Co-packer relationships can be difficult, especially since the world of commercial manufacturing is old school. This is the land of matchmakers and arranged marriages, not swiping right. Your savvy pitches and witty quips probably won't work on most co-packers who lack the interest or technical chops to make themselves a website or hit "reply all." While we do offer formal matchmaking services as part of our engagements, here we'll play the role of the best friend in your favorite rom-com giving you some tips on how to land the first date on your own.
Tip #1: Understand the Mindset and Motivations of Co-Packers.
While there can be differences co-packer to co-packer, in general, you should expect the following:
Co-packers are in the business of producing food for their current clients. All other projects come in at a (very distant) second place.
Co-packing is a volume game. Most co-packers these days will turn down any business below their stated minimum order quantities (MOQs). MOQs are typically driven by throughput during a full 8- to 12-hour working shift. Co-packers will want to run any product for at least one shift and ideally far more, so they'll only take on products with high throughput and enough demand to fill at least one shift.
Co-packers expend the same amount of time and money onboarding new, low-volume products as they do new high-volume products, so the more in-demand a co-packer is, the less likely they'll be to engage with low-volume products.
Most of the co-packing infrastructure in the U.S. was set up in an era where there were a handful of brands offering a much less diverse spectrum of products. For decades, making the same saltine crackers and packaging them in different color boxes was basically the state of the art! New, innovative products are often a rickety fit with this outdated infrastructure (and the accompanying mindset), and co-packers often take an "I’ll believe it when I see it mentality."
So, how can you convince these tough customers to let you buy them a drink?
Tip #2: Recognize that this is a two-way pitch.
You may think co-packers should be pitching you to get your business, because after all, you're the one who will be paying them. While that's true, they'll be making a pretty significant upfront investment of time and resources to onboard you, and most co-packers have been burned plenty of times before with first dates that didn't go anywhere. They want a healthy marriage, not a quick fling, so they'll be looking for you to convince them that your brand is rock solid, poised for growth, and will be in it for the long haul. Now is the time to pull out that glossy investor deck and rework it for the co-packer to show hockey stick growth, sufficient funding, and a demand plan.
Tip #3: Get Organized.
The more buttoned up, organized, and communicative you are, the better. Co-packers don't want to take on a hot mess any more than you do. They can smell a lack of sophistication a mile away, so get smart about your business, how products in your category are made, and co-packing in general before getting them on the phone.
Tip #4: Get Scalable.
Ensure your product is fully developed and scalable before you start discussing a line trial. Scalable means you have sourced and tested all ingredients in your product from commercial scale ingredient suppliers and your processing method aligns with the methods and equipment the co-packer uses. If you're buying tomato paste from a food service supplier, your local Safeway, or random people on the internet, you're not scalable. If your method includes steeping and straining tea leaves and the co-packer doesn't have a filtration system, you're not scalable. Trial runs are for final tweaks and adjustments, not for throwing things at the wall to see what sticks!
Tip #5: Invest in Success.
If you want the co-packer to invest in you, demonstrate that you're prepared to invest in the success of your product. For innovative or complex products, it’s not uncommon to have multiple trial runs and for a brand to send a team member to half a dozen or more of the initial production runs after a successful line trial to ensure that everything continues to run smoothly as a co-packer trains their staff to execute on your vision.
Now that we've gotten you prepped and ready, start making those co-packer calls! Don't be discouraged if it takes a few attempts. The right partner will be worth the wait.