How Old is Your Food?


Ok, so this my rant on shelf-life… b/c frankly, for details that I won’t go into, I’m really angry right now. So, yeah, I’m blogging about it right now, as well…

As a business owner who hand-makes her own products with fresh ingredients, I’m finding it increasingly weird that a month shelf life is considered short in food retail. How long do foods usually sit on the shelf… that we pay money for… and put into our bodies (or put on our shelves at home for even longer amount of time)?

There are some products that are usually understood to have a short shelf-life, but the idea that chocolates go bad barely registers; it’s the curse of a naturally average, but not interminably long shelf-life, that can be extended with meddling… and that people have become used to. So, now we’re stuck with displays in grocery stores of chocolates like Godiva whose ingredients are engineered to last, with taste and texture as side considerations. Really, a box of 4 month old funky, dried-out chocolates with an ingredient list the size of my hand is supposed to be considered a gift? An 8 month old candy bar is a snack to look forward to? A 1 year old tinned cake is special?

Most of the food that I make at home lasts, oh… 3 days? A week, rarely? And it tastes good for it.

I know this about how my products sell in stores — they sell best in stores where the owners and store employees:

A) Have actually tasted them before or after purchasing them

B) Have read the labels and description sheet that I give them

C) Appreciate the fact that they’re selling a fresh product that’s locally handmade with real ingredients that logically go bad after many days have gone by. It helps to display the products as such, rather than put them amongst products that have sat on the shelf for months and will continue to do so. And it seems they do not sell well standing upright in jars/tall vessels b/c it obscures their appearance and label, and candy bars aren’t usually sold that way so people aren’t used to looking in jars for them, and they have to take the effort to pick it out of the jar to figure out what it is, and all that manhandling mars their appearance as well.

D) Actually talk to their customers because they sell what they like and their customers trust them.

E) Order small quantities that they reasonably expect to sell. They know their customers best. And I offer weekly deliveries.

They do great in those stores, and I’m happy that I know the store owners and I do almost anything they ask for to help the bars sell. Are those criteria so difficult to meet? Especially in “gourmet” stores with high prices?ร‚ย  This is why my “Where to Buy” list is short on my website.ร‚ย  For one or a combination of reasons, they don’t work in some stores, and I don’t aggressively pursue wholesale b/c there are too factors out of my control.

I want to be clear that I’m not simply blaming store owners. I work part-time in a store now, and I know something about what it’s like. It’s very hard. There’s a shaky economy, and there are slow days, or weeks, or months, and closures. And you shouldn’t have to talk to each customer that comes in. And you have a lot of products to look after. And there are some products that you make more money on than others. And the of point of packaging and product advertising is that the product can sell themselves. And they’re used to ordering in large quantities. And $5 is a lot for candy bars and $6 is a lot for marshmallows, and not everyone walks into a store wanting to buy them. And I know that not everyone will love my products (but a lot of people do). And days, weeks, months fly by.

It’s just that I’m never going to try to extend my shelf life beyond what is reasonable. Think about taking a container of cream, or milk, or butter out of your refrigerator, and letting it sit on the counter for a month. And then eating it. The chemistry of food combinations, heat, and packaging allows products made of such ingredients to last for a certain amount of time, but it’s really kind of a miracle and that doesn’t obscure the fact that there are fresh ingredients in there that, no matter what, taste best fresh.

A main advantage of my business is the focus on freshness. I’m really amazed that freshness in this area is actually novel. Even if products will be “fine” after 2 months, they’re not going to be the best that they can be b/c they’re simply not fresh and are furthermore full or ingredients that are there for preserving rather than flavor. I’m not going to put in all my hardwork for a business like that.

The only other option that I see (and have seen from the beginning) is to focus on selling them directly. It’s the only way that I can guarantee freshness. The majority of my sales have been directly from my website and phone calls, so I’m thrilled that most of the people who have eaten BonBonBars have gotten them fresh from me. They’re sent out the day after they’re made.

I’ve been reluctant to sell at farmers markets for practical reasons – I drive a very small car that might not be able to fit the tent and table, I’m pretty small myself so carrying and setting up the tent and table would be difficult, and chocolates melt in the sun.

But after successfully dealing with other issues that have come up, I’m going to go for it. If it’s too hot for the chocolates to be out (which it pretty much already is this year), I’m going to sell them out of a cooler as Frozen Candy Bars, which are delicious, too. And my marshmallows and soon-to-be-released caramels will be fine. I think I can make a cool display.

And I love interacting with customers! It’s really the best part of the job. It’s so interesting to get to know people who like the bars, and what else they like, and just the whole thing.

A lot of LA farmers markets are full, though, or are only accepting vendors that fit into their current mix, so I have to find a suitable one that has an opening for me.

I still want to sell them for special events and parties, too, but figuring out the packaging for that (eco-friendly, unique, adjustable) has been proven to be tricky. And a lot of those sales depend on word of mouth, which I’ve been lucky enough to have great experience with, but it can’t really be forecasted.

And the other option is to open my own store… That’s the rather modest goal. It may take a while, but I’m working on it. ๐Ÿ™‚

15 Responses to “How Old is Your Food?”

  1. Leah Says:

    Of course, you raise a lot of very valid points, but I keenly suspect that — with your blog’s audience — you’re preaching to the converted. Still, a good “vent” is sometimes the best thing for a person.

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s great that you use real, fresh ingredients. Despite what you’re hearing from store owners, I think there’s an increasing push to return to honest-to-goodness, perishable foods, so you’re definitely making a product that consumers are becoming more and more interested in.

    I hope your business works out — it’s encouraging to see someone who puts so much hard work and care into it succeed.

  2. fattypr Says:

    AWWW!

    I’m so sorry you are somehow being given a hard time about one of the best things about your bars! I do have to say I liked reading your rant, but I do sympathize. I have a habit of keeping some sweets in the fridge for VERY long (partly b/c my fam has a habit of buying me too much) and after a short while the joy of eating them goes. That has never been the case with your bars though. So don’t change a thing (i’m gald you say you never will).

  3. fattypr Says:

    And I wish I could come and see your stall at the farmers’ market!!!

  4. Nina Says:

    Leah – Thanks! Yeah, and personally, I never really thought of the implications of the long shelf life thing… Now when I go grocery shopping, I’m probably going to find myself wondering how long ago everything that I buy was made, though I guess don’t buy too much pre-packaged stuff.

    And I agree that people are looking for fresh, perishable products. I understand that it’s difficult to position them in stores as such if they’re not refrigerated, but short of a “Perishable — in a good way!” sign, I wish that something more could be done.

    FattyPR – Thanks! Yeah, and it’s hard on the storeowners, too. A couple of them seemed to really, honestly love them and admire them, but just couldn’t (or didn’t take the time to…) figure out how to sell them.

    And I hope I get a stall soon!

  5. David Says:

    Yes, the shelf life issue can be a problem. Some people seem to be better able to understand it than others, and in my limited experience trying to explain it, the younger someone is, the more likely they are to understand or accept it. For whatever reason, older people, especially those that were influenced by the post-war advances in industrial manufacturing, are less likely to understand why you can’t make a bon bon with the same shelf life of a box of Whitman’s Sampler “chocolates”.

    The farmer’s market seems like a great way of getting your products out to a wider audience that is more likely to be looking for fresh food and willing to accept the short shelf life. They’re probably going to the market every week so if they can’t stock up on a year’s worth of BonBonBars at one visit it’s probably not a deal-breaker for them (especially once you’re able to get a permanent stall). At least two of the local chocolatiers here got started selling at the farmer’s market and built up their customer base there before opening their retail stores. If I go commercial with my confections, I’ll probably do the same thing.

    I realize you’re trying to be as eco-friendly with your packaging as possible, so the following suggestion may not work for you, but I’ll throw it out for consideration. One suggestion for dealing with hot days that I read elsewhere, from someone who sells chocolates at farmer’s markets, is to keep them in a cooler (not frozen, just cool) and to keep a supply of homemade freezer packs (vacuum-seal bags of water and freeze them) that get sent home with the customer รขโ‚ฌโ€ like the frozen gel packs the fishmonger sends me home with, but less expensive and wasteful (although I take the gel packs back the following week to be reused, many customers don’t).

  6. Nina Says:

    David – It’s true about shelflife expectations. And I’ve even had people eat old bars and say that they’re fine, but I know they’re way past their prime and I would never sell them like that. Such a shame that standards can be so low!

    I really regret not selling at Farmer’s Markets sooner for the reasons that you mention — it really is the perfect crowd for them… and whenever I do a demo or talk to customers face to face, they sell really well and I have really good conversation. I’m so happy to hear two farmers markets to retail successes!

    I like the idea of the homemade freezer packs. I get my gel packs that I use for shipping for a quarter each, so I could also charge a quarter each for them to take home… and if they bring them back to me, I’ll give them their quarter back. I don’t have a vacuum-sealer, though to make ice packs myself, but maybe ziploc bags would work? I could give those away for free.

  7. Jessica Says:

    This was a real issue I had with where I used to work. People paid good money for “fresh” organic baked goods and chocolates that were past their prime. Yes, in theory a chocolate will stay edible for a month or so, but when you are charging upwards of $10 per 100gr it should be fresh. As a result a particular brand of quality, handmade chocolates had a very poor turnover. The individuals willing to spend that money were often dissapointed by the quality. (I can not tell you how embarassing it was when someone came back after having discovered that the chocolates she had bought as a gift for a third party were spoiled!)

  8. Nina Says:

    Jessica – This is very close to one of the issues that gets me so irate. To be told by a store that, in effect, they would keep selling them if it wasn’t for the unremovable expiration date that I wrote on the back is just disrespectful towards their customers and me. It’s not like I arbitrarily write on a date — they spoil and will only anger customers and reflect poorly on my products. And to feel no guilt about charging full price (or anything at all!) and encouraging anyone (including staff) to even eat them is mind-boggling. Grrrr… I could go on and on about this…

  9. Mr. Shain Says:

    yay for emotional blogging!

  10. Bek Says:

    At the Oakland Grand Lake Farmer’s market Peter Brydon sells his line of chocolates: http://www.barloventochocolates.com/
    I am pretty sure that he keeps them in a cooler with gel packs, but they are not frozen. He is always willing to talk to me about his chocolate, therefore he might be a good resource for you.

  11. Nina Says:

    haha yeah…. no more steady-as-it-goes chocolatier ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Verena Says:

    Fresh chocolate definitely makes a great difference, and I’m sure customers would be willing to pay more for products that use fresh and natural ingredients (not chemicals that I can’t pronounce the name of) – at least I would!

    I really enjoyed meeting and talking to you the other day – you beamed with joyful excitement :D. Thank you so much again. Now I’ve got to try your BonBonBars as soon as possible, while they’re still fresh and pristine … but I’m sure they’re tasty any way!

  13. Nina Says:

    It was really nice to meet you, too…. and yes, taste them asap!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Verena Says:

    I did! I was gonna sample a small chunk of the Orange Bar last night for dessert, but it was SOOOO good that I ended up gobbling the entire piece. The flavor of the orange was so fragrant with floral hints and the caramel was really smooth; it melded nicely with the soft and fluffy nougat, which was almost meringue-like … definitely one of the best nougats I’ve ever had.

    Thanks again for bringing sheer bliss! Maybe I should leave a proper comment for your testimonials! ๐Ÿ˜›

  15. Nina Says:

    Bek – Thanks for the tip — his website looks great. I’ll keep him in mind for farmers market resources. And I’ll see whether I’ll sell frozen or cold. Frozen may be refreshing for the summer, but opening and closing the cooler may end up making me sell cool bars by the end of the day. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Verena – Good! Thanks so much!! I’m always a little concerned about the Orange bar b/c it’s a bit untraditional — you’re right, more floral and complex, not straight-on orange — but I think it’s cool that way.

    Actually, that’s a great quote for my testimonials… I’d be happy to add it! ๐Ÿ™‚

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