McCall Farms puts Sonoco's plastic cans on store shelves

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McCall Farms Inc. McCall Farms' Glory Farm beans are now on the shelf in the extruded plastic can from Sonoco Products Co.

Tampa, Fla. — More than a century of risk-taking and remaking helped set the stage for McCall Farms Inc. to be the first to commercially introduce the TruVue plastic can.

The polypropylene container made by Sonoco Products Co. with steel ends is squarely taking aim at the steel food can business.

But neither Sonoco nor McCall Farms, which is packaging its Glory Farms line of beans in the plastic containers, is looking to unseat the metal can with its nearly two century head start.

Instead, McCall Farms wants to rely on its long history of entrepreneurship to carve out a niche in the market that will complement, not cannibalize, existing business.

“Plastic is a different animal, so this definitely was a big risk to do that and get out of our comfort zone with the metal can,” said Annie Ham, marketing director at McCall Farms. “You’ve got to innovate.”

As food companies go, McCall Farms is not a huge company, Ham said. But it is big enough to make decisions and move quickly.

Such was the case with the TruVue can, which has been on the shelf at retailers Harris Teeter and Ingles for about three months. It’s a bit too early to have extensive sales data, but Ham said the company is happy with the initial response.

“Overall, the customers seemed to respond well to it. Some items, our blackeye peas, are selling incredibly well. It takes time. We will be putting on a much stronger marketing push,” Ham said at the recent Packaging Conference in Tampa.

McCall Farms sees the TruVue can as a bridge between canned and fresh food.

“We’re impressed with the early feedback that Annie and McCall are getting from their customers,” said Steven Gendreau, division vice president of sales and marketing for global plastics at Sonoco. “The retailers are loving it.”

The container, which is extruded, features five layers that include polypropylene on both the inside and outside. Two layers of adhesive bond the PP to a center EVOH layer that acts as an oxygen barrier.

McCall Farms is packaging seven varieties of beans, at this point, in the TruVue can and is pushing a freshness message to consumers.

Being able to see the product in the can allows McCall Farms to show off product freshness, Ham said. But it also provided a challenge on the canning line. Because of the transparency, customers could easily see if cans were not properly filled, which sometimes happens.

Jim Johnson Annie Ham, marketing director at McCall Farms, displaying TruVue clear cans.

But McCall Farms was able to tweak its production processes to better ensure customers do not encounter that problem with the TruVue can.

Early retail placement also has taught the company of the importance of displaying all of the different products together to help show off the value of the TruVue can, the marketing director said.

Scattering the cans throughout the vegetable aisle, especially when they are positioned next to value brands, can make sales more challenging, Ham said.

“We wanted to make sure all of the product is clustered together because if you space it all out, it’s not as obvious to the customer that it’s in a clear can,” she said. “That was another learning that we had from a lot of our consumer testing. People aren’t expecting it. So you’ve really got to draw it out, bringing their attention to it. And you’ve got to bring all of the products together that it makes it obvious that it’s clear.”

TruVue cans are more expensive than steel cans, and the Glory Farms products have a higher retail cost than some competitors. After some initial price testing, McCall Farms has settled into to a retail price of $1.49 per can.

Being the first user of the TruVue can fits in well with McCall Farms’ long history. The company dates back to 1838 and started out growing cotton. But with the infestation of the boll weevil beetle, which devastated cotton production, the family business switched to tobacco farming and enjoyed success for decades until health concerns again had the company reassessing.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, when warning labels started to appear on cigarettes, that the company diversified into vegetable canning. As that business grew, the company extended its product line to include boiled peanuts and fruits. It was just in 2013 that the company acquired the Bruce’s brand of yams.

And it’s with this backdrop of change and entrepreneurial thinking that the company became the first to step into the market with the TruVue can.

“I certainly think the more entrepreneurial-type companies are the greatest vehicle to drive innovation faster,” Gendreau said.

“The metal can has been around for 200 years. To change from that, especially when there was a lot of early experimentation years ago with other plastic ideas, we’ve had to work as much to demonstrate the proof in the pudding as we have anything else,” he said.

With the proof of concept now in the past, Sonoco is looking to attract more food companies to the TruVue can. And talks are in various stages with about 20 other firms.

McCall Farms, meanwhile, views beans as only the beginning of using the plastic can.

“We see that we can find a way that we can capture new customers who would not normally buy metal, that weren’t interested in metal. And that’s really what we want. And that’s where we think the growth will come. So we don’t think it will replace metal. And I don’t know that it will cannibalize metal. I think it will hopefully be incremental growth for us,” Ham said.

“We want to be all about freshness in a can. Freshness you can see,” she said.

Read more about Sonoco's growth plans related to TruVue.