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Published: Sunday, 10/31/2004

New lid a can-do for Hirzel

By JON CHAVEZ

BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Good: about five feet from the floor, eye level for a typical woman shopper, said Mr. Hirzel, retail sales manager at Hirzel Canning Co. and Farms in Northwood.

Bad: above five feet, because customers must look up and reach.

Death: below five feet, because labels can go unseen and customers must bend down for items.

So it's no surprise that Hirzel Canning jumped last year at the opportunity to use a new type of can to draw attention to its pizza sauce and a new bread-dipping sauce.

Hirzel, founded in 1923 and the largest independent tomato processor in Ohio, already was known in the industry for its innovative packaging: a white lining inside all cans to prevent a metallic flavor from seeping into products, and for the use of a four-color label atop its cans.

However, the new can is a first for an American food processor, giving Hirzel "more pizzazz" to a standard 12-ounce can, Mr. Hirzel said.

It features an easy-open pull-top lid that is resealable, called Dot Top technology. It uses a vacuum seal, and there are no sharp edges. The company began using it in June, 2003, after seeing it in Brazil, where it was developed and introduced in 2000.

"If [the packaging] is totally unique, grocers might go beyond what they can do normally for displaying a product," Mr. Hirzel said.

That has been the case. A limited number of grocers that the company has asked to display its products in the new cans have done so without charging shelf fees, a practice supermarkets sometimes ask of manufacturers in exchange for prime space.

That acceptance has thrilled the firm, headquartered on Lemoyne Road in Wood County, which processes and sells a variety of canned tomatoes, tomato sauces, and juices under brand names Dei Fratelli and Star Cross, and sauerkraut under the name Silver Fleece.

That placement also is welcomed in the can-making industry in general, which has slowly lost market share to plastics, glass, and foil pouch packaging over the last decade. The erosion is attributed mostly to a lack of innovative packaging by can-makers, said David Luttenberger, director of Packaging Strategies, of West Chester, Pa., an industry consulting firm.

Sealed tin cans were invented in 1809 as a way to preserve food for Napoleon's army, and improvements continued over decades. In 1940s, there were breakthroughs that permitted mass production and that made possible the canning of carbonated beverages.

"Before the past couple years, the can industry's motto was 'We're as good as glass or as good as plastic.' But glass and plastic went on to other attributes - graphics, resealables, specific shapes," Mr. Luttenberger said.

The number of all types of cans bought in the United States in 10 years has dropped by more than 600 million, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute of Washington. The manufacturers shipped 24 billion cans last year, down from 31 billion three decades earlier.

Concerns about nutrition and freshness are considered the main culprits for the decline. A 2003 poll by the institute found that only 39 percent of people thought canned food is as nutritious as fresh food. Just over half said it is as good as frozen food.

Many recent defectors of can packaging are big accounts. Folger's Coffee, a billion-dollar operation, recently went to all-plastic containers. Starkist Tuna invested heavily in resealable foil pouches. Campbell Soup has unveiled a line of products in microwavable plastic bowls.

The can industry, Mr. Luttenberger said, is responding with new technologies such as Dot Top and special-shaped cans, such as a cooking kettle, to attract attention and customers.

"It won't stop conversion to other packaging technologies, but it will certainly make consumers look at steel and metal technology in a different way from now on," said Mr. Luttenberger.

For Hirzel Canning, the use of resealable tops for its Dei Fratelli pizza and dipping sauces is not a major investment. The cans will be less than 0.3 percent of total annual production.

The company has about 500 customers and devotes the bulk of its processing operations - including Ohio plants in Northwood, Pemberville, and Ottawa - to products it supplies to others for use in stores, restaurants, or food production operations.

However, the Dot Tops, which locally can be found at Meijer Inc., The Andersons, Churchill's Super Markets, and Sautter's Five-Star Market, serve a larger purpose for the northwest Ohio firm than mere sales.

If Hirzel Canning were to sell only tomatoes, its products would be confined to one aisle and probably one shelf in a typical grocery store, Mr. Hirzel said. By offering Mexican and Italian sauces, salsa, and other tomato products, the brand appears in multiple areas in a store.

The resealable can looks different and attracts customer interest. Initial feedback, the company retail manager said, is that the cans are raising sales overall of pizza sauce in groceries.

The innovative top does cost more - he declined to give a figure - and results in a slight increase in the price of the product, he said. A 12-ounce serving in a Dot Top can is about equal in cost to produce and sell as a 15-ounce regular can, he added.

Also, because the resealable feature does cost extra, Mr. Hirzel said it makes no sense to use it for products like stewed tomatoes or tomato sauce that are likely to be used in their entirety in one recipe.

Most producers of cans are invested heavily in old machinery, and making Dot Tops would mean new equipment and expenses, Mr. Luttenberger said.

"Take the soup can. Those canning machines and filling lines may have been in place for decades. Is there a reason for the producer to change machinery? Is there a cost benefit? Is it worth it? Maybe, maybe not," he said.

A standard three-piece can (top, bottom, middle section) is a known cost. A resealable lid might add only pennies per can to the cost of manufacturing, but that would add up for a producer making millions of them, he explained.

Hirzel Canning, the retail sales manager said, found a way to beat the cost. It contracted with Silgan Containers Corp., one of the nation's largest can makers, to manufacture the resealable. Silgan, of Woodland Hills, Calif., had the machinery to do it, thus holding down costs, Mr. Hirzel said.

At the Northwood plant, Hirzel Canning adapted a glass-jar line, used for spaghetti sauces and salsas, to handle Dot Top cans. The new can is cheaper than glass, so the pizza sauce can be sold for about 90 cents a can instead of $1.50 a jar, Mr. Hirzel said.

Resealable cans are valuable, however, only if the food inside is something people typically don't eat in one sitting, said Maryland Raymond, managing director of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NewProductWorks, a consumer-products consulting business.

Soup, for example, probably wouldn't work in the can, because unused portions rarely are saved, she said. So, she asked, is there a need to reseal pizza sauce, and are people switching brands because of the can?

The answer to both questions, Mr. Hirzel said, is yes, according to customer feedback. Although consumers tend to use less than 15 ounces of sauce when making pizza, company research found that sauce from the 12-ounce resealable cans is used more on individual items, such as bagels, English muffins, and French bread. That makes a resealable can important, he added.

Hirzel Canning is developing new flavors of its sauces, including Bruschetta and Mediterranean style, in the hopes of persuading grocers to add a dipping-sauce category to their shelves.

"We think it's got great potential," Mr. Hirzel said.

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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