Food Production Operations Are Waking Up to Breakfast Trends

Chasing consumer demands means automating with flexibility.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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Why should a plant manager care about the trendy new food he saw on a cable show last night? Because it could end up in the R&D lab tomorrow and in his own plant's machinery shortly thereafter. While some trendy dishes are flashes in the pan, the ones that aren't can end up affecting factors from machinery design and selection to plant productivity and throughput.

How might your plant be affected by the demand for hand-held sandwiches? What if instead of bread, biscuits or bagels, marketing says you need to make pancakes or waffles? If the traditional oil in the formula is replaced by a trans fat-free one, what will that do to your machines? Likewise, changes in how you make potatoes, mini muffins, cereals or anything can mean an upgrade to your equipment and processes.

The flexibility to adapt to ever-changing trends is a key competitive attribute of your plant if it's to keep track with consumer demand and the flood of new products you may be asked to retool for tomorrow.

Top chefs, fast feeders
"Fast feeders" are driving breakfast trends, owing to that product category's treatment as a day-part, not exclusively an early-morning meal. Major chains not only put lots of effort in coming up with compelling new products; they also put the marketing muscle behind new launches, adding a significant chunk of business for the processors chosen to produce them.

Tapping trends is seldom revolutionary. Some of the biggest growth areas for breakfast foods this year "aren't all that new," says Bob Goldin, executive vice president at consulting firm Technomic (www.technomic.com), Chicago, because many have been on the horizon for at least a few years.

"About 80 percent of our business is with the food manufacturers or processors. And most of what they develop, especially for breakfast, is largely driven by the restaurant chains," says Goldin.

And what do the big chains want? "Those chains are continuing to look for products that fit consumer needs for portability, for value, for good taste and health. That's what consumers seem to be looking for in the breakfast day-part."

While retail grocery and frozen sales are relatively flat, foodservice is where the action is, he says. "There have been innovations with breakfast fast sandwiches in the retail chains, but they're not setting the world on fire," Goldin says. So processors continue to pursue high-volume, national foodservice account opportunities for muffins, bakery items, proteins and breakfast items across the board.

As breakfast outperforms the overall food industry, fast feeders drive new breakfast sandwiches, yogurt parfaits, meal-replacing smoothies and oatmeal. Most of these product concepts started in McDonald's and Starbucks.

So where do they get their ideas from? Top chefs at a world-renowned eateries such as French Laundry or Alinea or Noma. If one creates a hit using lingonberries, "for all we know, we could see lingonberries on the breakfast menu at McDonald's next year," says Leith Steele, senior account manager for Andrew Freeman & Co. (www.afandco.com), San Francisco. And then? An explosion of lingonberries first in gourmet stores and then larger grocery chains over the next year or two.

Steele's firm predicted potatoes would be huge trend for 2011 and 2012, expanding product ideas to let dining customers get customized cuts, mix-ins, dips or toppings. Likewise for hash-slingers, for whom "My Roasted Potatoes" could be the next big thing for custom mix-ins of sausage and more.

She also says that "breakfast any time of day" will grow, as will sandwiches using biscuits or even savory sandwiches using waffles, french toast or bread pudding with ham or other breakfast meats.

Somewhere in between the fast food giants and the grocery stores is a lucrative niche especially for some former commissary operations. Lord knows, they're not making airline food anymore, but the same operations are assembling products, for all day parts, at convenience stores.

C-store work has picked up so much that "many are looking at automating and making mechanical operations out of what was done by hand," says Bob Grote, pres./CEO of Grote Co. (www.grotecompany.com), a Columbus, Ohio, maker of slicer/applicator and sandwich automation equipment.

"Customers have asked for conveyors to assemble sandwiches – they have to be flexible enough to handle different sandwiches and have a clean-in-place belt – maybe depositors to add cream cheese or condiments or sauces," he continues. "A little automation can save incredible time and manpower on lines that used to have a dozen or 15 people assembling different parts of a meal."

At the end of last year, Grote debuted a horizontal bread cutter, a dual-lane, stainless steel unit designed to horizontally cut virtually all types of fresh sandwich breads and rolls, including croissants, breakfast biscuits, bagels, submarine buns and Panini. The cutter easily transfers the breads or rolls to a sandwich conveyor to continue the assembly process in automated or semi-automated fashion.

At the end of the line, packaging is moving toward automated "butcher paper-style" wrapping, not foodservice film or shrink-wrap, "because paper wrapping looks like it was applied in the convenience store by hand, rather than at some factory," Grote says.

And it's not just the C-stores. Higher-end grocery stores that are doing a good fresh breakfast or sandwich business also are looking at automating their in-store processes, he adds.

For every new size and shape of food, there's a machine. Robert Reiser (www.reiser.com), Canton, Mass., has seen an "an uptick in machines used to portion and form potato products," says John McIsaac, vice president of strategic business development.

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