It was 2003 and there was a pizza sauce problem at Hirzel Canning Co. and Farms, a Toledo food manufacturer. Across the canning industry, sales of the tomato concoction, designed to be slathered across a homemade pie, had become lackluster. Bigger rivals had begun experimenting in order to jump-start sales, but Hirzel was still casting about for a fix.
One competitor, Contadina, had already introduced a convenient plastic squeeze bottle for its pizza sauce. A second, Boboli, had put its sauce into a flashy plastic pouch. Hirzel's pizza sauce, however, remained stuck inside a plain old metal can. "We needed more pizazz," said Steve Hirzel, retail sales manager at the company.
If ever there was a time to kick the can, this was it. But Hirzel not only stuck with the well-worn container, it made an even bigger investment in it, commissioning an innovative resealable can. Lift the small plastic tab on Hirzel's Dei Fratelli pizza sauce now and the vacuum seal breaks, allowing consumers to easily pop off the top. There are no sharp edges, and snapping the lid back on is a cinch.
Hirzel's successful experiment is part of a wave of innovation sweeping through the canning industry. Manufacturers are rolling out new easy-to-open lids, eye-catching body shapes, and even a self-heating can that creates piping hot coffee with no microwave oven in sight.
Can manufacturers say they have little choice but to upgrade their product. In the past decade, the number of cans bought in the United States dropped by more than 600 million units, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute, a Washington-based trade group.
The reason: Americans are fixated on nutrition, freshness and convenience -- and in the minds of consumers, industry analysts say, old-fashioned cans do not stack up.
In a poll conducted last year, the Can Manufacturers Institute found that only 39 percent of consumers believed that canned food is as nutritious as fresh food. And only 54 percent said canned food was as good as frozen. The belief that canned food is less healthy "is a misperception," said Robert Budway, the trade group's executive director, but the poll shows it is widely held.
What's more, the can's competitors are quickly gaining ground. Brands long synonymous with the can have begun flirting with plastic containers, arguing they are easier to open and harder to damage and that consumers perceive their contents as fresher than those inside a can.
Bumble Bee, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea tuna brands are now available in a plastic pouch. Campbell Soup Co. has introduced two lines of its soups in a microwavable plastic bottle. And Folgers, which has packed coffee in a metal can for 150 years, just launched what it calls a "revolutionary plastic container."
"We woke up and realized there are alternative kinds of packaging," said Tom Hale, vice president of sales and marketing at Broomfield, Colo.-based Ball Corp., one of the country's biggest can manufacturers, which is developing a self-heating can.