DALLAS —A surge in at-home eating during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has inspired curiosity and creativity in the kitchen, said Carl Motter, chief sales officer at Van’s Kitchen, a manufacturer of egg rolls for convenience, grocery and foodservice channels.
“Interestingly, people started using packaged food as an ingredient,” he said.
Bloggers and customers have deconstructed the company’s egg rolls, incorporated them into Vietnamese noodle dishes and even turned them into a pizza, he said.
The company saw an opportunity and seized it, giving some recipes a stamp of approval and sharing them with customers online.
“That's a huge connectivity with millennials, they love the creativity of food,” Mr. Motter said. “They don't want to be told, ‘Take this egg roll, go get rice and serve it with a dipping sauce.’ They really see food as being multi-dimensional and component-based, so we see a lot of that creativity from our younger consumers.”
Van’s Kitchen, the flagship brand of Van Oriental Food, supplies egg rolls to more than 5,000 grocery stores and hundreds of convenience stores nationwide, generating approximately $35 million in sales each year.
Customers are experimenting with egg rolls at a time when the company’s grocery business is booming. Roller grill and hot-bar offerings, typically a major area of the focus, have declined.
“Convenience stores have seen a slowdown in foot traffic due to less people driving to the office,” Mr. Motter said. “Trips are down, foot traffic is down, the amount of business they do in food is down.”
Regulations on direct-contact food differ by state and municipality. In some cases, retailers received no direction.
“There's been a variety of responses from total shutdown to rope off,” Mr. Motter said. “The pivot was when (operators) started to look at low-touch options. That's where a lot of our traditional grocery offerings became relevant.”
Van’s Kitchen’s grocery items include grab-and-go two-pack egg rolls, available in pork and chicken varieties. They come with a proprietary microwavable crisping sleeve.
“A crisping sleeve in a flow wrap package was actually a concept that one of our retail grocery clients came up with,” Mr. Motter said. “All they really have to do is take the product out of frozen, put a date code on it for refrigerated, and they can sell it in a cold case. They can actually sell it in one of their frozen doors if they want, it's really an either-or option for them.”
The company also has made a push to show convenience store retailers its four-count egg roll options, which come with sweet and sour sauce and a microwavable tray, and its family pack frozen chicken eggrolls, sold under the Confucius by Van’s brand.
The move away from roller grill and self-serve products toward touch-free packaged foods was a lesson in adaptability, Mr. Motter said.
“Suddenly all of our grocery clients’ orders started doubling and tripling, and we saw the same surge and bottleneck effect that a lot of people did,” Mr. Motter said. “Most of our items are pretty fresh, which means you must have a really good upstream supply chain serving vegetables, all the raw materials and the proteins. Our big challenges were when proteins started to have issues.”
The company managed to keep product in stock and production lines moving at its manufacturing plant in Dallas.
“It's been a challenge,” Mr. Motter said. “All of our forecast models, everything that we knew just went out the window. We went from quarterly plans all the way down to just weekly plans.”
With the worst of pandemic-related supply chain and logistical disruptions behind it, Van’s Kitchen now is using the creativity it saw from customers to chart a path forward.
“If you look at our company, we do one thing,” Mr. Motter said. “We make egg rolls. We're really trying to build on that expertise, looking at flavors and trends and how to bring in new experiences. We are looking at fusion-type items, something that works well in convenience store and in grocery stores, so that we can offer more customization and portability.”