Thursday, August 26, 2004

Food's ready; there's no need to stop driving

By J.M. Hirsch
The Associated Press

Spoons are so slow. Harried Americans searching for ways to shave precious seconds from their dining routines have seized on a slew of new foods designed to keep them on the go - no utensils needed.

There's soup in heat-and-sip cups. There's yogurt in squeeze tubes. Mini cookies in snazzy little cans that fit in car cup holders. There are even frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - crustless for the little ones.

"It's all about instantaneous gratification," said Kara Romanow, a consumer products analyst at AMR Research in Boston. "If you can have spray butter, isn't that better than having to cut butter and melt it before you use it?"

Dashboard dining

Long a factor in the fast food restaurant world, so-called dashboard dining has become a major force in the grocery industry.

For many manufacturers, that means coming up with kid- and car-friendly packaging first and worrying about how to fit their foods in it later.

Such was the case with Squeezers, Stonyfield Farm's entry in the yogurt-in-a-tube category. Getting a piece of that popular market meant spending a year retooling the New Hampshire company's yogurt recipe.

"We're moving toward the consumer instead of asking the consumer to come to us," Stonyfield founder Gary Hirshberg said recently. "I couldn't necessarily put a dollar amount to (the development cost), but it was huge."

More companies are recognizing that food packaging can affect not just whether consumers use a product over a competitor's, but also how they use it.

Call it the food-performance factor. Potato chips can't merely taste, look and smell good; they also have to work well.

For moms, single-serving cups that keep chips intact inside lunch boxes might do it. For frat boys, it could be a ring-shaped container ready for a bowl of dip.

Scores of products now come in cup holder-friendly containers.

Automobile manufacturers know this.

During the past 10 years, minivans went from two cup holders to 12 or more, including special rectangular ones for drink boxes, according to Consumer Reports magazine.

Campbell Soup Co. spent two years adapting its soups for cup-holder containers. Its Soup at Hand line offers 13 varieties of drinkable soups with smaller noodles and chicken bits that won't clog the soda can-style sip hole.

The company's iconic "M'm! M'm! Good!" jingle has become "M'm! M'm! Good! To Go."

It isn't just a matter of answering the call for convenience, said Campbell's spokesman John Faulkner. It's also about desire, and companies want to be there - soup or snack in hand - whenever and wherever desire strikes.

Campbell's portable soups brought in $250 million last year.

More eating occasions

"From a strategic point of view it increases the possible number of eating occasions, which obviously helps the company sell more products," said John Lord, chairman of the food marketing department at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

But convenience isn't cheap. A container of Soup at Hand Creamy Tomato costs $1.50 and has one serving. The same size can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup is about $1 and has 21/2 servings.

Nabisco's bear-shaped Teddy Grahams cookies cost $1.49 for a 31/4-ounce cup-holder container. That costs $3 more per pound than buying them in the standard 10-ounce box.

But for many consumers, that's not the point. Saving time is just as much a bargain.

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