Daring New Direction
By Andy Hanacek
After a century-plus of steady product development and growth, Dare Foods has changed its course dramatically and is kicking it into high gear.
Years ago, German car manufacturer Volkswagen kicked off an advertising campaign titled, “Drivers Wanted.” It’s a sales pitch communicating that people who live for driving — recklessly or otherwise — and who aren’t afraid to jerk the steering wheel and take the road less traveled are the perfect owners for Volkswagen vehicles.
Right about the time Volkswagen launched that campaign, Kitchener, Ontario-based Dare Foods, a 110-year-old cookie, cracker and candy manufacturer, was looking for its own driver.
Dare needed someone to steer the rock-solid, ages-old company in the new millennium with aggressiveness and a new spin that would boost the bakery and candy operations, all the while keeping the company finely tuned to what worked well in the past.
“[The Dare family] had led the company to a certain point and realized to get to the next level, they needed a different kind of direction,” explains Bruce Barber, Dare’s vice president of marketing, bakery divisions. Dare also had acquired Culinar Inc., the cookie, fine bread and soup business owned by Montreal-based Saputo, Inc., a move that effectively doubled Dare’s Canadian business and gave it the second largest retail market share in the cookie category in Canada. (Dare later sold the soup line because it did not fit in the company’s plans.)
The driver given the keys to the “family car” was current company president Fred Jaques, who previously had led Labatt Breweries’ North American division and Kellogg Co.’s Canadian operations and U.S. Cereal division. Jaques brought his roadmap, his own pit crew and his driving gloves and has taken the company on a wild (and successful) ride during his time at the wheel.
“The winds of change arrived with him, and it’s been challenging, because a lot of things had to happen,” Barber says.
Through an aggressive “tune-up” schedule that has, at times, even been hashed out over dinner on a napkin, Dare has whittled away semi-productive brands, consolidated operations and, most importantly, shifted the company’s efforts to marketing and brand innovation and renovation, without losing sight of keeping the quality in the products and in the company.
As Jaques explains: “Integrity, honesty, hard work, passion for food quality is very high here, coming from [the family], who ran the company for many years and really embedded the belief that the only food worth making is high quality.”
The early success of this new direction has Dare thinking even bigger — first of solidifying its standing in Canada, and then of traveling south of the border and immersing itself more in the U.S. market.
It’s not that Dare Foods was relegated to traveling along the back roads of the bakery industry during its first 110 years of operation. It has had license to drive with the big boys and remains No. 2 in the cookie and cracker categories in Canada. That was quite an accomplishment for a smaller business like Dare, and Jaques says it’s one of the main challenges daily at the company.
“How does a little, private food business like ours win against our big competitors in the game of new products and innovation?” he asks. “How do we bring better, smarter brands with significantly lower resources, because we’re never going to outspend our major competitors?”
One way Dare has found success over the decades has been to focus on the superior quality of its products, a plus with consumers that built the name in Canada. Since Jaques took the wheel, that successful focus remains, but with a minor adjustment.
“We hadn’t spent a lot of money on brand building, brand awareness [in the past],” Jaques says. “People look at the company and think, ‘I’m aware of Dare, but I hadn’t really heard from them recently.’ And that’s the kind of latent opportunity to rebuild a little bit … and surprise the consumer with how broad and how good our products are.”
And that’s why Jaques, who is the first non-member of the Dare family to run the operation, was brought in, “to bring large, multinational, packaged-goods experience to a fourth-generation family business,” in his words.
For ages, Dare has relied upon the top quality of the food to carry the weight of promoting its many brands — too many, in the eyes of Jaques, who has the company consolidating its product line.
Yet, even though Jaques has not turned the company completely around, only actually altering its course a bit, he needed help moving the beast.
“We brought in skills that we needed to evolve the company to a consumer-based organization, people to evolve it to a customer focus,” he says. “So there’s a nice mix. It’s important to protect the culture. We don’t want someone to come in and change everything — you make sure you see what’s working well and add to it, nurture it, mentor it to improve it.”
Barber was one member of the “pit crew” Jaques brought in to help navigate the company through its tune-up, and Barber has brought to Dare a new spin on marketing the products, an approach he calls “The Dare Way.” It doesn’t focus on Dare’s name, but puts the emphasis on each individual brand.
“It’s a matter of assessing, first and foremost, what does your brand stand for, what’s the position in the marketplace?” Barber explains. “So we start with that, and in the example of Breton, it’s the ‘Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cracker.’ That’s something that consumers say about the product, and it’s something that’s very unique versus any other cracker in the marketplace.”
The marketing department then looks at what the goals of the individual brand are. Barber says, as far as Breton goes, trial is the main goal.
Dare then goes about promoting the brand, through print advertising, free-standing inserts and other means, even dabbling into TV, having run a very successful (but expensive) TV campaign for Breton in Denver.
Of course, in the end, the long-standing quality of the product wins out as the best promotional tool of all.
Dare’s latest success, its new, trans fat-free Bear Paws line of cookies, is one way in which the company has proven that it can work on both innovation and renovation of product at the same time. While the company was culling brands that no longer were worth the time and effort, Bear Paws, a unique combination of the three things Barber believes consumers are looking for today, were in development.
“We see the consumer trends following three basic areas: convenience, nutrition [and] taste or indulgence,” Barber explains. “On Bear Paws, I think we literally nailed all three. It’s got this great flavor that kids like, but it’s based on nutritious ingredients. … They’re all trans fat-free. They’re all peanut free, which is a huge issue for schools. … The kids love it; it has a fun aspect to it. They love the taste. And it’s a portable snack. So I really believe we nailed it on that one, and the results are showing that it has been a home run.”
Jaques says that subtracting products from the portfolio, all while trying to innovate something as successful as Bear Paws, isn’t a simple Sunday drive for a company of Dare’s size.
“It’s a very difficult agenda to drive when you really, financially speaking, don’t see the way out, don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he explains. “It’s avoiding a negative, rather than building a positive, and you’d much rather have all that energy and resources focused on growth, focused on new, focused on different innovation.
“For a small company like ours, it’s all of our resources to do that. It’s not like we have 50 people [to devote to renovating and innovating products]. We’re very small, and therefore [it’s] a very big agenda that we have to deal with.”
Putting it in Overdrive
Certainly, Dare has carved its niche in Canada, but the company does have lines extended into the United States, and it looks at that market as a great opportunity to expand in the future. Currently, Dare sells its cracker lines (Breton and Vinta are the main brands) in many U.S. cities. And the company sells a select number of its cookie brands (particularly Whippet and Ultimates) in some parts of the Northeast and Northwest.
“The U.S. market is a big opportunity,” Jaques says. “[However,] for a company like ours, there’s no such thing as a ‘U.S. strategy’ yet. There are 10 big cities we’re trying to penetrate — big, specialty-cracker markets with more of the deli tie-in with water crackers, Breton crackers. We have a pretty good distribution across the U.S, and there’s tons of opportunity.”
Michael Thompson, vice president/general manager of Dare Foods Inc., the company’s U.S. subsidiary, agrees that in the future, Dare can build on the success it already has found south of the border.
“The way [Dare] can improve its returns is to go beyond borders into new markets or with new customers,” Thompson says. “We’ve been able to do that with Breton because of the strength of the product, and our mission is to grow that.”
Dare has used its strong place in the specialty-cracker segment to aggressively pursue its goals of growth, particularly in the U.S.
“The ‘specialty cracker’ segment is approximately 11% of the cracker category, and what we are trying to do, of course, is increase our share in that segment,” Thompson explains. “Luckily, it’s a growing segment over time. It tends to be a reflection of economic well-being. As people buy homes, they entertain more. As people get more money, they entertain more. As people travel more, they want more variety in their foods.”
So long as Dare follows the successful strategy it developed in Canada and builds its name based around the quality of its products, it should be able to build a strong consumer demand.
Take Vinta crackers, which were launched behind a strong marketing campaign keyed at consumers of Breton crackers. Barber says much of the consumer trial of Vinta came from those who already purchase Breton products.
“A lot of the consumers for Vinta came from Breton, and I think the Dare name was the link,” Barber says. “Consumers say, ‘Here’s another cracker product from Dare, I bet that’s good.’ So we brought in some new people to the category from the outside, but a disproportionate percentage of Vinta’s consumers came from Breton, and our theory on that is trust of Dare and knowing that Dare makes good products.”
In the U.S., Dare has long built a good name for itself as well, a great foundation the company can build on down the road.
“We’re in the midst of a distribution drive,” Thompson says. “But the bigger part of it will be increasing the frequency of consumption. … I think we probably sell enough households to take care of growth for the next five years, to be very frank, but we just need to bring them into the market a little more often.”
Under the Hood
Dare is able to motor along in the bakery business because of its finely tuned, 250,000-sq.-ft. bakery. Six lines pump out a multitude of cookies and crackers at the main plant in Kitchener, with employees working three eight-hour shifts Monday through Friday. During peak season, a 12-hour shift is added on both Saturday and Sunday to meet demand.
During SF&WB’s visit, four lines were in operation, pumping out four different products — Traditions Butter Shortbread Cookies (Line 2), Dare Ultimates Lemon Creme sandwich cookies (Line 3), Vinta crackers (Line 4) and Breton Minis (Line 5).
All six lines can be used to produce custom products, such as the Girl Guide (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Girl Scouts) cookies that Dare produces.
Lines 2 and 3 feature rotary molder and wire-cut capability, Line 6 is wire-cut only, and Lines 1, 4 and 5, all are sheeters with rotary cutters. Lines 4 and 5 can switch between cracker and cookie production, and the main difference between the two lines is that Line 5 is 30% faster than Line 4, due strictly to oven length. Lines 1, 2, 3 and 6 are cookie lines.
Dare stores bulk ingredients in six silos and three storage tanks. Four 156,000-lb. silos hold flour, shortening is kept in an 88,000-lb. silo and sugar is held in a 198,000-lb. silo. The storage tanks hold bulk fructose (110,000 lbs.), coconut oil (66,000 lbs.) and palm kernel oil (44,000 lbs.). Major ingredients arrive in 44- to 88-lb. bags and totes.
The bulk and major ingredients dump directly into mixers in the mixing/forming section of the plant. All bulk mixing is computer controlled. Micro ingredients, which are weighed and stored in the pre-scale room, are added by hand, as are some minor ingredients (such as oats or poppyseed). The ingredients are mixed in 2,200-3,500-lb. mixers for 5-18 minutes at 64-100°F.
At this point, the lines begin to deviate in design and function. On the cookie lines, dough is transferred by hopper and fed into a rotary molder or a wire-cutter. During cracker production, dough is compressed by rollers and laminated. The dough then is relaxed to facilitate the cutting process. Dough is cut into shapes by a rotary cutter. Excess is recycled to the front end.
Product on all six lines then moves to the oven room, where six direct-fired gas ovens, ranging in length from 180 ft. to 316 ft., go to work. Each oven has three to five zones along the way, so that temperatures can be adjusted for each portion of the line. Cookies and crackers need different temperatures at different times in order to bake properly, and Dare can control the temperatures at these points, giving them even more flexibility on their lines.
After baking on Line 4, crackers go through a quality checkpoint, where random sampling checks for weight, height, moisture, color, etc. Crackers then pass through a Di-electric heater to prevent “checking,” or cracking, of the product. On the other side of the Di-electric heater, the crackers continue on the conveyor through an oil applicator, which atomizes oil and sprays it on the crackers to add sheen and flavor.
“Long-box” products, such as Vinta crackers, are stacked in parallel rows, piggybacked, like shingles on a roof, by the conveyor, which transports them to packaging. The rows of crackers are automatically divided into a cracker loader, separated into stacks determined by the size of the box and wrapped in poly film.
Before entering the auto-cartoner and auto case-packing, the bags of crackers pass through metal detection and a checkweigher. The metal detector is tested every hour to make sure it is operating properly.
On Line 3, the cookies travel on a cooling conveyor through the plant and then are dumped onto another conveyor, which takes them to the machines that fill and sandwich them. Four employees stack the tops and bottoms of cookies into troughs and send them along for filling and sandwiching. The machine that performs those tasks can pump out approximately 1,600 cookies per minute.
The bottoms fall into place on the conveyor, four across, and a depositor pumps a dollop of crème onto the cookie. The top is then put in place and the cookies are then shuttled into 12 rows and sent by conveyor to the packaging area.
The cookies are hand-packed into trays, and then sent to the highly-automated packaging area, which has been up and running for about 1.5 years now and uses proprietary means to automate the entire process.
Lines 4, 5 and 6 are capable of finishing in the form/fill/seal area. Lines 4 and 5 mainly focus on crackers in this capacity, while Line 6, which was not operating during our visit, typically uses the form/fill/seal machine to pump out Break Time cookies — a dump-box cookie, as opposed to long-box. Breton Minis, which are dump-box crackers that were being produced on Line 5 during our visit, travel along a long conveyor to a form/fill/seal machine.
After metal detection, the filled bags move to an automatic cartoner and packer. They are code-dated at this point and packed into a display-ready tray, 12 boxes per tray. The trays are then heat-sealed with stretch-wrap, palletized by hand and shrink-wrapped in distribution.
Line 2 features a semi-automatic loader for long-box products with manual in-feed wrapper and manual box loading. Employees first load cookies into a bagger/sealer that wraps them in a long-box wrapper. The bagged cookies then travel down a short conveyor to the packaging station, where employees manually slide the bags into open boxes along a conveyor. The boxes are automatically sealed and sent to case-packing. The case-packing process on Line 2 is also semi-automatic.
Line 1, which also was not operating during SF&WB’s visit, is similar to Line 4, with an additional top sheeter.
The company’s warehouse in the Kitchener plant has 5,500 pallet positions and uses a full RFID stock locator system. Dare also has six satellite warehouses across Canada. When product is ready to be shipped, it is taken to one of 11 docks and loaded onto a truck. The main warehouse, on average, sends out seven to eight truckloads of product per day.
Dare is in the midst of a company revival, ready to go from good to great. In Jaques’ words, Dare has “a lot that’s done and a lot to do.”
There’s no doubt, after eons of focusing mainly on product quality, that adding a marketing-focused leader and staff to support him has helped the company achieve new success. Expect Dare to be aggressive, but not to jump to conclusions and make unrealistic plans.
“We’re not going to [plan] any great, big targets,” Jaques says. “There’s no real need to double the business or triple its size. We want growth — top-line growth — because that means the consumer really wants your product and is buying and eating it more of it each year.”
The key is meeting challenges with an aggressive attitude, an attitude that Jaques will drive and that will carry the company from its good standing to greatness.
“We’ve probably bit off, in some instances, more than we could chew,” Jaques admits. “We kind of have the car flying down the highway, so we’ll pull off the side of the road, change the flat tire and get back on the road. The strategy remains very clear, it’s just kind of how fast can we get there; what is the right pace?”
At a Glance
Company: Dare Foods
Headquarters: Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Products: Cookies, Crackers, Fine Breads, Candy
Plants: (Cookies) Kitchener, Ontario, and St. Lambert, Ontario; (Crackers) Kitchener, Ontario, and Spartanburg, S.C., U.S.A.; (Fine Breads) St. Martine, Ontario; (Candy) Milton, Ontario, and Toronto.
Key Brands: (Cookies) Dare Ultimates, Bear Paws, Simple Pleasures; (Crackers) Breton, Vinta, Cabaret; (Fine Breads) Grissol Melba Rounds, Crispy Baguettes; (Candy) Real Fruit
Main Plant Size: 250,000 sq. ft.
No. of Bakery Lines (Kitchener): 6
No. of Employees: 1,400
President: Fred Jaques
Sr. V.P., Corp. Services: John Dippell
Sr. V.P., Sales & Supp. Chain: Gary MacLeod
V.P./GM, Candy: Lee Andrews
V.P./GM, U.S. & Int’l: Michael Thompson
V.P., Mkt: Bruce Barber
V.P., Operations: Dave Pigott
V.P., H.R.: David Lippert