Frozen solid

Healthier and better-for-you options are helping to revitalize the frozen
entrées category.

Frozen meals have come a long way since the days of the three compartment, aluminum tray TV dinners of Salisbury steak, instant potatoes and a little brownie for dessert. Today’s offerings not only taste better, but also in many cases are healthy options low in sodium,  with no artificial colors, preservatives or other artificial ingredients.OC-Deluxe-PS--MarinaraMeatball

Take Kahiki, for example. The frozen Asian food company, named after a one-time landmark Columbus, Ohio, restaurant, is rolling out a new line called StirFresh consisting of all-natural ingredients, with no artificial flavors, preservatives or MSG.

“Consumers are looking for cleaner ingredients, purer ingredients and shorter ingredient statements,” says Scott Corey, director of marketing for Kahiki Foods, based in Gahanna, Ohio. “There’s been a halo of high sodium and high fat over the frozen food industry for a long time, so we’re latching onto this trend of shorter ingredient statements and more pure ingredients that consumers are looking for,” he says.

Kahiki StirFresh is available in General Tso’s Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken, Beef & Broccoli, Garlic Shrimp & Vegetables and Orange Chicken varieties and is being marketed in addition to Kahiki’s existing lines of complete meals, tempura chicken and egg rolls.

The natural trend is one of the bright spots in the frozen dinners category, which sales wise has been in a bit of a deep freeze of late. According to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 6, sales of the multi-serve frozen dinners/entrées category was $2.05 billion, a 5.3% decrease. During the same period unit sales dropped 4.75% to 343.7 million.

A similar scenario is unfolding with single-serve frozen dinners. During the same period sales declined 4.6% to $4.5 billion, while unit sales fell 4.84% to $2.1 billion, IRI reports.
Supermarkets can take steps to help reverse that slide, say industry observers.

“Retailers need to reeducate consumers, particularly the younger generation, on the benefits of frozen foods—how these foods can help provide meal solutions for these often time-pressed shoppers,” says Fred Martino, vice president, sales for On-Cor Frozen Foods, the Aurora, Ill.-based manufacturer of value family-sized entrées. “In addition to the high-dollar gourmet items, they also need to remind these consumers that their stores offer shoppers economical alternatives, such as On-Cor.”

In business for more than seven decades, On-Cor has a following that runs for generations, Martino says. “Our niche is bringing families together for mealtime, and our message over time has been consistent: quality, convenience and value,” he says.

To remain competitive, On-Cor has updated its look and continues to add products; its newest offering is On-Cor Wyngz. “These boneless fully-cooked wing-shaped pieces capitalize on the chicken wing craze by providing an easy microwavable solution for consumers looking to fill their dinner plate or prepare a quick, convenient snack,” Martino says.

On-Cor has other new items in the pipeline. “On-Cor will continue to provide quality, convenience and value, but will also serve up foods that follow current flavor trends by introducing items that include bacon and flavorful sauces,” Martino says, adding that merchandising is also being stepped up. “On-Cor will continue unique messaging across all media platforms, including a fresh television commercial and updates to our website.”

Pinnacle Foods is updating its frozen dinner offerings with the Birds Eye Recipe Ready line of pre-cut, sliced and diced vegetables that, according to company officials, makes mealtime easier by cutting down on prep time. The only cutting consumers have to do is on the bag.

“Birds Eye is committed to being mom’s ally in the kitchen with products that speed-up and simplify cooking to bring families together for dinnertime more often,” says Mark Schiller, executive vice president and president, Birds Eye Frozen Division at Parsippany, N.J.-based Pinnacle Foods. “That’s why we developed Recipe Ready and other convenience-based, vegetable products. We want to ensure that mom can spend less time cooking and more quality time with her family.”

Pizza tonight
For many busy families frozen pizza offers another quick, inexpensive dinner option. Recent category innovations have expanded the category to reach more households, observers say.

“I don’t think dinner is the same for families with children as it might be for just adults,” says Mike Pytlinski, director of marketing, for Palermo Villa, a Milwaukee-based frozen pizza manufacturer. “Families may like rising crust and medium crust products, but flatbreads might be a great dinner option for a one- or two-person household that you can have by itself, as an appetizer or maybe with a bagged salad.”

That is why retailers can boost sales by tying in frozen pizza with other ancillary items in the store, like bagged salad, fresh mushrooms, grated cheese, garlic bread, beer, wine and soft drinks, Pytlinski says. “They are all very viable options on how to accessorize or complement what already exists as a main meal,” he says.

With its new Screamin’ Sicilian line of “craft” pizzas, Palermo Villa is bringing accessorized pizzas to a whole new level. “Screamin’ Sicilian has been a year and a half in the making,” Pytlinski says. “We saw the explosive growth of craft beer and there is a super-premium segment in a lot of other categories, but there was not one in pizza.”

For Screamin’ Sicilian, Palermo Villa officials tested 40 different types of locally-produced sausage to find the best one, Pytlinski says. “And we are delivering an abundant amount of it,” he adds. “We call it literally an over-topped pizza. It is not for the faint of heart. We think this is the closest to a true pizzeria taste that you can deliver.”

Screamin’ Sicilian’s $8.99 suggested retail price also sets it apart from the other pizzas in the case. Currently being tested in Milwaukee, Chicago and Kansas City, results have exceeded expectations.

Eat your CRUNCHtables
Vegetables make the perfect accompaniment to a frozen entrée, but a bag of frozen broccoli or green beans in the shopping carriage will likely cause many kids—and adults—to turn their noses up. Throw a box or two of CRUNCHtables in the cart, however, and a two-thumbs-up may be in the offering.

Modeled after the crispy green bean fries sold at TGIFridays, Applebee’s and other fast-casual restaurants, CRUNCHtables are lightly breaded and seasoned sliced vegetables that come out crisp and crunchy when heated up in a conventional or toaster oven, say company officials.

“When it comes to frozen vegetables, many simply take a bag, steam it and pour it on a plate, and that’s not going to cut it with a lot of people,” says Dan Horan, vice president, at Intevation Food Group, the Plover, Wis.-based manufacturer of CRUNCHtables. “There are a lot of ‘vegetable rejecters’ out there, as we call them.”

Intevation wanted to enhance vegetables and make them more interesting, Horan says. It did so by very lightly coating them with crushed croutons, spices and parmesan cheese. “We looked at what casual-themed restaurants were doing, and one of the biggest trends on their menus over the last five years has been the growth of vegetables as appetizers replacing cheese sticks and things like that,” he says.

CRUNCHtables are available in crouton coated Green Bean Fries; Zucchini Crisps; Broccoli Bites; Mushroom Crisps; Jalapeno/Onion Crisps; Spinach, Cheese and Artichoke Balls, and Pretzel Coated Dill Pickle Crisps.

Horan suggests retailers merchandise CRUNCHtables in the frozen vegetable section. “By merchandising them there it is creating a new sales opportunity for retailers,” he says. “They are creating the idea among vegetable buyers to use a vegetable as a snack, appetizer or side dish, whereas if they are merchandised in the snack section, probably 80% of sales would be for snacks.”

Intevation research finds that many people are using CRUNCHtables as a side dish. “We were surprised by this, but a lot of people are using it in addition to items on their plate, so it is not replacing something.”

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