Breakfast may indeed be the most important meal of the day for food processors looking to put their money where their markets are going. Beyond the traditional realm of cereals hot and cold, recent breakfast product innovations include complete entrees, sandwiches, wraps, bowls and pancakes – some wrapped around sausages on a stick.
Big-brand marketers are developing those products in more healthful ways while taking a page from the fast food handbook to offer innovation, flavor and convenience. But there's so much novelty in this category that new processing and packaging machines are essential to compete.
"We have seen a big increase in our business for machines related to breakfast sandwiches," says John McIsaac, vice president of strategic business development for Robert Reiser & Co. (www.reiser.com), Canton, Mass. "For us, this means an opportunity to produce machines for the components of the sandwiches."
That means machinery ranging from patty formers to English muffin dividers to machines that slice and accurately place cheese on breakfast sandwiches, most of these integrated into larger lines. The reason is the simple and ongoing truth that "Americans want to eat breakfast sandwiches they can microwave," he says.
Brands fight to beat commodities
The products getting the most attention are fully cooked, frozen and convenient. Despite, or perhaps as a response to, the recession, top brand marketers are focusing more on brand building and less on loss-leading commodities that are prone to undercutting by private label competition.
Hormel long has been a low-price competitor, but it discovered a way to command a higher price for former commodity products by forging a link between health-oriented marketing and processing. Its 2006 investment in "TrueTaste" high-pressure processing, which uses pressure, not heat, to pasteurize food, preserves flavor and extends shelf life without preservatives. The first products were deli meats, but now Hormel has Natural Choice-branded bacon and fully cooked sausage.
Kraft Foods exemplifies the need to focus on brands and not commodities. In 2008, in the face of a still-new economic crisis, the company launched its Bagel-Fuls brand. The bagel and cream cheese sandwiches help add value to slicer-thin cheese margins and address consumers' needs for breakfast, "one meal occasion they really struggle with," Chitra Ebenezer, director of marketing and now director of consumer cohorts, said in launching the line. These were seen as part of a "quick-meal" category designed also to target consumers seeking to pare-down their out-of-home meal spending.
Sara Lee's Jimmy Dean brand has steadily updated its portfolio with cooked, microwavable Heat'N Serve sausages, microwavable Entrees, Omelets, Breakfast Sandwiches and Bowls, 10-minute "Skillets" kits and Pancakes & Sausage – even pancake-wrapped sausage links on a stick. Additionally, "D-Lights" products such as bowls and sandwiches tout reduced calories and fat as well as being an "excellent source of calcium and protein, and a good source of iron."
How these companies and others succeed in bringing such innovations to market relies in no small part on the ability of suppliers to accommodate the technical demands they necessitate.
Technology flexes to meet demand
Current-generation equipment solutions have new features that include updated recipe-selection and management software for accurate processing and quick changeovers; modular designs that smooth line modifications; and quick-connect hardware to minimize tools and speed maintenance and production changeovers.
"For a long time, breakfast has been the hottest segment of the food industry," says Andrew Parlour, strategic account manager for Kliklok-Woodman Food Packaging Machinery (www.klikwood.com), Decatur, Ga. For plants that must ensure maximum uptime and smooth production flow, redundancy is the watchword. "We've done a lot of work in the breakfast arena, especially in the last two years. Customers are investing in additional equipment for excess capacity, just to make sure that, if there's a hiccup on a piece of machinery, the line never stops."
For example, the company has provided extra capacity with redundant installations of cartoners "for multiple customers in the category" producing frozen breakfast sandwiches, entrées and more. The units typically run in tandem, ramping-up or -down speeds so that processing and packaging lines are in-synch. He explains that when multiple lines are running side by side at 100 cartons per minute, if one of those legs goes down, product is diverted to the other line, which can then run twice the product at 200 per minute.
Equipment flexibility and adaptability is critical for tackling new and expanding applications in a cost-effective manner. "Versatility is key," says Christine Banaszek, application engineer at Charles Ross & Son (www.mixers.com), Hauppauge, N.Y., maker of mixing and blending equipment.
To handle the varied sizes and densities of mixtures, vendors must "provide the proper piece of equipment but without over-engineering," she says. "If a customer intends to use one blender to make several formulations, the machine features must accommodate the customer's expectations in terms of clean-ability, flexibility in working volumes, heating/cooling requirements, controls [and] integration with upstream and downstream equipment."
Despite their slow adoption of automation technology, processors work closely with and drive incremental innovation in mechanical systems.
Customer-driven blending equipment upgrades at Ross, Banaszek says, have included high-speed choppers for breaking up agglomerated powders, liquid spray bars with nozzles for adding minor liquid components, lantern rings on the stuffing boxes to air-purge and prevent any fine materials from entering the shaft seal, jacketed vessels for heating or cooling and vacuum designs.