Donna Berry

According to market research firm Technomic Inc., Chicago, sandwich-shop sales grew by about 9.5% in 2004 to $16.8 billion. Part of the reason for this growth is that such convenience sandwiches are high-quality and often, quite nutritious. Consumers are catching on that fast food does not have to mean junk food. Indeed, as many original fast-food chains struggle with sales of their traditional fare, marketers willing to combine convenience with quality or nutrition, or better yet, both, are attracting consumers and their businesses are booming.

This is best exemplified by what Starbucks did for coffee. Fast-food chains have always sold coffee-to-go, but it was the convergence with quality that gave new meaning to convenience coffee.

Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, Salt Lake City, Utah, is doing the same with yogurt. Mrs. Fields owns TCBY Systems, which recently launched Yovana™, a new quick-service concept designed to meet consumers' increasing demand for fresh, healthy and convenient foods throughout the day.

Yovana's offerings center on premium yogurt, prepared fresh in the store every day. In a venue that's hip and relaxing (thanks Starbucks for the idea), yogurt lovers can choose from a range of made-to-order meals and snacks, including fresh yogurt parfaits, drinkable yogurt smoothies and frozen yogurt treats that feature seasonally fresh fruit and organic wholegrain granolas.

"We're leading a 'culture' change," says David Hall, v.p. of marketing for TCBY. "Yovana feeds consumers' growing hunger for yogurt and provides them with smart choices for eating healthy when they are away from home."

Hall says that according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago, yogurt is the 15th largest grocery category in the United States, and also one of the fastest growing consumer product categories, growing more than 6% in 2003.

"We believe this trend will continue, given the lifestyle and nutrition needs of today's consumers, and we expect consumers will demand increasingly high-quality yogurt," says Hall. "Yovana is the first and only shop of its kind to prepare yogurt fresh, in the store, everyday, so consumers can enjoy the highest quality, premium yogurt available."

The combination of fresh, high-quality yogurt, fresh fruits and the shop's nirvana-like atmosphere are designed to transcend the typical quick-serve experience, explains Hall. "We're providing yogurt lovers with great-tasting, smart choices for healthy eating in an environment that allows consumers to restore, relax and revive mind, body and spirit."

TCBY is likely onto something, as the store parallels the evolving juice smoothie shop concept. For example, Smoothie King, New Orleans, franchises the premier Smoothie Bar and Nutritional Lifestyle Center. The centers offer nutritional fruit and function-based, fresh-blended smoothies. Each Lifestyle Center also offers healthy retail product solutions, including sport beverages, energy bars, healthy snacks, vitamin supplements, herbs, minerals and other sports nutrition products.

Recently, Smoothie King introduced new smoothie offerings called "Smoothies Around the World." These new smoothies are made from exotic fruits and herbs, providing the opportunity for customers to experience unique flavors native to far-off locales, including the Amazon, China, Indonesia and the Himalayas.

"With Smoothies Around the World, we're taking our knowledge of blending the perfect smoothie and incorporating exotic fruits and herbs to create a taste that goes beyond the ordinary," says Steve Kuhnau, Smoothie King founder. "In addition to the fresh taste, each of the new smoothies are all-natural and nutrient-dense."

New smoothie flavors include: Acai Adventure, Green Tea Tango, Passion Passport, Go Goji and Mangosteen Madness. Smoothie King is the first smoothie bar to offer goji and mangosteen on its menu.

What are the purported benefits of consuming these fruits?

Goji, which tastes like a mix of cherries and cranberries, is a good source of antioxidants, minerals and amino acids, and is said to help improve metabolism and increase energy levels. Mangosteen, which is described as having a hint of strawberries, kiwi, pomegranate or grape, contains a high number of xanthones. These are very powerful antioxidants that can help support and strengthen the immune system and improve digestion.

Acai, too, is not an ordinary smoothie ingredient. It is extremely high in antioxidants and an excellent source of omega-6 fatty acids, which are said to help increase stamina and improve concentration. Acai has a taste similar to a combination of berries and chocolate.

Both the Green Tea Tango and Acai Adventure smoothies incorporate a dairy component. Green Tea Tango is made with frozen vanilla yogurt, as well as a proprietary protein blend, which includes whey protein. Acai Adventure incorporates the same protein blend.

For consumers craving fruit and yogurt, but don't have time to stop, Wells' Dairy Inc., Le Mars, Iowa, is currently rolling out Lite 85® Yogurt Smoothies. With less than 85 calories per 7-oz bottle, Lite 85 smoothies blend together fruit and nonfat yogurt for an indulgence everyone can enjoy, even while watching their weight. Blue Bunny's Lite 85 smoothies are available in four tantalizing flavors: strawberry banana, vanilla pear, strawberry and raspberry.

And, Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook, Ore., adds two fruity flavors to its Tillamook® yogurt cup line. Cherry Vanilla is a smooth, refreshing blend of cherries and vanilla, and Orchard Harvest contains a flavorful mixture of fruits including peaches, apples and pears.

(Take note: pear is an "in" flavor.)

For consumers who have time to go through a drive thru, Wendy's has added a low-fat, strawberry-flavored yogurt cup with granola to its menu.

"Earlier this year, we introduced fresh fruit bowl, which features high-quality, premium fruit and a great-tasting yogurt for dipping. Based on the positive feedback we've received from customers, we have decided to offer yogurt as a separate menu option," says Tom Mueller, president, Wendy's North America, Dublin, Ohio. "It's another example of how we are continuing to evolve and expand our menu to give our customers more choices that are tasty and nutritious."

The suggested retail price for Wendy's 6.85-oz yogurt with granola is $1.29.

Let's not forget that it is back-to-school time. Have it be for a running-out-the-door breakfast, a sack lunch, an after school treat or assigned snack day, busy parents are seeking out foods and beverages described as convenient, nutritious and quality.

In efforts to appeal to these requirements, Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo Inc. is building its non-carbonated beverage portfolio with a line of flavored milk beverages called Quaker™ Milk Chillers™. Made with 2% reduced-fat milk and fortified with calcium and seven essential vitamins, Quaker Milk Chillers come in three flavors: chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. Roll-out coincided with back-to-school promotions, with product debuting in stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic during the second week of August.

"Many people want the health benefits of milk but they don't like the taste of plain milk. Quaker Milk Chillers enable them to get many of milk's nutrients in the form of a great-tasting beverage without all of the calories and sugar found in most flavored milks," says Chad Dick, dir. of marketing innovation, Pepsi-Cola North America. "So when it's time for a snack, we hope people will reach for Quaker Milk Chillers rather than a cookie or a candy bar."

Aseptically packaged in 14-oz single-serve plastic bottles, these new milk drinks are distributed at ambient temperature. They are intended for refrigerated sales in convenience stores, grocery stores, drug stores, mass merchandisers, school vending machines and select foodservice accounts. Sweetened with a blend of natural and no-calorie sweeteners, including sucrose, sucralose and acesulfame potassium, the beverages have a similar nutritional profile to plain 2% reduced-fat milk-an 8-oz serving is 130-140 calories, depending on flavor. Quaker Milk Chillers qualify for PepsiCo's Smart Spot™ symbol because they contain 45-50% less sugar than the leading flavored milks and are an excellent source of calcium.

And here's a twist on school breakfast.

Breakfast Breaks™ from East Side Entrees, Woodbury, N.Y., can be served in school cafeterias, in classrooms and even right off the school bus. Many schools leaders are hoping that Breakfast Breaks will increase participation in the federally funded National School Breakfast Program.

Breakfast Breaks is East Side Entrees' response to the need for more nutritious choices for school children. Available nationwide, each boxed meal includes a cereal bowl pack, an additional bread/grain snack serving and a serving of 100% fruit juice. Served with milk, it provides a complete, nutritious breakfast that meets the government requirements for key nutrients for children. Offered in seven different varieties, one menu, for example, includes Honey Nut Cheerios®, animal crackers and Mott's® apple juice.

"No preparation is necessary. The school foodservice staff gives each student a Breakfast Breaks package and a milk and they are good to go," says Gary Davis, CEO of East Side Entrees.

Breakfast Breaks was introduced to school foodservice directors at the School Nutrition Association's annual conference this past summer. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

"We want to increase our school breakfast participation and Breakfast Breaks is going to be the way to do it," says Demetrious Giovas, foodservice director for Gadsden Independent School District, Anthony, N.M. "We have good participation in our breakfast program, but because of transportation issues such as long bus rides, some kids have only 10 minutes before class so they can't stand in line. We need to address this problem with a quick, ready-to-eat meal. I think we will increase our school breakfast participation by at least 20% by offering Breakfast Breaks."

This, of course, gets more milk into kids' diets, too.

Nearly 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program each day, yet only nine million now start the day by eating a nutritious breakfast at school. Schools are looking for more ways to reach more children to bridge this gap.

It's all about convenience, quality and nutrition. And, with kids, one more attribute is important-fun. To appeal to students, Breakfast Breaks are packaged in bright, colorful grab-and-go boxes and include "Play Bucks" that kids can collect and redeem for fun prizes.

That's right, fun, is important, too. This is why Oberweis Dairy, North Aurora, Ill., is putting ice cream fun into party planning. Indeed, there's a whole new way to party thanks to an "in-the-box" innovation by Oberweis. The company now markets two ice cream party boxes. Crowd Pleasers is for office functions, birthday parties, book club get-togethers, etc. For kids, there is Be A Party Animal. The kits come in a cardboard box, and are customized to meet the occasion's needs. Kits can accommodate 10 to 50 people, with customers able to choose from any of Oberweis' 24 ice cream flavors. They also have their choice of hard or liquid toppings; whipped cream and cherries are included. Kits come with napkins and spoons. Cones are an option.

"We've been helping customers with ice cream parties for years, but now customers don't have to do any work themselves," says Mark Vance, v.p. of marketing. "The initial response from the business community has been tremendous. The Crowd Pleasers kit is great for employee appreciation celebrations or for salespeople entertaining clients." The party animal kit includes coloring books, activity placemats, crayons and happy cow finger puppets. "It's truly an ice cream party in a box."

The cost of the kits ranges from $55 to $200. Orders must be pre-ordered by contacting a store manager.

So, remember, today's consumer want convenience. Nutrition, quality and a bit of fun are the icing on the cake!