Before the pandemic, pantry service was a fast-growing segment in workplace refreshments. But the flow of office refreshments came to a screeching halt when many of the nation’s businesses pivoted to remote work amid extended stay-at-home orders. Now that people are steadily returning to offices, employers are looking for new and creative ways to make work more fun and retain employees in a historically tight labor market.
One approach to keep employees happy is to subsidize snack and beverage amenities on work premises. While the practice of employers providing free refreshments to employees is not new, many are now boosting budgets for generous snack and beverage programs. As demand for these workplace benefits mounts, there’s never been a better time for operators to add pantry services to complement their micro market, vending and coffee services.
Here are some tips from expert operators and leading product suppliers on how to start—or restart—a pantry service in 2022.
Judson Kleinman, founder and chief executive of Parsippany, NJ’s Corporate Essential LLC, believes pantry service can play a vital part in luring employees back to the workplace while having a positive impact on a company’s culture. “For many of our clients, the pantry really is the centerpiece of the office,” he said. “When our office clients welcome visitors, they don't usually show them the whole office. They say, rather, ‘This is where our snacks are.’”
For organizations installing a pantry program, however, Kleinman cautions against going too big too fast. “I liken it to a kid in a candy store,” he explained. “You don't want to give them everything all at once. I think it's good to have a little bit of an offering and then every 30 days add something else. That way, when people come into work, they're like, ‘Oh, wow, look, we have something new.’ It keeps it fresh and exciting. I think that's really important to focus on.”
Kimberly Lenz, director of foodservice sales and procurement at San Francisco’s Associated Services, recommends product sampling events for micro market and vending operators looking to add pantry service. Lenz schedules product samplings to maintain enthusiasm for her clients’ pantry offerings.
“Our customers love to see, taste and try new snacking products,” she said. “We can make recommendations, but it doesn't have the same impact as when they can actually hold it in their hands and try it themselves.”
COVID-19, however, has limited how Lenz can propose new offerings. “Pre-pandemic, we would sit in a kitchen and open up a bunch of different samples for employees to try,” she said. “Two years into the pandemic, people are still social distancing and remain wary of sharing stuff, so we’ve been sending samples to offices rather than delivering them ourselves. It’s been a different way of doing things, but we’re still getting positive feedback from it.”
Snack variety is essential in a pantry, which includes healthier alternatives to traditional cookies, pastries and candy. Located in California’s Bay Area, Lenz is well positioned to be on the forefront of consumers’ ever-changing dietary preferences.
“As soon as we start to see a trend, we try to learn about it and identify what snacks we have that already fit within it,” she said. “Gluten-free and vegan were huge for a while but now it's keto. Still, you don't want to convert everything in the pantry and reset the product mix all at once. We try to educate people through labeling and signage on what items they already have that conform to the trend.”
When it comes to attitudes toward pantry service, there are three categories into which companies fall: those that are sure they want it; those that don’t want it; and those trying to decide if pantry service is right for them. Tammy Stokes, vice president of refreshment services at Five Star Food Service, uses a combination of data and promotions to aid the decision-making process.
“We have to educate the client and get them to understand what's going on in their market and the overall industry,” she said. “You need to look at the client’s competitors and what they’re doing, and then you can be a good consultant and perhaps offer some best practices to bring snacks, food and pantry in as a culture changer.”
Stokes recalled recently installing a pantry for a company that was bringing back workers for the first time since the pandemic began. “They had never had pantry and snacks before,” she said. “We kept it limited in the beginning; about eight SKUs crossing all dayparts while their café was shut down. We did a huge reopening and were on site with coffee, cold brew and snacks, and we gave away prizes.”
Stokes strongly advises operators to engage clients on location when selling a pantry service.
As a product broker, Michael Kelley, national account project manager of Burdette Beckmann Inc., fulfills multiple roles in the creation and maintenance of a pantry service. He advises any operator trying to break into the pantry segment to work closely with their broker on product strategies.
“Brokers are an extension of our supplier partners in the field,” he observed. “We are consultants to operators, suppliers and distributors. We provide them with product knowledge and category information to help them make better selections for their pantries, vending and micro markets.”
Given their position in the industry, brokers like Kelley are uniquely qualified to enable businesses to make informed decisions.
“With the supply chain issues that are going on right now, we must be very selective on the products we’re recommending, so we rely heavily on the information provided by the suppliers,” Kelly said. “We're also able to see the trends not only on a national basis, but a regional basis, as well, so it's helpful in making best practices for the clients.”
As with micro markets, vending and office coffee, running a successful pantry service begins with understanding the demographics of a location. “There are massive differences between the generations,” explained Malcolm McAlpine, business manager of branded snacks and confections at Mondelēz International Vending.
“Boomers snack to reward themselves, Gen X to boost their mood, millennials to find comfort and Gen Z to relieve boredom,” McAlpine continued. “Different snacks resonate with different age groups, and you have to think very carefully about having the right mix of products for consumers.”
Although preferences vary by generation, there should be one common element in a pantry’s contents: it must offer nationally recognized brands. According to Nielsen data, the sale of branded snacks rose 9% during the pandemic while private-label foods decreased by the same margin. In times of uncertainty, McAlpine observed, these data suggest that people gravitate toward known and familiar products.
“If you're going to put a cookie in a pantry, it should be an OREO,” he advised. “It's the best-selling cookie in the world. And if you're going to offer a cheese cracker, you've got to have Cheez-It.”
With so many moving parts vital to a pantry service’s success, data are the only metric on which operators can rely, noted McAlpine, a 30-year CPG marketing veteran.
As people return to the workplace, concerns about COVID will linger. Apprehensions about safety within an office extend to the pantry. Bulk food and snack dispensers, a popular pantry display solution until the pandemic, may not be practical anytime soon.
“Exposed fresh food is not welcome anymore,” McAlpine said. “A safe environment is imperative. Low-contact, low-touch options are going to be preferred. Offering prepackaged and sealed sandwiches, salads and branded snacks is really, really important.”
Knowing consumers’ snacking habits at work can help operators build the perfect pantry service. To get your workplace snack service started—or restarted—check out Mondelēz’s Smart Snacking in Pantry Service Guide. To find more articles about office refreshments, micro markets and vending machines, visit the company’s insights channel.
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