Small companies, big impressions

How Jones Soda, Wawa Dairy and Hirzel Canning outmaneuver the giants in their categories

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North America's first recloseable can

Despite its size, Hirzel Canning Co. is the first company in North America to offer the Dot Top can, a 12-ounce tin-plated steel can with a reclosable lid. "It offers the reliability and assurance of a normal can with the convenience of a container with a lid," says company promotional materials.

The can design was created by a Brazilian can manufacturing company, Metalgrafica Rojek. It is licensed in this country by Silgan Container, Woodland Hills, Calif. (

The key to the three-piece can is the lid. No tool is necessary to open it. Very similar to a jar lid, it's held on by a vacuum created in the headspace as the lid is applied. A steam jet flushes the headspace, the lid is applied, and the steam condenses to form a vacuum.

A plastisol membrane about the size of a dime covers a 1/16-inch diameter hole. When the membrane is partially peeled back (it remains in place), the vacuum seal is broken and the can is easily opened. Afterward, the lid snaps back on. A little downward pressure can create a new vacuum to further hold the lid in place until reuse.

The 3-inch diameter (300 x 312 size) can is offset-printed in red, with two colors on the lid. Hirzel Canning uses a wrap-around paper label in full color. Inside, the can uses Hirzel's "pure white" plastic lining for added shelf life after opening.

Both can and lid are imported from Brazil. Hirzel Canning needed only minor modifications on a line used for 14.5-ounce glass jars to fill and seal the can.

The new can carries Hirzel Canning's Dei Fratelli Presto pizza sauce and the novel Italian dip. One of the outlets for the product is the Meijer store chain, which operates 150 megastores in the Great Lakes states. "That was a real coup," says President Karl Hirzel. "We already had some products in their stores. As soon as we showed them this can, they could see it was different."

 

www.silgancontainers.com).

,'All it costs us is labels'

With a captive audience in its C-stores, Wawa Dairy gets immediate feedback on new products.

In 1998, when most of the stodgy milk industry was just beginning to think about single-serve plastic bottles, a small eastern Pennsylvania dairy named Wawa jumped in with both feet and saw a 30 percent jump in single-serve sales.

 

As much of the dairy industry was still making the glacial change from gabletop paper half gallons and quarts to plastic, Wawa, already in the squarish high-density polyethylene (HDPE) container, jumped to a stylish decanter plastic bottle. When HDPE became commodity, Wawa jumped to clear polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Staying one step ahead of the pack and taking risks has become the culture at Wawa Dairy, headquartered in the town of the same name (it's Indian for the type of goose native to the area). Though small (sales are approaching $100 million), Wawa can claim a number of firsts. It also has some of the most sophisticated equipment in the dairy industry, including a multi-million-dollar automated storage and retrieval system, a $750,000 Krones labeler and mix-proof valves throughout the plant.

 

Wawa's AS/RS is more sophisticated -- and more expensive -- than equipment at dairies several times Wawa's size.

Wawa does have one unfair advantage, at least in terms of product development. While the company was founded as a dairy 102 years ago, the far larger part of the corporation now is its chain of convenience stores, begun in the 1960s. They're a captive audience, as retail customers go, a great test bed for new products and a resource for consumer opinions, sampling and simple trend-watching.

"We're very eager to try new products. When we have what we think is a good product idea, we say, 'Let's give it a try. All it's going to costs us is some labels,' " says Rick Over, director of dairy and AS/RS.

"We used to do a lot of customer intercepts. We'd stop people right in our stores and ask their opinion of a product idea or give them a sample to taste. About a year ago, we stopped customers buying Hershey's Cookies & Cream milk and asked them how they liked it, if they would buy the same product under the Wawa brand and how much they would pay for it. Then we came out with our own," he says.

"We can watch first-hand what they're buying, what's new and what's hot. That's how we got into juices, drinks and teas. We also considered water, but haven't decided to make that ourselves," says Over.

C-store customers also talked the company out of making what could have been a packaging mistake. "HDPE worked so well with single-serve milk, we thought that was the logical package for our other beverages. But our customers told us they wanted a clear plastic bottle for drinks and teas, so we went with PET and saw another 30 percent jump in sales.

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