With the public consuming more single and deli style portion snacks than ever, dairy industry start-ups with the “next great” micro-dairy specialty yogurt, cheese or culinary delight must figure out how to navigate the delicate balance between conserving precious capital and providing professional-grade packaged products.

For dairy industry portion cup packaging, that means selecting equipment that can provide the tamper-evident seals that retailers are demanding at a speed that meets production requirements.

“What is the cost of not having tamper-evident packaging?  Probably never breaking into retail or taking your food start-up to the next level,” says Steve Sallenback, co-owner of Legacy Foods Manufacturing, an Elk Grove Village, IL-based co-packer that produces and packages food products for other companies.

Beyond taste and value today, even small food operations must prove the product is safe for consumers, says Sallenback.  Not only have consumers come to expect it, but also retailers increasingly demand such packaging as part of their food safety programs designed to limit potential liability.

“Snap-on lids alone are not tamperproof and do not provide evidence of tampering, since they can be removed and replaced without any noticeable change,” says Sallenback.

Besides tamper-evident packaging for safety, a sealed cup prolongs product quality and shelf life on retail shelves.

Unfortunately, high-speed portion packaging equipment is all but unobtainable for small operations with price tags in the six figures.  This is driving demand for low-cost, manual foil sealing machines – small enough to fit on a table-top or kitchen counter – that allow even micro-dairy start-ups to provide professional, tamper-evident packaging from day one.  And with several tiers of increasingly automated and faster models, such start-ups can scale-up to meet the requirements of the Interstate Milk Shippers (IMS) List as demand and revenue allow.

From Start-Up to National Brand

Ron Marks was a chef for 30 years, then a food consumer researcher before he started Norcross, Ga.-based AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery, which today is a producer of fresh Greek style yogurt, Greek yogurt cream cheese, Greek yogurt salad dressing and dips, and frozen Greek yogurt.

“After ten years of developing menus and sitting in on consumer focus groups, we determined that artisan dairy was going to be a rapidly growing segment of the industry,” says Marks, CEO of AtlantaFresh.  “Five years ago, we were a start-up local Atlanta producer, and then we became a regional producer.  Now we’re a national producer selling to retail stores and restaurants, with Whole Foods our biggest customer.”

According to Marks, when AtlantaFresh first started, it needed a foil sealing system to ensure product safety and freshness for its portion control cups of 100% natural, grade A, strained Greek yogurt, using milk from fully pastured, grassfed Georgia cows, on which dairy farmers used no growth hormones or antibiotics.

“After looking at the different models from different manufacturers, we chose a table-top Model 20 foil sealer from Wilpack Packaging because it offered the best product at the best price,” says Marks.  “It cost a few thousand dollars instead of $50,000.”

Wilpack Packaging (wilpackpackaging.com) is a Rockford, IL-based manufacturer of manual, semi-automatic and fully automated filling and sealing equipment.  Its products range from manually actuated units that can seal 8-12 containers of various sizes per minute, on up to automated filler/sealers that can handle 80 containers a minute. 

AtlantaFresh used the table-top foil sealer for prototyping, testing, samples, and to package lower volumes of product when they started selling to farmers markets, retail stores, and restaurants.

“The table-top foil sealer was reliable and easy to use from the beginning,” says Marks.  “The foil seal made our product spill-proof from any angle.”

With rising sales volume, about two years after start-up, AtlantaFresh was ready to sell across state lines. 

“That’s when Wilpack worked with us to help us scale up to an automated rotary filler/sealer that met with FDA and IMS approval,” says Marks.  “They were very willing to talk with us, a start-up.” 

While the original table-top foil sealer is now used in AtlantaFresh’s test kitchen, the automated rotary filler/sealer is used for high-volume Greek yogurt and cream cheese production, according to Marks.

To meet the needs of other start-ups like AtlantaFresh, Wilpack Packaging has since developed and introduced an even more economical option called the Seal-a-Cup system.  At a price point that is affordable, the unit can seal over 25 different capacity containers ranging from .375 oz all they way up the 32 oz. with changeover in only a few seconds.  The unit provides professional-grade foil sealing at 8 to 12 cups per minute.

“For food entrepreneurs trying to get their product into a retail setting, Wilpack’s manual sealer is the lowest cost foil sealing machine I’ve seen that provides for portion control cups,” says Legacy Foods’ Sallenback.  “It’s a stepping stone to help small specialty food start-ups get onto retail shelves and start building volume with minimal capital risk.”

Sallenback adds that pre-printed foil seals on portion control cups, with the start-up’s name, logo, or ingredients, are one of the most important ways to promote a new brand to retailers and the public.

  Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California.