Cooking up a treat in packaging at Sara Lee

Packaging Professional magazine
13 Nov 2009
Sara Lee's Simple Sweets

The Kitchens of Sara Lee, a 120,000sqft centre at Downers Grove, USA, opened earlier this year, bringing together 100 packaging designers, engineers, scientists and chefs under one roof for the first time. Meagan Ellis spoke to Glenn Ventrell, Director of Packaging Innovation and Development, about the firm’s plans for the future.

At the heart of Sara Lee’s base in Downers Grove, USA, chefs and engineers are cooking up new recipes for food and beverages and their associated packaging. The aromas of Sara Lee’s ingredients are hopefully feeding the creative juices of the firm’s packaging developers.

‘The benefit of having these different departments under one roof is the synergies that have become involved with it,’ explains Glenn Ventrell, Director of Packaging Innovation and Development. This, he says, has resulted in more input from all into the packaging design process and with faster turnaround times from design to production of two to three months.

‘The packaging team works closely with product developers and chefs to ensure the package works with the [food] inside. The final packaging is a combination of consumer insights and the cross-functional team.’

Ventrell adds, ‘We have [also] been able to get some new equipment [such as prototyping machinery for plastic and paper cartons and shipping cases] that we wouldn’t have been able to get if we were scattered across North America’.

A ‘green’ agenda?

A major focus of research at the Kitchens of Sara Lee is sustainability, says Ventrell. The company intends to reduce all packaging by 10% in the next six years. The group is also looking to use recycled PET in its food-grade packs, which has not been used by the firm before.

For example, it aims to have 30% of its Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls made from recycled plastics by the end of 2009. This follows a ‘rejig’ of the bowls earlier this year that saw the handles removed and the height taken down by two millimetres. This has reduced the number of shipment trucks required to carry the product by 235 a year and has cut greenhouse gases by 94,000lbs.

Customer insight is the most important factor to keep in mind when designing a new pack, says Ventrell. ‘When we were looking to make the Jimmy Dean bowl more sustainable, we tested with consumers to see if they really needed handles. Intuitively we thought they did, but what we found was that it didn’t make a difference, and they were handling [the trays] differently than how we thought.’

Biodegradable materials are another area of investigation, although Ventrell notes that a material that can biodegrade in a commercial landfill has not been found yet, making its use in Sara Lee products unlikely in the near future.

Zappable materials

Materials development, such as in microwaveable substrates, is ongoing. One of company’s dessert offerings, Simple Sweets, is a pre-baked pie that can be microwaved at home (image above). This was previously offered in a coated aluminium tray, but Ventrell says customers did not respond well to it due to preconceived ideas about the microwaveable abilities of the material.

He explains, ‘We’ve learned a lot more about microwave technology over the last year or two, and we’ve gone away from tin to a paperboard. We worked to get the right design that would evenly heat the pie’.

The tray structure is a combination of film (metallised PET and gauge foil) and paper-based layers that are manufactured separately and then laminated together. The pack also contains the MicroRite susceptor and shielding technology from Graphic Packaging International.

Ventrell says this composite ‘produces the desired microwave baking characterisitics, tailored for this pie. There are materials that increase the browning of the crust and others that evenly heat the internal contents of the pie eliminating hot and cold spots’.

This represents the first use of the technology by Sara Lee, and the upgraded Simple Sweets packaging was launched this summer. ‘There was a slight increase in the cost of materials, but the positive consumer experience was worth [it]. Complaints about uneven heating stopped [and] there was no cost increase to the consumer.’ This technology could be rolled out to other products if needed.

Further information: Sara Lee