The family-owned retailer is putting nutrition labels on virtually every product that leaves its bakery and deli departments, even if those products don't technically require them under the new federal mandates for nutrition labels.
As a result, the chain's experience could serve as a handy model for how labeling reform is affecting sales in the deli and bakery.
Jeanine Sherry, the chain's nutrition consultant, said it is clear that Ukrops' customers are increasingly interested in getting information about the food they eat, even if the news is that a favorite product has a much more negative nutrition profile than they realized.
"We believe nutrition is a lifestyle change, not a trend," said Sherry, who discussed nutrition labeling as a speaker at the annual conference of the Retail Bakers of America held here March 11 to 13.
Sherry is president of NewWellness, Richmond, Va., a nutrition consulting firm. She was on staff at Ukrop's before she left to start her own firm.
She said Ukrop's geared up for nutrition labeling early on, when the ink was barely dry on the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, an act which took four years to go into effect.
Under the law, which became effective last May 8, most items produced in central facilities, as opposed to at store level, must have nutrition labels.
Ukrop's produces an extensive line of products, which are sold from service as well as self-service cases. Since Ukrop's operates a central kitchen and bakery as well as a separate bagel operation, it was clear the 23-unit chain would have a lot of labeling to do.
"We are now considered a food manufacturer," said Sherry. Since 1990, the retailer has produced labels for some 500 products.
Ukrop's uses a central scale network system for its nutrition labeling. The nutrition information for a product is sent live to stores, Sherry explained. When a product is served and weighed, the nutrition information is printed out on the label directly from the scale.
The benefits of a centralized scale system for labeling, she said, include labor savings at store level, no need for label inventory and better control of data. It was especially cost effective given that Ukrop's had the central scale network already in place.
"We're not dealing with outside printers that may have a backlog of labels," Sherry said. "Since the label is printed out directly from the scale, we don't have people running back and forth from the storage space picking up labels and bringing them out to the product when it's time to label and package the goods."
Another benefit, she said, is that there is no inventory of old labels hanging around. "Once we make a change in the scale system, the old information is gone," she said.
"We have severe space and memory limitations," she said of the system. Also, there is so much nutrition information now required on ingredient labels that it is difficult to get it all on the label itself. The memory boards in each scale system have had to be updated twice already to accommodate all the information required, she said.
Another challenge, said Sherry, is that a greater level of coordination and communication is required than ever before between departments such as the deli and management information systems.
"There's a big communication chain where we have to let everyone know once we change a product, so the information can be changed in the scale system."
To help deal with the amount of data required for the labels, Ukrop's had the director of nutrition labeling for the American Institute of Baking, Manhattan, Kan., come in for a day to show how to condense the required material on the ingredient panels.
Sherry said she is seeing a change in customer purchasing behavior since the labeling law went into effect.
In the deli, sales have gone down for bologna by some 23%, while turkey sales have climbed 48%. Ham sales have dipped 3%, while lowfat cheeses have had a sales increase of 18%, according to internal information, Sherry said.
Since Ukrop's began labeling its popular redskin potato salad, sales have gone down 7%. But at the same time, Ukrop's light redskin salad has seen a 20% sales increase, she said.
One salad that the retailer has had for some time, Mandarin orange salad, has suddenly grown in popularity now that its nutrition profile is spelled out for customers. The salad, which has a gelatin base, is naturally fat free. Sales are up some 14%.
Ukrop's was almost afraid of providing nutrition information for its hugely popular breast of chicken salad. Nutrition analysis revealed a half-cup serving contained 20 grams of fat, Sherry said. Not surprisingly, sales fell, about 12%, she reported. But at the same time, volume of a reformulated version of the salad, using a dressing with less fat, grew by 17%. That lighter salad has 8 grams of fat per half-cup serving, she said.
There were some sales surprises in the bakery for products that had not been analyzed before. The bakery's long-time favorite cinnamon raisin buns, which have a yeast dough, were low in fat and with the information on the label, sales have grown some 8%, she said. Grain breads and French and Italian breads have also been doing well now that the labels are in place, with sales increases of about 6%, Sherry said.