Ben & Jerry’s New Flavor: Fancier Stores

August 30, 2013

In its first redesign under Unilever, the funky scoop shop goes upscale and global

“Somebody said it best, I don’t remember if it was during the consumer research that we did or … no, I can’t say this — ” says Kresky, the brand’s creative director. Then she says it: “It felt to them that it was like walking into a children’s playground.”

If you’ve ever stepped foot in one of the quirky, iconic ice cream brand’s retail shops, you might agree. For years the stores were an almost aggressively cheerful take on an old-style soda shop, with black and white checked floors, decorations that included cartoon ice cream scoops and yellow stars, and walls painted in shades of bright yellow, red, and purple.

Astute Chubby Hubby lovers, however, might soon start to notice a new look and feel to the stores. The chain has started a remodeling effort that, launched in 2008 in a few select stores, has accelerated and will be spreading to many more of its stores this year. The checkered floors have been replaced by a ceramic tile that evokes maple wood. Light bulbs are made from antique milk bottles, and instead of cartoons, there are pastoral farm scenes on the walls. The overall effect is less kids’ playground, more Restoration Hardware.

Since Kresky and San Francisco design firm Tesser created the new look five years ago, the chain’s more than 600 worldwide locations have been rolling it out piecemeal, depending on what each franchisee can afford in any given year. So far, about half the stores have half of the upgrades, says Debra Heintz, the company’s global director of retail scoop shops. Almost all of them have the new paint and graphics, and most are now starting to add the updated exterior signage, new cabinetry, and floors. In the last two years, the pace of change has accelerated as the company dedicates more money to matching franchisees’ investments in renovation.

It seems to be working. Stores that remodel see a 10% boost in sales, Heintz says, about on par with industry averages after a revamp. All told, Ben & Jerry’s supermarket and retail sales have totaled $562 million so far this year, according to market research firm IRI, up from $486 million in 2009. The vast majority of that comes from pints destined for consumers’ freezers (this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s downed one on the couch in front of the TV at home), so the stores serve mainly as brand advertising.

But it’s still a competitive market. Scoop shops are not a growth industry in the U.S.: The market is mostly saturated, and any expansion must be wrested from other companies. One way to do that is to make a nicer store. Technomic executive vice-president Darren Tristano says he’s seen a slower uptick in expansion from Ben & Jerry’s and a greater emphasis on remodeling existing shops.

Another factor: an onslaught of competition from frozen yogurt chains, new players like Menchie’s, Yogurtland, 16 Handles, and Pinkberry. But frozen yogurt is still small potatoes with Americans’ appetite for ice cream. “For every eating of frozen yogurt there are 10 times the number of eatings of ice cream,” says NPD Group chief industry analyst Harry Balzer. Some 43% of Americans are going to eat ice cream in some form in the next two weeks, Balzer says.

Ben & Jerry’s got its start in 1978 as an ice cream maker with an activist streak. In 2000, it was purchased by Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever (UNL), which has since embraced the brand’s counterculture roots. Its environmental messaging and no-GMO campaigns dovetail nicely with Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s efforts at sustainable corporate practices. Under Unilever, Ben and Jerry’s has kept up its social mission: It supported Occupy Wall Street (the original Ben and Jerry handed out scoops in Zucotti Park); it pays entry-level employees double the minimum wage. It’s still churning out lefty-themed flavors like “Imagine Whirled Peace.”

But make no mistake, in its first-ever redesign as a Unilever company, it’s clear there’s now a hefty helping of corporate power behind the brand. Design firm Tesser also counts Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken as clients. Their challenge with Ben & Jerry’s was to create a global concept — one that smacks of American authenticity, but that plays as well in Singapore as it does in Schenectady. More than half of Ben & Jerry’s franchisees are international, up from about 10% before Unilever bought the company. In last quarter’s earnings call, Polman highlighted the company’s success selling ice cream abroad: Some 40% of Unilever’s ice cream sales are now in emerging markets.

Back at Ben & Jerry’s headquarters in South Burlington, Vt., the concept for the new stores is referred to internally as “Summer of Love meets Vermont Dairy.” That includes what Kresky calls “dairy cues,” a little subliminal messaging to drive home the theme (if the larger-than-life images of cows weren’t enough). “We used a lot of creamy white,” she says. “It’s one of those details that a customer would probably never say to you, ‘Oh yeah, that looks like milk.’ But it looks homey and inviting.” And also not a total break from the brand’s funky past: There are still choice ’60s elements like the occasional peace sign, and what Kresky calls “a judicious use of tie-dye.”

The roll-out has not been without a hiccup or two. Heintz say one of her favorite elements of the new store is the “flavor curtain,” a series of wires holding pint lids together, sort of like Christmastime popcorn-on-a-string garlands. The feature brings the brand message back to the company’s primary product, pints. But kids seem especially enamored with it, and frequently tear the cardboard.

Will the fancier look change people’s appetite? Maybe. Innovation aside, NPD’s Balzer says the frozen treat business “really hasn’t changed a whole heckuva lot.” “Ice cream will always be a part of our future,” he says. As Ben and Jerry themselves might say, that’s groovy. And profitable, too.

Technomic Asks: Is Restaurant ‘Made-to-Order Pizza’ the Next ‘Better Burger’?

August 21, 2013

Chicago, July 30, 2013, PRNewswire –Many wonder what the restaurant industry’s next hot concept will be. The fast-casual segment, in particular, has already launched numerous proven winners, including so-called ‘better burger’ chains – restaurants that have raised traditional burgers up to new standards by featuring premium patties, buns, condiments and sides. According to recent Concepts 2020 research conducted by Technomic, the next hot concept is expected to stem from similar roots, but within the made-to-order pizza niche.

“Made-to-order pizza can be the next big growth niche because its fresh, gourmet positioning provides a strong platform for popular health and wellness concepts,” says Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President. “The ‘better’ trend seen in ‘better burgers’ will also drive ‘better sandwich’ and ‘better pizza’ concepts. Not only are made-to-order pizza concepts delivering better quality and fresher ingredients, consumers are able to create their own pizzas that are ready within minutes, a proven recipe for success within the fast casual space.”

To provide a closer examination of made-to-order pizza chains, Technomic has issued the first in a new series of concept cluster reports. Each publication identifies and reports on emerging restaurant concepts and analyzes their long-term consumer appeal, explores the evolution of the consumer restaurant experience, identifies operator best practices, taps the pulse of today’s restaurant patron, and makes recommendations on what to expect over the next five to seven years.

The Fast Casual Pizza Cluster Report, powered by Technomic’s Concepts 2020 study, looks at the overall foodservice landscape and shows areas of growth potential. It includes:

  • Cluster identification and definition
  • Insights on consumer drivers enabling growth
  • Comprehensive pizza concept evaluation
  • Related menu trends
  • Concepts in action

Blaze Pizza on Path to Developing Fast-Casual Pizzeria Network in Central Ohio

August 5, 2013

Sbarro LLC isn’t the only restaurant chain looking to make dough on the fast-casual pizza business in Columbus. Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza LLC, the operator of Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza eateries, has signed up several new franchisees, including Blaze Midwest Inc., which has plans for seven restaurants in Central Ohio and 14 more in Indianapolis, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Blaze Midwest is owned and run by Randy Stuck, Rodney Walker, Steven Stuck and James Sutika, a partnership that operates nine T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants and 42 Taco Bells in Michigan and Ohio, according to information from Blaze.

“We believe that fast-casual pizza is the next big category and we want to participate,” Randy Stuck said in a press release.

The chain has three restaurants open in California, but franchisee commitments covering 12 states and Washington, D.C.

Blaze Midwest’s first pizzeria is expected to open in Royal Oak, Mich., this fall.

Representatives of Blaze and the franchisee weren’t available for comment.

Blaze applies fast-casual’s assembly line approach to a 12-inch pizza. It has nine signature creations on its menu board and more than 40 toppings from which diners can select. The fast-fired cooking takes two minutes. Average price is $7.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago-based researcher Technomic Inc., earlier told me that barbecue, pizza and Italian food were three areas in the fast-casual world where there is room to grow.

Unlike Mexican fare with Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE:CMG), burgers with Five Guys Burgers and Fries and bakery-cafes with Panera Bread Co. (NASDAQ:PNRA), the pizza and Italian food specialties aren’t marked by dominant players running hundreds of restaurants. But there are plenty vying to be that victor, including a few around Columbus.

ZPizza from Newport Beach, Calif., is operating in Columbus with two restaurants and more planned. Melville, N.Y.-based Sbarro tapped Central Ohio as the proving ground for its Pizza Cucinova chain, which is to be launched this year with restaurants near Grandview Heights and in the Easton area.

The West Coast is popping with young companies of varying sizes, such as Blaze, the eight-restauraunt MOD Pizza and 800 Degrees with one restaurant. And though the restaurant counts may be small, the backing in some cases isn’t. In addition to Sbarro pursuing a new brand, the 10-store Pie Five Pizza Co. is a fast-casual venture from Colony, Texas-based Pizza Inn Holdings Inc., which runs more than 300 pizza buffets. Los Angeles-based PizzaRev, which has grown to five shops, secured financial backing from Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. (NASDAQ:BWLD), a company with Columbus roots.

Tangential to the fast-casual pizza slice of the business is fast-casual Italian, dubbed modern Italian by some, selling pasta and salad bowls as well as wrap-style piadas filled with meat, veggies, noodles and sauce. Columbus can claim an innovator in that sector with the 10-restaurant-and-expanding Piada Italian Street Food chain. But competition is stepping up with new single-restaurant ventures in Florida and Arizona, and Lexington, Ky.-based Fazoli’s prepping a launch a new player for that segment.


Want Sliders Delivered? White Castle Tries It Out

August 2, 2013

monday-briefs-1017-art-ggregkb8-1white-castleGot a hankering for a plateful of Sliders but no desire to hop in the car? Some Columbus-area customers can phone in an order for the diminutive, onion-steamed hamburgers and other White Castle favorites, and have them delivered to their door.

The Columbus-based fast-food company is experimenting with delivery. It is advertising for drivers to deliver to homes and businesses near its restaurant at 6791 E. Broad St., where the service has been underway for several months, as well as its 1080 S. Hamilton Rd. restaurant, where delivery will begin in August.

Burger King began trying out delivery early last year to learn whether customers will take to hamburger delivery the same way they have pizza delivery. If they do, other fast-food chains probably will add the service.

“Restaurants are looking for additional channels to sell their product,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago food- and restaurant-research firm. “To add value to store-level sales, adding delivery could be a good option.”

White Castle started its delivery experiment late last year at its Westerville store. It “was a great place to start … but the volume of calls wasn’t what we had hoped,” and it was discontinued, said Jamie Richardson, a White Castle vice president.

So the chain moved the test to its 6791 E. Broad St. store, where it is being embraced.“It seems that customers are really sparking to (the service),” Richardson said.

Since the delivery experiment began on the Far East Side, White Castle has noticed that demand picked up during football season and end-of-year holidays, said Cathy Adams, the chain’s office manager, who is screening delivery-driver applicants.

White Castle is using the tests, including the one expected to begin at the S. Hamilton Rd. location next month, to find the right technologies to keep its food hot in transit and figure out how to train employees.

Started in Wichita, Kan., in 1921 and later moved to Columbus, White Castle picked the locations for its 406 restaurants in a dozen states for reasons other than home delivery. So it is learning what makes a good delivery market.

“We want to learn more about why adoption can be strong at some locations and not as strong at others,” Richardson said.

Part of the delivery strategy is getting customers to buy more than a meal for one person. White Castle’s minimum order is $12, and its delivery fee is $2.

“At White Castle, it’s more about the Crave Cases,” Tristano said. A Crave Case of 30 cheeseburgers costs $24.60. “That’s a perfect opportunity for a large price off-premise,” he said.

Burger King, which started testing home delivery in Washington, D.C., in January 2012, offers several “delivery deals” including sandwiches, french fries and drinks for between $15 and $20.

Since then, the Miami-based fast-food chain has entered 12 large, urban test markets, including Chicago, New York City, Houston and Miami, Tristano said.

“This is a case where Burger King has become more of an innovator than a follower,” he said. “If it’s successful, other brands will be jumping in.”

Calls and emails to Burger King and its advertising agency were not returned yesterday.