When Judith Irving decided to start selling her family's caramel sauce online, there were a few kinks to work out.
The caramel sauce, made from goat's milk on her family farm in Vermont, comes in breakable glass jars. She needed to find a way to ship them across the country without the jars arriving in a thousand pieces, so she sent sample packages to a FedEx test lab to be examined for strength.
"The smaller jars were less of an issue," said Irving, co-founder of Fat Toad Farm, home to 80 goats that are milked exclusively to make the caramel sauce. "The first iterations of gallon jars I sent, well, they broke."Goats (and friends) at Fat Toad Farm, Brookfield, Vermont
As it turns out, there's a science to designing packages that makes it possible to ship perishable and fragile foods. Major shipping companies like FedEx and UPS have test labs where they put sample packages through the wringer for their business clients who sell food products online. At the FedEx labs, packages are put through everything from free-fall drops to compression tests by a team of engineers and technicians.
Some companies invest their own time and resources into testing. That could involve leaving packages out on a doorstep in the heat to see how they fare, or setting up complex mathematical pie charts to balance different R-values — which measure insulating value — against the cost of the packaging.
Gourmet Gift Baskets, a New Hampshire-based company, has employed both of those tactics, among others. The company sells perishables from fruits to sweets online in its gift baskets. It also runs the subsidiaries Cheesecake.com and KingOfPOP.com. When the company bought the cheesecake business three years ago, months of testing went into figuring out the proper packaging, the right amount of dry ice and the number of days the products could survive shipping, Ryan Abood, CEO and president, said.
"It really is a science in a lot of ways. There's definitely some trial and error, and there's a lot of empirical evidence to show your processes are working," Abood said. "We haven't had a process fail because we do so much testing in-house."
The tricky part for companies like Gourmet Gift Baskets is that different products require different packaging, temperatures and handling procedures. Fruits have to be purchased the day they are shipped and cold-stored until the trucks arrive in the evening. Cheesecakes last longer in the freezer, but they need to be packaged and shipped to exact specifications so that they arrive at around 50 degrees.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all process," Abood said.
Melissa Ben-Ishay, founder of Manhattan-based Baked By Melissa, also used the trial-and-error process in designing packaging that would get her miniature cupcakes to customers across the country in the same shape as they're sold in the company's 12 stores in and around the city. The company designed a patent-pending clam-shell packaging with tiers to hold the cupcakes in place.
"I literally threw them up the air and made sure they were still perfect," said Ben-Ishay, who was inspired to pursue her dream of opening a cupcake shop after being fired from an advertising agency, which she describes as the best thing that could have happened. "We wouldn't ship our products until we had the packaging that we have now."Melissa Ben-Ishay, founder of Baked by Melissa, New York
Baked By Melissa is among a growing number of small food companies expanding their footprint by selling online. Local food businesses are realizing they can increase sales by selling to restaurants, retail stores and consumers across the country. However, aside from the packaging challenges, these business are finding themselves swamped with orders at this time of year, as customers buy specialty foods for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Becky Huling, vice president of marketing for FedEx, said many of the small food businesses they serve see a 40 or 50 percent increase in sales this time of year due to Thanksgiving and Christmas orders. They're looking for advice on how to design packaging that will get all these food products to customers intact, she said.
"For small businesses, one of the fastest-growing categories is specialty food items," Huling said. "We act as a consultant on a lot of cases. .... We ship it all. We ship a lot of cheesecakes and cupcakes and cheeses.
Ohio-based Catullo Prime Meats, which sells specialty meat products like turduckens —a Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with chicken, duck and specialty dressing — had the difficult task of figuring out how to get very perishable meats to customers across the country without spoiling, and on time. Thanksgiving and Christmas meats are of little use if they arrive too late.
Owner Danny Catullo said he knew the idea of selling meats online was good in theory, but the logistics of how to ship them took some serious thought and testing. The company figured out that some items could be shipped on regular ice, while others required dry ice, depending on the location.
"We try not to ship anything longer than four days. Preferably, one to three. We pack everything so that it has an extra day, just in case," Catullo said. "If someone is local you can drive them a new prime rib if something isn't right. When you're shipping to California, you can't do that."