Cold front

New and drastically improved items are transforming the frozen dinner case.

By Richard Turcsik

On tonight’s menu:

Chopped Beef Steak, featuring tender chopped beef steak smothered in a piping hot Brewhouse mushroom gravy, with sides of tender green beans and crisp bacon and oven-roasted red potatoes.

Chicken Margherita, pairing juicy white meat chicken with penne pasta, tomatoes, red bell peppers and spinach, with mozzarella cheese in a savory balsamic sauce.

Coastal Crab Cakes made from a blend of flake and claw crab meat enrobed by a rich creamy base of mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, breadcrumbs and a hint of mustard.

And for the vegetarian at the table:

Vegetable Pad Thai—tangy and spicy stir-fried noodles mixed with select vegetables and tofu, prepared with spices, tamarind and ground peanuts.

All of these entrees can be easily found in the supermarket freezer case.

Clearly this isn’t your father’s TV dinner. Those multi-compartment aluminum trays filled with Salisbury steak, instant potatoes and emerald peas have given way to doors upon doors of restaurant-quality entrées and sides, made with high-quality ingredients. And they can be prepared in minutes, simply by popping in the microwave or heating in a skillet.

“Today’s consumer is looking for taste, consistent quality and exciting new products,” says Roz O’Hearn, marketing communications director at Salon, Ohio-based Nestlé Prepared Foods, the manufacturer of Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine and Buitoni frozen dinners.

“We rarely cook from scratch anymore,” notes John Plaso, vice president, business development at Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra, manufacturer of the Banquet, Marie Callender’s, Healthy Choice and Claim Jumper brands. “We’re on the move. Double-income families are more prevalent and people want convenient alternatives that help them produce a family meal.”

And frankly, these days shoppers can pick up a nutritious frozen restaurant-quality dinner for less than the cost of a Burger King Value Meal. “With the lingering effects of the recession, many shoppers are turning to canned and frozen products, which can offer both cost savings and convenience for those who are cooking and eating at home more often,” Plaso says.

“The downturn in the economy has caused a real hurt on the foodservice industry, but it also means that people are looking for other meal solutions at home,” says Michael Ryan, vice president, marketing, at Deep Foods, a Union, N.J.-based manufacturer of frozen Indian foods. “They are looking for something different and not the same-old, same-old. They are looking for new opportunities for good taste experiences, almost restaurant experiences, through the frozen foods case.”

Deep’s single-serve Tandoor Chef brand entrées and side dishes range from $2.99 to $4.99. “As a result, there is no sticker shock and our Indian meals are not at some crazy restaurant price,” Ryan says.

ConAgra research shows frozen items appeared on the dinner table 17% of the time in 2009, vs. 13% in 1994, Plaso says.

According to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, for the 52-weeks ended July 11, sales of multi-serve frozen dinners in the food/drug/mass category, excluding Walmart, club and gas/c-stores, reached a staggering $1.32 billion. That’s up 1.87% from a year ago, with a unit volume 242.15 million, up 3%.

Steam heat

According to industry executives, new products continue to drive volume.

Stouffer’s recently introduced Lean Cuisine Market Creations, which it bills as the ‘“it’ product of the season.” The meals use a special steam pouch resulting in crisp vegetables, tender chicken and al denté pasta, and are available in eight varieties: Asiago Cheese Tortelloni, Chicken Alfredo, Chicken Margherita, Garlic Chicken, Mushroom Tortelloni, Shanghai-Style Shrimp, Shrimp Scampi, and Sweet & Spicy Ginger Chicken.

“When it comes to trends, steam is an important one,” says O’Hearn. “Whole grain also continues strong, and we’re using whole grains in a variety of our products.” In fact, the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, recently donated $500,000 to the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute to fund a collaborative study focused on examining the effects of a diet rich in whole grains on body composition and energy metabolism.

ConAgra is also going the steamer route, introducing a line of Healthy Choice steaming entrees in Sesame Glazed Chicken, Chicken Romano Fresca, Garlic & Herb Shrimp, Lemon Herb Chicken, Honey Balsamic Chicken, Roasted Chicken Verde, Portabella Parmesan Risotto, and Rosemary Chicken & Sweet Potatoes varieties.

It is also expanding its Marie Callender’s Fresh Flavor Steamers line. “Building on the success of its $70-plus million steaming platform, Marie Callender’s is broadening its line beyond Italian to more mainstream ethnic cuisines and launching six new flavors to continue to bring the fresh flavors and textures of a homemade meal,” Plaso says.

Calling all hungry men

While many of the steamed dinners are targeted to women, Mountain Lakes, N.J.-based Pinnacle Foods Group, manufacturer of the industry-pioneer Swanson brand, targets the male audience with its Hungry-Man portfolio.

“We’ve done quite a bit with the Hungry-Man brand over the last couple of months to rebuild and restage it and become more relevant to our target male consumers,” says Kristen Thompson, senior brand manager.

Hungry-Man’s heavy users are men, ages 18 to 34, representing about 70% of its consumption. “About 65% of these guys are single and/or fending for themselves in some way, so they are purchasing and consuming,” Thompson says. “So what Hungry-Man can bring to the retailer’s frozen department is very unique. There’s a lot of data showing the growing importance of the male shopper. Hungry-Man is really the only brand that’s clearly positioned towards these guys, and we attract a new and heavy user to the category and the store.”

According to Deep’s Ryan, stocking Indian food also brings new shoppers to the freezer case. “The Indian population is growing, but not dramatically so,” he says. “Most of our growth is coming from the mainstream American consumer. They are looking for different spice profiles. We provide that and a unique eating experience that up until fairly recently they were only able to get in a restaurant.”

In markets where Indian cuisine has been established Ryan recommends Tandoor Chef products be merchandised next to their mainstream cousins, but “if you are a late comer and are just getting established in the category, you should create an Indian door, if you will, so that it has a big splash and visibility,” he says.

“But many retailers with limited space end up carrying four brands of chicken Tikka Masala, instead of four different items for a consumer to try. You end up with a less than ideal set,” he says. “I look for a menu experience. When you go into a restaurant you see a menu with appetizers, breads, main dish, side dishes, etc. That is what you need to do in the Indian frozen section too. You need to offer the gamut.”

Crabbing an entree

Getting a restaurant-quality meal in the freezer case doesn’t have to be limited to complete dinners. Baltimore-based Phillips Foods sells its crab cakes as a stand-alone center-of-plate entrée. “The definition of our brand is products that have come out of the restaurant side of our business,” says Honey Konicoff, vice president, marketing. “Our Signature crab cakes are Shirley Phillips’ original recipe, right out of the restaurant. We also have Minis, right out of our restaurants, and we are launching Coastal Crab Cake, made with flaky white meat as well as claw, which is at a price point lower than our original Signature crab cake.”

To increase dollar rings, the crab cakes can be teamed with side dishes, like frozen broccoli or mixed vegetables, or higher-ring items, like calamari. “We watch restaurant trends and when it comes to sides that go with crab cakes, we just launched our Retail Calamari,” Konicoff says. “If you go back a year and look at all of the hot restaurant trends, calamari is getting a lot of attention. We see it in our own restaurants. So we have launched a breaded salt-and-pepper calamari.”

To better merchandise their freezer doors, Konicoff suggests retailers read the local restaurant menus. “A strong category to particularly be watching is fish,” she says. “One of the hot fishes right now is Barramundi. It is really hot on restaurant menus and just starting to emerge in the retail environment. We’ve just launched a retail 12-ounce Barramundi. For the most part, there is a trickle down that starts in restaurants and makes it way into retail.”

Price is right

Especially during the recession, many consumers respond favorably to multi-discount offerings, such as 10-for-$10 sales.

“From a shopper behavior standpoint, we know that consumers tend to stock up in this category,” Thompson says. “They’ll buy five or six dinners at a time, so at accounts where we have a high/low strategy, multiple retail price points have been very successful.”

“Banquet consumers are ‘priceline’ focused and always want to get more bang for their buck,” says ConAgra’s Plaso. “Banquet leads the value category, and our consumers expect great food at a great value. We’ve also expanded our line of Banquet Family Size entrees which appeal to the value-conscious consumer. Family Size entrees, available in seven varieties, are available for an average retail price of $2.50 and serve six.”

ConAgra is also stepping up the advertising on several of its brands, including Healthy Choice. This fall consumers will see more of the Healthy Choice Steamed Entrees in commercials showing how honest Healthy Choice is because their fresh simplicity leaves nothing to hide, company officials say.

“The new TV commercials present a fictional world of complete and utter honesty,” says Dave Linne, senior vice president of advertising. “And in a world like this, Healthy Choice fairs pretty well because it has nothing to hide.” The TV campaign will be supported by print and digital ads, he says.

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