Packaging food to sell doesn't give you the immediate satisfaction of seeing happy eaters consuming your offerings, but it does allow you to satisfy a greater number of eaters in the long run. It can be expensive and time consuming to package food products to sell, but if you develop solid systems and infrastructure, you can build a business model with solid, long-term potential.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
To package food to sell, develop attractive and informative packaging and seal your product to maintain its quality and extend its shelf life.
Reasons for Packaging Food to Sell
- Preserving freshness. This means different things for different types of food. Some fresh bread is packaged in paper bags to maintain a crispy crust, while other fresh bread is packaged in plastic to keep it moist. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for packaging that preserves freshness, although there are tried-and-true conventions in different sectors, such as artisan bread.
- Marketing message. Your packaging tells your customers about your product both implicitly and explicitly. Soy milk packaged in a milk container conveys the message that this nondairy beverage can be used as a substitute for cow's milk, while chocolate bars packaged in kraft paper communicate that the chocolate maker cares more about the chocolate than the packaging.
- Portability. Sometimes, food is packaged because you wouldn't be able to take it home without the packaging. Soup can't go anywhere (other than into your mouth) without a container, and grains of rice need a bag, box or jar to contain them. Food products can also be packaged to make multiple units available at once, such as a six pack of juice boxes.
- Labeling. Manufacturers of many products are required by law to provide relevant information on product labels. These requirements include weight or volume, ingredients, storage requirements such as whether the product must be refrigerated and warnings such as whether the product contains common allergens. Labeling is also an opportunity to communicate a marketing message with fonts, text and information.
Packaging for Shelf-Stable Products
Some shelf-stable products would be unstable and perishable without special processing designed to increase their shelf lives. Canned foods and sauces such as salad dressings are usually treated with heat to kill bacteria and then hermetically sealed to keep out pathogens and other organisms that can compromise shelf life. If you're packaging a product that must be sterilized and sealed, work with a lab that tests the safety of food products to make sure that your processes are safe and scalable.
Other shelf-stable products such as crackers and grains may not need the same degree of processing, but their packaging can still affect their shelf life. Chips, crackers and cookies should be airtight to keep them from growing stale. If you're packaging these products on a large scale, you'll probably need to invest in equipment for vacuum packing and heat sealing. If you're packaging these types of products on a smaller scale to be consumed relatively soon, you may be able to get by with twist ties or zipper bags.
Products such as dried grains, beans and pastas don't need airtight packaging, and this gives you flexibility when choosing packaging materials. Paper bags give a homey feeling, while plastic packaging allows potential customers to easily see the contents. Although the long shelf lives of these foods can create the impression that they will last indefinitely, they still grow stale eventually and should be tested for shelf life and marked with pull dates even if these dates are far in the future.
Packaging Refrigerated Products
Refrigeration extends shelf life by slowing down the growth of bacteria, but it can also dry out food products and impart stale tastes from other foods in the same refrigerated space. Food that is packaged and sold on cooler shelves needs to be specially handled, especially if it is prepared hot and then chilled before being packed into containers.
Foods such as soups and prepared meals should be completely cooled before being packaged to prevent condensation, which is visually unpleasant and can also compromise quality and shelf life. Refrigerated food products can be packaged in containers that are sealed simply by closing, such as plastic containers with snap-on lids or jars with tops that can be tightened by hand. Even if you use these low-tech methods, you may still choose to add a sticker or seal to make your product tamper evident.
If you are packaging several dozen (or even several hundred) refrigerated items for sale at your local farmers' market or to distribute to a handful of local stores, it may be sufficient to do your packaging by hand without special equipment. However, if you plan to distribute on a broader scale, you should probably find packaging equipment designed specifically for refrigerated products like the ones you offer.
Packaging Frozen Products
Packaging frozen products presents many of the same issues as packaging refrigerated items with the added challenge of preventing freezer burn. The freezing process extends product shelf life far beyond what is possible with refrigeration, although it is considerably more expensive and requires much more equipment.
To prevent freezer burn, you should lower the temperature of your product below the freezing point as quickly as possible, and if your product contains a considerable amount of moisture, you should wait to seal your packages until their contents are frozen solid. A blast chiller is an invaluable piece of equipment for freezing food products.
For frozen foods, also choose packaging materials that can hold up in very cold temperatures and that are thick enough to protect the food from freezer burn. Plastic bags that work for shelf-stable and refreezable products may be too thin to protect frozen foods. Some containers will shatter at freezing temperatures, so make sure to choose options made of materials that can handle the temperatures at which you will be storing them.
Price and Customization
Custom-printed packaging materials make your food look professional and visually appealing, but their price tag can be daunting, especially if your design includes a spectrum of colors. The larger the quantity you print, the lower the price per unit. However, you may still be working out variations in your recipes, and printing a supply of packaging that will last you several years will only make sense if you don't anticipate any major change in your product, your packaging or your message.
Fortunately, if you're resourceful, you can devise solutions that meet your budget and make it possible for you to market your product in an attractive package that won't break your budget. You can find templates for sticker layouts online, and there are packaging materials available that hold up in refrigerated and frozen environments. Use a laser printer if your products will be refrigerated or frozen to prevent the text from bleeding under moist conditions.
Although there are labeling and packaging solutions that you can launch with minimal investment, you'll encounter a trade off with efficiency. It takes much less time to pack a product into a preprinted bag than to stick several stickers on the bag before packing the product into it. Choose a solution that makes sense for your budget and your company's level of maturity and improve on it as you grow.
- Work with a package designer or a graphic designer to design the package or package art to be eye-catching.
Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.