In 2021, San Ramon, Calif.-based Raybern’s was dealing with labor shortages and the lingering effects of the COVID peak.
In 2022, Raybern’s made many of the new hires it had its sites set on last year. And America continues to get back to doing the things we all did pre-pandemic.
But there are new hurdles for Raybern’s and almost everyone else in the food business. Just when it seemed like we were fully returning to something resembling normal, inflation struck.
“Inflation is definitely impacting what consumers are buying, and we’ve had to adjust,” said Doug Hall, the company’s marketing director. “It’s not uncommon for suppliers to come to us with price increases of 24%, increases we’ve never seen. We’re used to 2 or 3% increases. Not a surprise that it’s forced us to reevaluate what consumers are willing to pay.”
One thing Raybern’s won’t budge on is quality, Hall said. The company is very protective of the ingredients it uses, for instance.
But Raybern’s has found savings other ways. The company switched from hand-wrapping its sandwiches to flow wraps. That’s reduced labor on the packing line. Raybern’s has also purchased more cost-effective carton board when possible.
The company also added a second shift at its plant, which not only handles increased demand over the past year, but also maximizes the value of its physical space and resources, savings which can then be passed on to consumers, Hall said. Increased use of automation at its plant has also helped.
Raybern’s continues to see strong demand for its sandwiches from both retailers and commissaries and central kitchens that supply grocery instore delis.
“Consumers are going to grocery stores more for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Hall said. “And there’s a nice spectrum of offerings, from value to mid-tier to premium.”
Despite inflationary pressures, Raybern’s is confident that its retail and commissary partners are open to new products. After it mostly shut down its new product operations during COVID, the company is now rolling out new ideas to its customer base.
“There’s definitely room for innovation now,” Hall said. “Consumers are looking for change, for alternatives they haven’t tried before.”
Some of those innovations are in the “top secret” category, Hall said, but ideas Raybern’s is willing to go public with include BBQ pork and pulled chicken and other chicken sandwich products. Both should see wider distribution in the next year to year-and-a-half.
A meatball sub that Raybern’s launched in late 2021 has been discontinued, but it was only ever intended as a stopgap product for retailers who couldn’t source their meatball subs elsewhere, Hall said.
“It was a shelf filler,” he said. “A lot of manufacturers were unable to make them, and so to meet demand, our retailers reached out to us so they wouldn’t have an empty space.”
A similar strategy governed Raybern’s decision, also in late 2021, to reintroduce breakfast sandwich items to its lineup. But unlike with the meatball sandwiches, which were pulled once other manufacturers ramped production back up, Raybern’s is continuing to produce breakfast sandwiches.
While Raybern’s has gotten back into new product development, the company’s bread-and-butter SKUs continue to drive the company.
Those core products include Philly cheese steak, roast beef and chicken bacon ranch. They’re not only Raybern’s biggest sellers, they’re also easier to make than some of its other products, which also proved crucial in the high demand/low labor situation the company found itself in beginning with COVID.
Philly cheese steak is what Raybern’s is most known for. Its Philly is No. 1 in its category nationwide, Hall said.
Raybern’s sandwiches can be marketed either frozen in center-store or refrigerated for heat-and-eat sales in grocery instore delis. In instore, sandwiches can be microwaved in the store for consumption there or taken home.