM
"We also furnish operators with materials about the program that they can take to location management, and ideas about how to market the 'Heart Smart' program when bidding for an account," Reed explained. "Subscribers also receive suggestions for participation in local health fairs and other events."
Having launched the commissary program, Reed and the Heart Smart International organization designed a variant for operators who purchase prepared foods from outside suppliers. Such suppliers can join Heart Smart International themselves, and have specific products certified; or the operator subscriber can submit particular items for analysis.
"And operators wanted to incorporate snacks into the program," Reed said. To meet this desire, the Heart Smart organization undertook to analyze the snack items in the vending distribution pipeline and determine which of them meet the criteria for "lowfat" and "fat free." Operator subscribers pay an annual fee and, in return, receive updated lists of compliant products along with stickers that can be placed next to the price insert.
"The program lets patrons and account management know that the operator is health-conscious and is willing to accommodate special requirements," Reed summed up.
The original "Heart Smart" restaurant program also has been adapted to manual foodservice operations, Reed added. It need not be implemented in all of an operation's manual accounts, but it can be a valuable resource for communicating foodservice expertise, and for meeting specific location requests.
Reed noted that the program was very well received upon its initial launch, and its operator subscribers have derived substantial benefits from it. He observed that, at present, interest in healthier foods appears to have flattened, and not only in vending. Part of this, he said, is a result of success: "Customers now assume that operators offer some kind of healthy food as part of their service packages," he pointed out.
A key to continued success is to continually communicate the program to customers. "Over the years, I've often heard operators say that customers don't really want healthier food, or that customers ask for it and then don't buy it," Reed recalled. "I think those operators are just not focused on marketing. If you let the customer know that the products are there, they'll sell. If you don't promote them, they won't."
The task is easier with snacks and branded convenience foods. "It's obvious that well-recognized brands are going to sell, because they are promoted by their manufacturers," the veteran publicist observed. "Operators could sell so much more if they would focus on marketing."
B.W. Stetson's Crilley agrees. Despite frequently-expressed cynicism about the apparent difference in the products customers request and the ones they actually buy, he reports that a long-term change appears to be under way in purchasing patterns.
"For years, people just asked for 'healthy foods' , they didn't really buy them," he said. "People are buying healthy foods now; they are concerned." The Heart Smart program thus is becoming a better and better selling-tool as time goes by.
"It's important to remind customers that we offer the program," Crilley emphasized. "We also must remind ourselves, so we don't get complacent."
THE DEMAND IS THERE
And, the cynics notwithstanding, there is an increasing demand for healthier snacks, Crilley added. "We have dedicated rows in our snack machines, with red dots on the shelves to identify Heart Smart-compliant products," he told V/T.
Point-of-sale materials are the principal means used by B.W. Stetson to promote the Heart Smart program to patrons, but the company has taken advantage of other opportunities. For example, Crilley went to the four newspapers serving his market and explained the program; all four wrote favorable articles.
"We mention Heart Smart in our radio ads, and part of our 'on-hold' telephone tape is devoted to it," he continued. "And I've talked about healthy foods in vending on the local 'Off the Cuff' radio program."
It's working, he reported. "Heart Smart is a great tool for getting new accounts," Crilley said. "We have at least half a dozen real solid vending customers that we got because of the program."