It Started with a Few Jars: Social Media Part of Growth Strategy for Container Business

3/1/2014 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

LANCASTER, Pa. — Entrepreneurs Keith and Lisa Reinhart are finding out firsthand the power of “social media” — that ephemeral, digital phenomenon that gets talked about nearly constantly these days. Blogging and Pinterest have done the work of advertising for them, spreading images of their canning business’s products far and wide to customers who want to buy what they have to sell.

Their company, Fillmore Container, has tapped into the increasing trend of backyard gardening, an activity that often leads people to do home canning and food preservation. The company sells a range of canning products, including glass jars and bottles, lids, accessories and storage containers. It recently expanded to candlemaking products as well, mostly due to customer requests.

In the past year, the social media “effect” was especially noticeable with one of the company’s products, a pint-sized Mason jar with a handle — a popular item in the wedding industry with many brides who incorporate multitudes of the jars into their do-it-yourself weddings. At receptions, the small glass jars hold anything from candles or lights to drinks or party favors.

“Pinterest was probably the most immediate return on investment of anything (we did),” Keith said about posting images of the small Mason jars. “It went viral.”

Photos of the company’s jars, along with its contact information, were shared over and over online and flew around Internet circles. Keith said the volume of Fillmore Container’s sales for the Mason jar tripled in four months.

“A lot of (our) business is home cooks or cottage industry, or hobby levels needing to order small amounts,” Keith said.

The types of jars offered by Fillmore Container are available from wholesale companies in very large quantities or at retail stores in very small amounts. But the Reinharts are finding their niche in-between those markets.

“Most wholesale distributors are not set up for e-commerce,” Keith said. “I think there is a bit of disconnect to home canners.”

Though e-commerce has been a boon to the business, it was a new concept for the Reinharts.

“So much has changed in e-commerce over the past 10 years,” Lisa said.

With e-commerce, customers can go online to a website and view products, shop around, order directly and pay — at any hour of day or night that is convenient for them, especially useful if they have a full-time job during weekdays.

It is not an accident that the company is located in Lancaster, Pa. — home to many diversified farms and small food processing businesses. The container company started as an offshoot to the Jake & Amos line of mostly Amish farm food products, such as jams and sauces, founded by David Doolittle. Adding Fillmore Container was a way for Doolittle to consolidate and minimize cost for his packers. But, eventually, the container side of the business grew and needed separate management.

Around that time, Keith, who comes from a marketing background, was ready to stop traveling as much as was required by his former job. And, he and Lisa wanted to have a family. He heard about the container business through a friend of his.

A year after Keith initially talked to the owners, he and a partner bought Fillmore Container.

“From there, it was a gradual investment in technology, he said.

In 2003, the company was grossing $1 million. It has grown since then, an estimated 20 to 25 percent annually during the Reinharts’ 11-year tenure. Now its 15,000 square-foot warehouse, the third in an ever-larger series of spaces, is getting too small.

New technologies included a website. Keith recognized that customers wanted to view the canning products before ordering them, without having to make a trip to the office, and the company wanted to have current pricing available to them.

The company’s more recent website (www.fillmorecontainer.com), with its e-commerce platform, has been up since August 2012, linked to a new ERP (enterprise resource planning) system that has made a big difference in the company’s operation. (An ERP is a database that links the departments of the business together for reporting, data analysis and other functions.) Online orders are directly tracked to inventory in Fillmore Container’s warehouse, for one thing.

The ERP system has changed how Keith spends his time.

“Now, we can focus on other things,” he said.

Keith oversees the software concepts for the business, along with “putting out fires” managing the company. Fillmore Container has 10 full-time and four part-time employees. Keith’s father, who is the company’s full-time accountant, also works in the warehouse or wherever else he’s needed at times.

“I’m not inherently a numbers guy, so that’s a little hard for me,” laughed Keith. “I’d rather be looking at other aspects of the business.” He puts his marketing skills to good use, analyzing customer preferences, for instance.

Right now, growth is the company’s biggest challenge, according to Keith, and along with that comes managing the (warehouse) space and personnel. He also sometimes worries about another area: his supply chain.

“If you’re not diversified in (your) supply chain, you can be shut down in a heartbeart,” he said. He works to maintain good relationships with his vendors. The company buys much of its products, about 75 percent, from within the U.S., but now imports some from China, Mexico and Korea as well.

And how are relationships within the family that runs a business together?

“I like working with Dad,” Keith said. The couple themselves, well, they talk about work even on “date night.”

Lisa said her biggest stress with the growth of the company is worrying about how to balance work needs with family needs. She works mostly from their home, a 10-minute commute, where she cares for the couple’s three children, Brendan, 10, Elisabeth, 8, and Parker, 6.

Keith works late sometimes, he said. But he acknowledged that, “Nobody ever says, Yeah, I spent enough time with my family.’”

The evolution of the Reinharts’ engagement in social media began only a year ago, starting with a presence on Facebook, Pinterest and a blog. The couple hired an outside consultant to manage their social media.

“We never thought we needed to do social media,” Lisa said.

Working online from home, she strategically plans what the company will post online, seeking ideas and studying trends.

“It’s amazing how much time social media takes,” she said.

While it may seem simple to upload a few photos onto a website, Lisa explains that it’s not so easy. The etiquette of social media, she has found, means that her online posts must be new and original. The content needs to be creative and cutting-edge, not “old” news. Putting out information that has been passed around the Internet already does not generate interest or get loyal followers to a blog nor a Pinterest account.

“We’ve been conservative and tight-reined on what we put on social media,” she said. If she posts a recipe online “we make sure it’s okay, tested by (us) or someone.”

“My goal is to keep whatever we’re posting relevant for the home canner, postings that would be useful,” she said. “The last question I ask myself before posting is, would I want this in my Facebook feed? I wouldn’t want to send something that I wouldn’t want to sent to a friend.”

She must stay on top of canning trends, such as the introduction this year of Ball’s new green-colored glass pint and quart canning jars. Fillmore Container was one of the first to blog about the new green jar before Ball had even released it.

“We had a large response to it,” Lisa said.

Keith noted that in the decade they’ve been in the canning industry, they’ve had to learn a lot as well.

“You have to make sure you’re providing a value to your customer beyond just a glass jar,’” Keith said.

They find that a lot of customers have canning or candle questions when they call.

“People are looking for a resource. It’s more than buying the product,” Lisa said.

The company answers product questions and also guides callers to resources such as USDA’s guide for home canners and Cooperative Extension offices.

“You’d be amazed at the calls we get from people who have no idea what is required to sell a processed product,” she said.

The company tells callers “you need to engage with a process’ authority,” Lisa said. “Most customers are grateful to hear that they need to get more safety information.”

And, she said, canning safety regulations change. And produce itself changes.

But their home customer base has continued to grow. Some of their customers started as small-order hobbyists, then turned into big accounts when they lost their full-time jobs and decided to turn their hobby into a cottage business.

Fillmore Container will sell any amount, from one case of jars up to a truckload at a time. Shipping costs for glass containers can get expensive, so there are more and more customers from nearby states such as New Jersey, New York and Delaware driving to Lancaster to pick up their orders, said Keith. The company has regular customers across the U.S. as well as in Germany, Australia and Switzerland.

Although contract packers bring in 80 percent of the company’s revenue, the Reinharts are the most enthusiastic about the 80 percent of home-canning customers who account for the remaining 20 percent of revenue.

They are passionate about helping people become more interested in home canning.

“We look at the health part of it, and the environment,” Lisa said. “Even ... people who’ve fallen on hard times can use canning.”

“That drives me. There is both a financial benefit, but also a deeper satisfaction from seeing someone start a (canning) business,” Lisa said.


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7/22/2014 | Last Updated: 7:00 PM