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What A Concept: How to Build Successful In-House Brands

Creating your own brand requires creativity, a willingness to take risks and a sense of playfullness.

When it comes to exhibiting creativity in your operation, creating your own brands is about as good as it gets. Think about it. With your own brand, you can design a product or service from the ground up. You can spice it, color it, size it, name it, logo it, wrap it, promote it. And if it’s not a rousing success right off the bat, you can tweak it slightly, overhaul it extensively or drop it and start all over again.

“I just love this part of my job. It’s the fun of the creation,” says Carol Kehrer, foodservice director for Charlotte County School District, Punta Gorda, Fla. Beginning in 1996, Kehrer has branded what she refers to as “the school under a Champ’s Café name.” Working without outside advisers, she and her staff have created a highly successful, self-branded, sports-themed foodservice program for her district’s three high schools. Charlotte High School, where the branded program is fully implemented, has a staggering 92% participation among its 1,800 students. (The national average for school lunch participation among high school students is closer to 40%.)

What’s Your Motivation?

Operators start down the self-branding path for a variety of reasons. For Kehrer, the original main purpose of the 11 branded food court stations was to minimize lunchroom lines and maximize the time students have to eat. At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), in Durham, the purpose of two selfbranded concepts was to expand the menu to include chicken and vegetarian items in a minimum of available space, in a short period of time, and with little cash outlay.

In Dallas, Texas, self-branded programs and products have been used by Mary Kimbrough, FSD at Zale Lipshy University Hospital, to establish a local identity in a crowded, competitive healthcare environment as an inventive, trendsetting, healthful, upscale food provider.

In New York City, Carol Sherman, senior director of the food and nutrition network for Mt. Sinai NYU Health, says in-house brands on such items as pizza and baked goods “let our immediate world of physicians, administrators, medical students, and employees know that we have talent and ability within our management and culinary team.”

Morrison Management Specialists recently introduced a branded concept program, Spice of Life, specifically designed to meet the needs of hospital cafeterias. It’s design is based on extensive research into the preferences of the customers who frequent this particular segment.

“This program brings together a cohesive offering of both the classic best of American cuisine and the newest things that you’ll only find if you search out those little bistros and cafes," says Curt Seidl, corporate executive for culinary programs. The first venue to feature the new program is Northwestern University Hospital (Chicago).

The concepts, named after spices that suggest the outlets’ offerings include Basil’s Pizza & Pasta, The Wild Sage Grill, Caraway Deli, Allspice Café (traditional American favorites), Sesame (Asian), Spice Event (rotating international menus), Peppercorn Greens (salad bar), Cinnamon Sticks (desserts) and Tarragon Garden (specialty salads).

A Matter of Principle

“We built our business by serving fresh, hot, quality products. I don’t think you can do that by bringing in food prepared off-site,” says Kehrer. “Our whole emphasis here is about serving a complete reimbursable, healthy meal at a price the student can afford. We’re delivering a higher quality entrée at a lower cost because we use government commodities. It’s a healthier menu because we control the specifications. Branding our products has sold our program to the students.”

“When we do our own branding and we do it right, we sell our own store,” says Jane Wynn, school foodservice director for Broward County, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “When we sell someone else’s product, we send a message to the students that anything other than a commercial brand is inferior.”

Wynn, who is planning to install some of Kehrer’s concepts in her district, thinks the branding “will increase our participation. I also think we’ll sell less junk food because when students don’t have enough time to eat, they grab snacks instead of sitting down with a complete meal.”

Do You Have What It Takes?

“It’s our food that sets us apart, it always has been our food,” says Dallas’ Kimbrough. “Our reputation is for interesting, on-trend, healthy

food. There’s a feeling in here of very talented chefs at work. If you’re in a market where there’s a lot of competition, selfbranding canmake you stand out as different. But self-branding is not something every operator can or should try. If your customer base is more about getting a big meal at a low cost, then this wouldn’t be the way to go.”

“If you have the ability to develop your own brands and do it well, then why would you lock yourself into someone else’s formula?” says Sherman. “Sure, if I wanted a pizza program and I didn’t happen to have chefs on my staff who actually trained in Italy, then I’d go to an outside pizza provider. But when I do that, I totally give up my ability to modify the recipe and ingredients to what my customers want.”

You Built It, Now Name It

At UNH, the new chicken Pastabilites outlet was designed by Jon Plodzik,UNH’s areamanager of retail operations and his team because a national brand company “wanted upfront cash and more space than we had to give.” The concept, which does $45,000 in volume monthly, was installed over last summer in less than one month and at a cost of less than $4,000. Food offerings include a variety of madeto- order sandwiches and two pasta and sauce offerings daily.

In Florida, Kehrer pushes the sports theme by naming her food stations Slam Dunkin’ Nuggets (chicken nuggets), Home Run Heroes (sandwiches), Kickin’ Chicken (chicken filet sandwiches) andOn theGreen Salads. She renamed one manufacturer’s pizza the Power Slice.

It’s Yours, So Change It

“You have a great deal of flexibility with your own brands that you don’t have with outside brands,” says Kehrer. “You’re not locked into someone else’s ingredients or specs or layout.”

UNH’s Plodzik agrees. “There’s just an infinite amount of flexibility at these stations to offer specials of the day and make changes as you go along. It’s a flexibility we wouldn’t have otherwise. You’re still going to see national brands as anchor concepts in our retail operations because these names have wide recognitionwith the students. But including your own concepts just makes a better overall package.”

Grandstand Your Brand

“We use our menu as a chefs’ showcase and we’re constantly changing how we do that,” says Kimbrough. “Because of the limited space in our servery, we like to use self-serve bars, Our latest innovation is a series of seasonal, self-serve, totally vegetarian produce bars which we do once a week. We label them Winter Bounty, Fall Harvest, etc.”

Chef Brent Ruggeles’ Summer Market menu on one recent day featured roasted chili millet pilaf and caramelized leek and mushroom strudel.

“I love bake shops,” admits New York’s Sherman, “because they give you that ‘wow!’ factor. We also get that response from a spectacular catering function. The message is that we have the talent to do this.”

Mix and Match

Sherman operates two Starbuck’s coffee carts “because the Starbuck’s name has a very positive image with our customers.

But, while the coffee is from Starbuck’s, all the baked goods on those carts are made in-house. We also sell sandwiches from the carts and we advertise that they are made with Eli’s bread, a wonderful New York baker. That’s an example of partnering brands so that the overall image is high quality,” she adds.

“For us to try to create a taco concept doesn’t make sense because Taco Bell has done that and there’s not much reason to compete with Burger King and McDonald’s on a burger concept,” says David May, executive director of hospitality services at UNH. “But having your own brands lets you do special tie-ins to your own campus and your own customer base. For example, UNH will soon introduce a new athletic logo—a wildcat paw—and we’re going to incorporate it into a branded Paw’s Pizza in our board operations.”

It’s the Dollars, Dummy

Self-branding has some obvious cost advantages. You aren’t paying an outside company to use its name; you aren’t buying its marketing materials, product ingredients or training, and, most important, you aren’t sharing the revenues generated.

Kehrer says the increased participation from her in-house branding has enabled her to hold the lunch price for high school students at $1.70 for the past five years.

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