In 2011, Bert Lawson, Culinary & Consumer Services manager and research chef, Farmland Foods, returned to the company’s headquarters from an industry seminar with a potential solution in mind.
“I saw [the cook-in-bag technology], and I was so excited about it,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can keep the meat moist by cooking it in the bag, but it self-vents, so it still browns and doesn’t taste like boiled meat!’”
That observation coupled perfectly with in-house consumer research driving the initiative, explains Erin Turley, Farmland brand director.
“The cook-in-bag concept is really rooted in consumer need, and we know that 33% of consumers would buy more pork and consume more pork if it was easier to prepare,” she adds. “We identified a real need for that easy, quick, yet wholesome and home-cooked, weeknight family meal.”
The end result was the launch in June 2012 of Farmland Oven Perfect, the first pork product in the category to feature cook-in-bag, self-venting technology.
When Lawson returned with the new technology in mind, the Farmland team worked extensively with the film supplier, as well as its packaging-equipment suppliers, to develop and then fine-tune everything from package performance to cooking times. Lawson says formulating the cooking directions for the consumer was the biggest challenge in the development from her side.
“The consumers would now be cooking the product by time — instead of us telling the consumer to cook it until it hits a certain temperature, so I had to get the time to work [for any type of oven],” she explains. “It took many months of work … because we also wanted to cook quickly, and so we had to figure out how high we could get the temperature, and in what amount of time, and still have an excellent product.”
Once Farmland’s teams figured out the proper cooking times and temperatures, as well as the operational changes that needed to occur to handle the films in their plants, the product line was ready to go. Oven Perfect launched with several dozen stock-keeping units (SKUs), as Farmland went “all in” on the cook-in-bag technology. In order to prevent confusion with consumers, Farmland eliminated its line of fresh marinated pork tenderloins or roasts in “standard” packaging.
Since the launch approximately 16 months ago, Farmland has learned a thing or two about the product and its capabilities. On one hand, the consumer research that formed the foundation for Oven Perfect has held up, and the product line already has helped grow the category for Farmland, says Turley.
“We are ahead on sales versus the prior year, even though we have fewer SKUs,” she says. “We’re seeing primarily that a non-ovenable bag and an ovenable bag can coexist within a single retailer, and that, when they are both present, we’re growing the category. I’m sure there is some cannibalization when you bring in products such as this, but the real story, to us, is that we’re bringing new people into the category.”
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On the other hand, Farmland has had to sideline some original items in order to keep Oven Perfect’s focus sharply on the “weeknight meal” target.
“Some the SKUs we’ve put to sleep are due to cooking time, as some of those items took so much longer to cook,” Turley says, “and it was all about having dinner, a weeknight meal — have it done in 30 to 35 minutes.”
However, Lawson notes, these products are by no means gone for good — they could return in the future as Farmland improves the use of the technology. For now, Farmland has set its focus on growing its distribution of the current line, which was well-received by existing customers. Farmland conducted samplings and demonstrations in advance of the switch to the cook-in-bag product, which resulted in some customers buying into the product almost immediately, including a major retail chain that went national with the product.
“They’ve made recommendations, suggestions, and we’ve really partnered with them to try and make it a success in their stores,” Turley adds. “We’ve been in their stores now for close to 11 months, and we continue to see positive results.”
At presstime, Farmland had retrofitted packaging equipment in three of its plants in order to handle production of Oven Perfect product, and there is room for growth as distribution widens.
“We’ve focused on the Farmland core — which is really the Midwest — and west of there as well, to continue to drive our distribution,” Turley says. “We’ve recently had some new distribution gains in the Wisconsin area as well as in the Northeast.”
Meanwhile, on the development side, Lawson has been devising ways to add to the convenience the Oven Perfect product offers consumers, developing new recipes and “kitchen solutions” for the at-home cook.
“I’ve been showing how you can cook the entire meal at one time, … where I have roasted vegetables [on the tray], and the whole thing goes in the oven,” she says. “[I’ve taken the] Southwest Peppercorn variety and a casserole dish, put instant rice and salsa and butter in the dish, cover it up, cook the whole thing in 30 minutes, and you’re done. So I’ve been showing how you can do the whole meal at one time, throw it in the oven and go help kids with homework or something.”
This type of approach helps consumers become more comfortable in the kitchen, and Farmland Oven Perfect’s use of technological innovation allows product quality to not be negatively affected by the convenience factor.
“Consumers just have always assumed cooking in the oven takes a long time, because all of these other bagged products are microwaveable — microwave that rice bag and the vegetable bag,” Lawson concludes. “We have to get across to the consumers that it’s not going to take two hours in the oven: You can get this done in 30 minutes and not have the cleanup that you think you’ll have.”
More than a year into the product’s lifespan, Oven Perfect has had success convincing consumers not to fear the oven, specifically when it comes to cooking pork. Oven Perfect spells it out simply and in straightforward fashion — a draw that could bring more shoppers back to the fresh pork market over time, as long as Farmland’s innovation and solutions-oriented strategies coax them back.