Local company appears to market a winning product

October 18, 2010
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Editor’s note: Cole’s Quality Foods announced last week it plans to use an aggressive social and online media campaign to introduce and promote “That’s Dinner!” The company’s website, www.coles.com, features a landing page dedicated to the new product that allows customers to download coupons, share photos and take part in a contest. Additionally, That’s Dinner! is featured in a YouTube video (www.youtube.com/user/ColesBreads) and consumers can join Cole’s on Facebook. Meals are being produced in the company’s plant in Muskegon and are now in the freezer sections of Meijer Inc. as well as Spartan Stores grocers.

For generations, pasta and bread products have been a part of family traditions from weeknight meals to holiday feasts. Busy families search for foods that are healthy, satisfying and economical, and Cole’s Quality Foods Inc. has introduced a product that combines pasta and bread into one easy, convenient brand.

Before I detail the brand, let’s explore our fascination with pasta and bread.

In responding to dietary guidance urging Americans to include more whole grains in their diets, manufacturers have introduced nutritionally enhanced pasta varieties fortified with omega-3 fatty acids and additional fiber. Some varieties of whole grain pasta can provide up to 25 percent of daily fiber requirements in a one cup portion.

Where did pasta originate? Popular legend has it that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy following his exploration of the Far East in the late 13th century; however, we can trace pasta back as far as the 4th century B.C. in Italy, thanks to an Etruscan tomb showing a group of people making what appears to be pasta. The Chinese were making a noodle-like food as early as 3,000 B.C., and Greek mythology suggests that the Greek god Vulcan invented a device that made strings of dough.

Pasta made its way to the New World by means of the English, who discovered it while touring Italy. Colonists brought to America the English practice of cooking noodles at least one-half hour, then smothering them with cream sauce and cheese. It was Thomas Jefferson who is credited with bringing the first “macaroni” machine to America in 1789 after serving as ambassador to France.

The first industrial pasta factory in America was built in Brooklyn in 1848 by, of all people, a Frenchman. By the turn of the century, the pasta industry had reached a growth point that triggered a large group of industry members to assemble for a discussion of manufacturing and marketing issues. The result of this meeting was the establishment of the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, which changed to the National Pasta Association in 1981. The popularity of pasta increased at a tremendous rate in the mid-1980s, and the USDA included pasta as one of the seven food groups in the Food Pyramid.

Bread, in one form or another, has been one of the principal forms of food for man from earliest times. Grown in Mesopotamia and Egypt, wheat was likely first merely chewed. Later it was discovered that it could be pulverized and made into a paste. Set over a fire, the paste hardened into flat bread that kept for several days. In Egypt, around 1,000 B.C., inquiring minds isolated yeast and introduced it directly to their breads. Also, a new strain of wheat was developed that allowed for refined white bread, which was truly modern bread. Loaves and rolls have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. In the British Museum’s Egyptian galleries, you can see loaves that were baked over 5,000 years ago. Wheat has been found in pits where human settlement flourished 8,000 years ago.

Bread continued to be important through history, as bread riots during the French Revolution attest. Today, even with the competition of a growing variety of foods, bread remains important to our diet and our psyche. It connotes importance, as when we say that some aspect of our work is “our bread and butter.”

We tend to include these two food products, pasta and bread, in a healthy, nutritious meal. It is just what Cole’s Quality Foods has done with its new brand: “That’s Dinner.”

L. Carroll Cole started the company as a bakery in 1943. Cole’s now is one of America’s leading manufacturers of frozen garlic bread. Other bread products the company distributes include breadsticks, cheese bread, Texas toast, pizzasticks and Cinnamonsticks. 

Cole’s is a Michigan-based company with two manufacturing facilities in Michigan and one in Iowa. Products are marketed under the Cole’s brand through grocery, warehouse and convenience stores nationwide. Cole’s also supplies frozen bread to customers in the food service industry and some items for private label accounts. In April 2010, Cole’s was named one of West Michigan’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For.

I visited John Sommavilla, CEO and president, and Ian Barrie, creative director, to learn more about the new product.

That’s Dinner! was rolled out after Labor Day. It has been labeled a “category-crossing” new product, since it combines pasta and bread. It offers a complete Italian dinner: two ounces of pasta (filled pasta to serve four), 16 ounces of marinara sauce and a mini-loaf of Cole’s famous garlic bread. Cole’s offers three choices of filled pastas: three cheese ravioli, cheese tortellini and beef ravioli.

The company conducted both quantitative and qualitative research that supported the product opportunity. The product scored high in four areas: perceived differentiation, purchase inclination, product assortment and price sensitivity. Those researched found the concept unique, the aroma appealing, the appearance positive, the texture and flavor excellent. It is easy to prepare and priced sensibly at $8.99, or $2.25 per person. I tried it and it met my high expectations. Why did I have those expectations?

I am in the 65 percent consumer market that has purchased Cole’s products and believe the quality to be excellent. The taste of all three foods was delicious, the cooking directions were easy to follow, it involved a short cooking time, and the price was right. The dinner is convenient for people who don’t have time to cook and want a quality dinner.

A closer examination of the company will explain why I think Cole’s has marketed “a winner.” Cole’s has three major areas: a retail business, food service (Gordon Foods) and a private label. The company’s strategic plan consists of its vision, mission, culture, corporate values (integrity, respect, performance of departments) accountability and profitability. The Cole’s culture emphasizes that people need to know where the company is going and what its goals are. Second, the company mantra includes continuous improvement, safety and through-put. Everything is measured utilizing metrics. Third, Cole’s is a top-line company through its innovative products, channels opened (Aldi’s, Save-a Lot) and by controlling its brands. Fourth is its goal of optimum profitability through innovation and developing a paperless strategy.

When I asked John Sommavilla about the company’s greatest strength, he replied: “The thing that makes us work is our adaptability.”

The new product targets young moms and families who are college educated, work and lead busy lives. Cole’s spent money researching consumers and then designed the product around the consumers’ insights. That’s Dinner is differentiated by having the bread included in the box. What is so exciting about that? The stats answer that question: Cole’s sells 12 million garlic breads a year. The product is a “flagship item,” as Sommavilla refers to it.

Coles has rolled out promos for the product on Facebook (contests, coupons), Moms Like Me website, YouTube, and in sweepstakes in New York/Little Italy. The promotional message is “Hello, Good Buy,” which plays on the value equation. The package is a bright, inviting red box. Cole’s uses Michigan suppliers (Lowell), the packaging is from Sparta, the boxes are printed in Grand Rapids, and the PR firm is local.

Cole’s competes in an industry of well-known companies: Pepperidge Farms, Marzetti (New York Garlic Bread). However, it has the largest share of the bread category. Its garlic bread certainly is the reason.

That’s Dinner anyone?

Maria Landon is affiliate professor in the marketing department at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman School of Business.

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