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Tea labels printed in-house are steeped in savings

When it comes to packaging, Eastern Shore Tea Co./Baltimore Coffee & Tea likes to keep things simple. Managing more than 250 varieties of freshly roasted coffee and 200 tea creations, the Lutherville, MD, company, which manufactures products under its own name as well as for private-label customers, has found that a streamlined packaging approach not only allows for the greatest customization, but it also saves time and money.

In January, Eastern Shore Tea installed its second digital color thermal-transfer printer, the QLS-4100 Xe from QuickLabel(R) Systems, An Astro-Med Product Group (www.quicklabelsystems.com). Added to an existing printer from the same supplier, the new unit has allowed Eastern Shore Tea to increase its capacity to affordably print short runs of its tea carton and bag labels, while enabling it to "bring new product from concept to finished product in as little as twenty-four hours," according to company president Stanley Constantine.

In 1992, with a family history in the coffee business dating back to 1895, Stanley Constantine established The Baltimore Coffee & Tea Co., Inc., a small-batch roaster of specialty coffees sold in grocery stores and to local restaurants. In 1999, the company purchased Eastern Shore Tea Co., a mom-and-pop tea producer located in Eastern Maryland, and added whole-leaf tea and teabags to its extensive product lineup.

The business today, known as Eastern Shore Tea Co./Baltimore Coffee & Tea, operates out of a 15,000-sq-ft factory outlet in suburban Maryland that acts as a testing ground for new coffee and tea formulations, in addition to its manufacturing and packaging duties. "We use the factory outlet primarily for market research," says Constantine. "It allows us to try new products and new flavors before we introduce them to the general market."

Within its tea operations, Eastern Shore Tea creates custom flavors and packaging for private-label users that include California's Huntington Library, the Delaware Art Museum, and the gift shops of the Smithsonian museums, as well as local grocery and specialty retailers, in addition to the 200-plus varieties under the Eastern Shore name. Teabag products are sold in 20-bag quantities in film-wrapped cartons and in coated paper bags with a distinctive ribbon-tie closure.

Flavor varieties cater to virtually any occasion or mood and include herb-and fruit-infused formulations like Vanilla, Burgundy Cherry, Christmas Mint, Key Lima Colada, Darjeeling and Russian Caravan, among many, many others.

Packaging problems brew

Original packaging for Eastern Shore Tea consisted of only one format: a pasted, open-mouth bag made from coated white paper, folded over at the top and secured with a twist tie. The bag was tied with a matching ribbon wrapped around the entire bag lengthwise that was then covered front and back with preprinted labels.

While using preprinted labels was costly, the concept of using one bag for multiple stockkeeping units appealed to Eastern Shore Tea, and when it added a 20-count tuck-style folding carton to its line, it followed the same system. "We decided that instead of printing 200 different boxes and inventorying them all, with quantities that could range anywhere from fifty to 75,000 units, we would use a box that was printed on the sides and top and bottom, with a blank front and back, onto which we would apply the labels," says Constantine. "It's just worked out perfectly for us."

Using preprinted labels for every sku, though, was still a major drawback. One key to Eastern Shore Tea's success is its ability to respond quickly to retailers and private groups looking for a customized product in small quantities for seasonal or holiday promotions, as well as for special occasions. Using preprinted labels meant that leadtimes could sometimes be excessive, and minimum-order quantities of 3,000 to 4,000 were typical. "The labels were printed on an offset press," says Constantine, "so they were very pricey. It was also very expensive to inventory more than 400 different labels."

Two for tea labels

To eliminate the cost and inventory headaches associated with preprinted labels, Eastern Shore Tea investigated various in-house printing solutions that included QuickLabel Systems' thermal-transfer technology and some ink-jet-based systems. Ink-jet was dismissed because, at a speed of 1 in./sec, it could not meet Eastern Shore's productivity requirements, and its consumables were costly.

In the fall of 1999, the company installed its first QuickLabel printer, the QLS-4000, which was joined last January by an updated version, the QLS-4100 Xe. The compact, desktop system uses thermal-transfer technology with four printheads to print text, graphics and bar codes in four process or spot colors directly from a PC. The supplier's proprietary Color QuickLabel 99(R) Pro software enables quick and easy label design, according to Constantine. "The beauty of the software is that what you see is what you get," he says.

The speed of the machine—5 ips for the 4000, and 7 ips for the 4100 Xe—is more than adequate for Eastern Shore Tea, which typically prints its labels at 4 ips to "balance speed and quality."

And, with no plates to expose and no makeready issues before printing, the QuickLabel printers have enabled the tea maker to get new product to market much more quickly. Affirms Constantine, "One of our grocery chains may call up and say that the iced-tea season is coming up, is there something new that we can do? After a few suggestions, we'll complete the artwork, which takes about a day, and within 24 to 36 hours, they'll have the proof in their hands."

The buzz on in-house printing

Eastern Shore Tea now prints about 500 different skus each day with its two QuickLabel digital printers. Label art is produced by Constantine's son Chas, an artist who has learned to emulate the simple style of the original artwork created by Eastern Shore Tea's previous owner. Graphics consist of saturated, watercolor-like illustrations that Constantine says are ideal for thermal-transfer reproduction, along with text and UPC codes.

The labels are printed on a high-gloss white stock for the bags, and on a high-gloss tan for the carton and come in three sizes: 1 x 4, 3.75 x 3.95 and 2.75 x 3.75 in. A fourth size, 3.75 x 12 in., is used for coffee cans. The butt-cut label stock, which is supplied by QuickLabel Systems, comes in rolls of 2,000, which Constantine says can be used for several jobs without any changeover issues. "We just open up the next file, hit print, and away we go!" he says.

Ribbons are also supplied by QuickLabel and are available in a range of spot colors, including metallics, in addition to CMYK, for a virtually endless color palette. Eastern Shore Tea buys its consumables from QuickLabel under a contract that then allows them to receive free printheads after their warranty has expired. Although Constantine says the printhead offer was "a big, big incentive," he adds that the quality of the consumables is excellent and the prices very cost-competitive. "No other supplier can approach the quality of QuickLabel's labels," he says. "It is critically important to us that once our art department designs a label, it looks the same every time. If the label stock changes over time, order-to-order, lot-to-lot, that creates a problem. QuickLabel is dead-on every time."

As for print quality, Constantine says that although the printers have a resolution of 300 dpi, the end product appears of even greater quality due to QuickLabel's MicroCell(R) dot-placement algorithm, which is incorporated into the software.

Best of all, Eastern Shore Tea can achieve near-offset-quality labels in runs as short as 50 labels. Because there are no plates or setup charges, the digital printer can run 100 to 200 pieces as cost-effectively as it can run 5,000. It isn't until run lengths of 10,000 that Constantine says the switch to offset may make more sense. "At this point, the cost advantages of using the QLS or preprinted labels kind of blurs," he says.

Once printed, labels are applied in one of two ways. For the cartons, front and back labels are applied with a Label-Aire (www.label-aire.com) machine. For the bags, ribbons must first be wrapped onto the bags by hand, and front and back labels manually applied.

Savings spout from change

Eastern Shore Tea's plain and simple approach to packaging has been so successful, that it has carried the concept over to its individual teabag packs. Every variety of teabag is now wrapped in an identical gold envelope bearing the Eastern Shore logo and information, while specific flavor information is added under the logo using a Linx noncontact ink-jet printer from Diagraph (www.diagraph.com).

The most telling measure of Eastern Shore Tea's success, though, is in the numbers. Constantine estimates that the company is now saving more than $150,000 per year in label costs since acquiring the QuickLabel printers.

"The way we arrived at that number is that we were purchasing about 500,000 preprinted labels per year at thirty-five cents each, because of the quantities needed for offset printing," he explains. "Five hundred QLS labels at four cents each comes to $20,000. So that's about a $155,000 savings, not including the costs saved by eliminating art preparation and plate charges. It's also really hard to calculate our inventory savings. So the final number is very substantial."

More information is available:

  • Digital color thermal transfer printer, label stock, ribbons: QuickLabel(R) Systems, An Astro-Med, Inc. Product Group, 877/757-7978. www.quicklabelsystems.com

  • Label applicator: Label-Aire, 714/441-0700. www.label-aire.com

  • Ink-jet printer: Diagraph, An ITW Company, 800/722-1125. www.diagraph.com

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