Sonic Drive-In this week joined a roster of 35,000 quick-service restaurants serving resealable, eight-ounce "Sonic Wacky Packs"--plastic bottles of low-fat white and chocolate milk. Other chains that serve the "new milk" nationally include McDonald's Corp., Burger King and Wendy's. Subway is testing the concept at 3,500 franchises.
"The word we're getting is that milk is a gold mine," says Chris Moore, vice president-food services for Dairy Management Inc., the industry board that is working with quick-service restaurants to promote milk.
Before the national introduction of curvy plastic "Milk Jugs" depicting Ronald McDonald on a surfboard, McDonald's sold 625,000 single-serve units of milk weekly in cardboard containers. It now sells more than 4.25 million plastic jugs a week, according to DMI. Wendy's went from 65,000 cardboard cartons to one million plastic jugs per week. It's too soon for statistics from Burger King, which started selling milk in plastic jugs nationally under the Hershey's label in June 2006 (the other chains sell milk as their own brand).
The emphasis on milk comes at a time when the rate of childhood obesity is higher than ever. "A key consideration for these chains to promote milk is the obesity problem in America," says Moore. Additionally, last year the USDA introduced new dietary guidelines that suggest three servings of dairy products a day--up from two.
To that end, McDonald's, Wendy's, and other restaurants have been promoting the new milk jugs in TV spots and in-store promotional materials. Order takers at McDonald's are encouraged to ask customers who request Happy Meals: "Would you like low-fat white or chocolate milk with your order?"
A year-long DMI study of more than 100,000 school-age children found that kids prefer milk when it is served cold, in plastic bottles and in a variety of flavors. The new bottles are resealable and, equally important, they fit in car-seat cup-holders. New flavors such as strawberry and coffee-flavored milk are being tested. Chocolate milk has been especially popular in quick service chains, outselling white milk at a ratio of 3 to 1.
"The success of the milk strategy is due to a combination of two things," says Tom Vierhile, director of Datamonitor's Productscan Online, a new-products database in Naples, N.Y. "Kids like the packaging and they love the chocolate. Used to be, all you could get was low-fat or whole milk. That's not a promotable, high-interest item to consumers. But people really like chocolate milk, and there's unmet demand for it."
According to NPD Group, milk sales at quick-service restaurants grew 8 percent from June 2005 to June 2006; juice grew 2 percent; and bottled water/seltzer was up 12 percent. Soft drinks, meanwhile, decreased 1 percent.