While the need for rapid distribution of fresh product is not new, the special needs of home-meal replacement -- delivering individual specialty items that are not case packed, or sending prepared meals quickly from a central kitchen via a distribution center to stores -- are presenting new challenges.
Retailers and wholesalers are using multi-temperature trucks, temperature-zoned warehouse areas, cross docking and new ordering systems to help distribute fresh products quickly to stores.
"The distribution of HMR can eat you up alive," said Tom Brewer, vice president, deli/food service for Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.
Sources told SN that distribution centers are set up primarily to handle case packs and pallets, which makes handling of individual specialty items inefficient. In addition, few warehouse ordering systems are designed for small-quantity orders that must be filled quickly, usually on a daily basis.
But efficient distribution of HMR products is crucial to ensuring freshness and reducing shrink.
Brewer explained some of the logistical hurdles. "We have 94 stores and we're typically shipping to 75 of them each night. Let's say we have HMR orders with a three-day shelf life sitting on the dock to go out one night.
"If for some reason these orders don't fit on the truck, the next time some of the stores might get a delivery would be the day after tomorrow, which means we've lost two-thirds of the shelf life sitting on the dock," he added. "HMR gets really expensive in a hurry if you don't make the truck."
Brian Salus, president of Salus Associates, Midlothian, Va., a consulting firm for the food industry, said, "Any lost time or temperature in the chilled chain results in a loss for someone -- lost revenue, lost flavor, lost nutritional value and lost reputation."
The demands of combining the roles of manufacturer, distributor and retailer present a challenge to even the best-managed companies, Salus added.
D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., has a goal of reducing the cycle time from ordering to distribution, according to Tom DeVries, director of food service.
In the "food for later" category, which includes reheatable food, D&W produces about 130 chilled prepared entrees, side dishes and appetizers at its central kitchen in Grand Rapids and ships them directly to stores.
"We do weekly forecasts from each of our retail stores. These allow us to do basic ingredient ordering and basic labor projections," DeVries said. "Then we allow stores to update [their orders] within about 32 hours prior to the time their order actually arrives. We have about a day to a day and a half between the time they order and the time they receive."
"Nothing is more than 24 hours old when it hits our stores, and most of it is less than 12 hours old before it arrives in our stores," DeVries said. "We're flexible and small enough to control that."
To get ready-to-heat foods to stores as quickly as possible, Price Chopper implemented a new on-line order system in mid-July.
The system allows stores to put their orders on-line as late as one minute before it polls, or queries, the system for retailers' orders. Previously, any changes to an order had to be called in and manually entered by an individual in the deli department at Price Chopper's corporate office.
"At 3 p.m. we can poll the stores and at 4 p.m. the food manufacturing plant has all the information they need," Brewer said. "By 9 a.m. the next day, the product is rolling back to our warehouse for distribution of that product."
The new system allows stores to order as frequently as six times a week, and they can order single stockkeeping units, not case lots. All Price Chopper's HMR products, including nearly 40 dinners, entrees and side dishes, are created to its specifications at the manufacturing plant of the Flying Food Group, Newark, N.J., and cross docked through Price Chopper's facility in Schenectady.
Dedicated personnel make sure the product is staged properly at the dock, cubed on the truck and sent to the correct store.
Supervalu, Minneapolis, does not handle prepared meals through its distribution center, but it does distribute a growing number of frozens, perishables and dry grocery products, as well as specialty items for retailers' individual HMR programs, according to John Vegter, vice president of logistics for Supervalu's Midwest region.
The wholesaler is still in the process of developing a systemized approach to cross docking specialty items that are merged with other products for shipment to retailers.
D&W, meanwhile, is exploring the possibility of a multi-temperature cross-dock facility, to combine HMR products prepared at its central kitchen along with other orders for its stores, said DeVries. Such facilities are used in Europe to distribute fresh product.
"Ultimately, our goal is to blend fresh distribution into one facility," DeVries said, adding that no timetable has been set for this effort. "We're doing a lot of cross docking out of our meat distribution facility, so we know it's a logical progression to drive freshness from that distribution center."
Last November, Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., opened a multi-temperature cross-docking depot where products are off-loaded into the appropriate temperature zone and picked by store location. Then these loads are consolidated onto trucks outbound to its stores, said Kevin Hade, vice president of manufacturing.
Ukrop's also has multi-temperature zone trucks so it can ship chilled food product in one compartment along with, for example, a bakery item requiring a 70-degree Fahrenheit shipping temperature. These trucks allow Ukrop's to ship all manufactured HMR product for one store on one truck. Hade said Ukrop's delivers HMR product twice a day to its 25 stores, which are all located in the greater Richmond area.
DeVries said D&W has two refrigerated trucks that deliver product from its kitchen operation to each location four days per week.
"We have a number of challenges," he added. "Whatever it takes to get that particular product in the way the store wants to deal with it, we just have to logistically figure that out."