Volume 3 | Issue 1 | Year 2007

Advance Brands LLC has developed a hugely successful formula: It brings the taste of the restaurant into consumer kitchens, delivered in user-friendly, graphic intense packaging. “When you combine restaurant-style food with great packaging, the last thing you need to figure out is how to market it,” says Bill McPherson, the Edmond, Okla.-based company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Nevertheless, Advance Brands markets well. Its product line caters to hurried, time-challenged customers who look for something that tastes great but reaches the dinner table with little fuss. “Our products are ideal for the busy moms who get the daily phone call, ‘what’s for dinner,’” comments Bridget Little, director of marketing services. “With our products in their freezer, they pull something out that is quick and easy to prepare, and they can take full credit.”

It’s a concept she refers to as “the new pantry.”

Advance Brand products are also geared toward consumers who regularly eat out at the fast-casual restaurants but who don’t have time to prepare similar fare at home. “We try and convey the message that our product is just as good,” says McPherson. “As carry-out is a fast-growing segment, we have a huge market to capitalize on.”

Advance Brands’ two product lines – Fast Fixin’ and Fast Classics – include food items made with chicken, beef and pork. “As far as market position, we are the number-three, fully cooked poultry brand in the United States, right behind Tyson and Banquet,” reveals McPherson. “We are also the third brand in fully cooked meat.”

In all, Advance Brands creates more than 150 restaurant-style, fully-cooked, frozen, convenience chicken and meat products within its two product lines. “Fast Fixin’ is geared towards children,” indicates McPherson. “The line includes things you’d see on the kids’ menu in a restaurant, such as chicken nuggets and chicken strips. Fast Classics is essentially the kinds of things an adult would order at fast-casual type of restaurants such as Chili’s, Appleby’s and T.G.I. Friday’s.”

“Fast Classics is more whole muscle, like five-ounce, fully cooked chicken breasts, chicken tenders, steak fingers and country fried steaks,” adds Little. “It includes the kind of items consumers would make if they had more time. We give them the time.”

In addition to the aforementioned items, the product lines include beef meatballs, Italian-style meatballs, flame roasted chicken breasts, honey BBQ wings and Buffalo wings, fully cooked beef burgers, and thin-sliced sirloin beef – not to mention the Dino Bites, a fun-shaped chicken nugget that allows children the opportunity to bite the heads off of dinosaurs.

Marriage of Convenience

Advance Brand’s growth and rise to the higher-echelon market positions proceeded at a rather brisk pace. The company was established in 2001, when the Advance Food Company, a leading manufacturer of meat products founded in 1973, joined forces with Excel Specialty Products, a subsidiary of Cargill. “Advance Brands arose from the needs of both companies,” relates McPherson. “Cargill needed help with sales and marketing and Advanced Foods was out of capacity. The capacity issue was solved, because Cargill contributed a plant located in Orange City, Iowa, and Advance Foods provided the sales and marketing team.”

Cargill was especially intrigued by how Advance Brands was able to sell branded products. “We have been a front runner as far as providing high-quality, graphic-intense packaging in a resealable pouch,” says Little.

As Advance Brands developed, tray packaging soon led into bag packaging, a company hallmark. “We looked into our product categories and did a focus-group survey that revealed that consumers wanted to purchase such products in bags,” says McPherson.

At the time, for the food categories that Advance purveyed, bulky boxes dominated the packaging style, at least in the conventional grocery stores. “Consumers indicated they liked a resealable bag, because it was user friendly and didn’t take up too much freezer space,” says Little.

Also, as far as price, they felt they were getting a good deal with a larger bag. “Once we figured all of that out, we went to work on the packaging and design, trying to come up with something that would jump right out at the consumers,” says McPherson.

Facility Expansion Accommodates Growth

For the most part, Advance Brands products are made in its Orange City, Iowa plant, a facility that recently underwent a $20-million expansion to accommodate the company’s substantial growth, which typically exceeds 20 percent each year, according to McPherson.

The project tripled production capacity. “In a nutshell, the expansion involved installation of new technology, such as a new fry line, char line and a mega-line that is faster than any other product line currently available in the United States,” says McPherson.

“To put it in laymen’s terms, we can punch out more chicken nuggets than anyone in the United States right now,” adds Little.“We wanted to do it right, and now we have a state-of-the-art facility,” says McPherson.

The facility also houses R&D, quality assurance, purchasing and human resources offices. Currently, production is centered in the Iowa facility, but Advance Brands also utilizes the plants owned by the parent companies.

Converting Trends into Retail

Advance Brands’ products are sold throughout the country in retail supermarkets and club stores such as Wal-Mart Super Centers, Sam’s Club, Smart & Final, Kroger, Albertsons, ACME and Cub Foods.

Specifically, Advance Brands targets it products to the restaurant consumer, particularly anything in its Fast Classics line. “That’s a growing segment of the business, so we look out for the hot trends in the fast-casual restaurants, and we convert that into a retail product,” says McPherson. “For instance, there has been an explosion of boneless chicken wings. They’re on just about every menu now.”

Appropriately, Advance Brands recently introduced its own version. Also, last year, it introduced on-the-go cheeseburgers. “We try to reproduce the most popular, fast-food carry-out product,” says McPherson, “but the cheeseburger proved difficult, because you need to develop a product that will microwave well, without the meat or the bun getting hard. Once we perfected the product and rolled it out, it has been a big hit for us.”

As far as other major trends, Advance Brands is turning its focus to nutritional products. “Healthy foods is the biggest trend right now,” says Little.

Advance Brands is addressing that issue by reducing sodium levels and enriching its products with calcium. In addition, the products are low in fat and contain 0 grams trans fat per serving. Once again, the message is conveyed through packaging. “Our packages have call-outs on the front panel that alert consumers about the nutritional benefits that they would want to know about,” says Little. “You see this kind of packaging in the cereal aisles of grocery stores, but it hasn’t really been present in the meat section yet. We’re taking it there.”

At the same time, the company won’t sacrifice flavor at the altar of nutritional goodness. “We would never put out anything that didn’t taste good,” stresses Little. “After all, we are consumers, too. So we know what people want. We’ll taste-test everything, to make sure that the taste is there along with the nutritional benefits.”

“I don’t care what a company can do to its foods,” says McPherson. “It can have the healthiest product available, but if it doesn’t taste good, it simply won’t sell. You may get some initial sales, but you won’t get any repeats.”

And Advance Brands has been thriving on repeats. As Little indicates, success all comes down to quality. “That’s our number-one initiative,” she points out.

Indeed, the company’s stated mission is to marry convenience with the highest degree of quality possible. Further, the company stands behind its product. Indeed, a satisfaction guarantee is boldly placed upon the company’s innovative and effective packaging design.