Which came first: the cookie or the carton?

Wednesday, August 25th 2004, 1:22 pm
By: News On 6

Spoons are so old school. And 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?''

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, catering to consumers demanding convenience has meant 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 to work in toothpaste tube-like packaging.

``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 be more than a pretty label, affecting 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.

How do chips work well? Depends on your target audience. 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 to accommodate a bowl of dip.

People are as drawn to a product as they are to how its package lets them use it, Romanow said. And they want to use it fast, easily, and increasingly, on the road.

As a result, scores of products _ from soups to chips to energy bars _ 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.

The Campbell Soup Co. spent two years adapting its soups for cup holder containers. It's 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.

Having the right product for that desire can mean big sales. Campbell's portable soups brought in $250 million last year.

``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.

It also exposes existing products to new populations. For Stonyfield, Squeezers made its organic yogurts more appealing to children who want novelty and to adults who want convenience foods that also are all natural.

Of course, catering to convenience is no guarantee of success. Plenty of products fail, convenient packaging or not.

Remember the milk that didn't have to be refrigerated? Probably not. Even though it's a boon to long-term storage and is a staple in Europe, shelf-stable milk has yet to catch on in the United States.

Portability isn't the only convenience factor that's reshaping food. Portion control also has prompted changes. Nabisco recently rolled out ``thin crisp'' versions of popular cookies, including Oreos, in 100-calorie packages.

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 50 cents and has 2 1/2 servings.

Nabisco's bear-shaped Teddy Grahams cookies cost $1.49 for a 3 1/4-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, if not more, than getting a good price, said food packaging consultant Aaron Brody.

A traditional can of soup may be cheaper, he said, ``but what are you going to with that can while you're driving up Interstate 93? Do you have a can opener? Do you have a microwave? Will it fit in the car?''