Consumers are demanding pasta sauces that taste like homemade, and retailers are delivering.
Many pasta sauce lovers would rather spend the day pouring their souls into a slow-simmered pot of Bolognese or perfecting a carbonara than sitting at work, but the reality is that people rarely have the time to devote an entire afternoon to making sauce. Consumers’ lust for homemade pasta sauces, and their lack of time to make it themselves, has driven the category away from sodium and preservative-heavy options and has encouraged manufacturers to spearhead better-for-you, tastes-like-homemade options. This demand has led to products that are created in small batches with only the best ingredients and even include preservative-free refrigerated sauces that are as close to homemade as can be found in the aisles of the grocery store.
The desire for sauces that come close to a grandmother’s secret family recipe has pushed some items out of the center store aisle and into the refrigerated sections. Rochelle Randazzo, founder of Glen Rock, N.J.-based Randazzo’s Honest to Goodness Sauces, is a part of that movement. She recently rolled out some of the first grocery store-bought jarred meat sauces that can be found in the refrigerated section. Randazzo says her products are usually either found in deli refrigerators or in fresh cheese displays, but after seeing a fridge filled with fresh sauces in the pasta aisle of a Michigan Kroger, she now hopes that one day more retailers will incorporate these premium products into their center store aisles. This idea is not far-fetched, as refrigerated sets are moving into baby food aisles, and even the pet food aisle, and could help encourage shoppers who were planning on picking up their usual jarred sauce to opt for a premium option because it is right in front of them.
“It would be nice if the stores put the same amount of refrigerated space they allocate in deli to perhaps somewhere at the end of the aisle where it’s closer to electricity and easier to implement,” she says. “Putting a refrigerated case in their traditional sauce aisle would really help.”
The Power of Premium
Even without taking the time to install a refrigerator in the pasta sauce aisle, retailers have plenty of options when it comes to stocking their shelves with premium products that offer consumers clean labels, desirable ingredients and engaging variety.
Amanda Wirth, assistant sales manager for the Eastern division of Safeway, a subsidiary of the Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Cos., has noticed an uptick in sophistication in what consumers are looking for in the pasta sauce category.
“When it comes to pasta sauces, higher end gourmet sauces made with heirloom tomatoes or traditional home-style recipes are really taking off,” she notes. “National brands are taking note and developing higher-end products to keep up with these trends.”
As Wirth says, many long-lived national brands have been adding premium, on-trend items to their portfolios in response to this overwhelming consumer demand. For example, Ragu offers an Old World Style Organic Traditional Sauce and a line of “thick and hearty” home-style sauces; Prego – whose jingle once proclaimed, “Prego is the best!” – has kept to its promise and now offers a Farmer’s Market line of sauces adorned with rustic labels and premium sauces inspired by restaurant recipes that include flavors such as Bacon and Provolone and Merlot Marinara. Bertolli offers organic sauces in a variety of flavors, a Riserva premium line of sauces with flavors like balsamic vinegar and caramelized onion, and porcini mushroom with truffle oil, while Victoria Fine Foods, which has always been a better-for-you premium sauce line, has upped the ante further by adding to its portfolio a marinara made with avocado oil.
“Transformation has definitely occurred within the pasta sauce aisle over the past few years. As consumers are becoming more health-conscious and paying attention to ingredient labels, we’re starting to see more space allocated to premium brands,” affirms Eric Skae, general manager of New York City-based Rao’s Specialty Foods.
Retailers Sauce up Digital Promotions
American shoppers eat up Italian food, and some retailers have been encouraging this craving by using their websites to promote deals on pasta and pasta sauces and sharing recipes that inspire shoppers to pick up their private label sauces or other offerings they carry in-store.
The Kroger Co. has an entire Taste of Italy section on its site devoted to promoting the pasta products they carry on their shelves. The Cincinnati-based retailer digital promotions tout the ability to get an item for free with the purchase of a jar of Orti d’Italia pasta sauce, and also suggests mixing it into gnocchi with basil and parmesan for a quick dinner. To promote the sauce even further, Kroger features a recipe for Sicilian Pasta with Eggplant that is made with Orti d’Italia and suggests that it includes ingredients that are offered for free with certain purchases.
Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, meanwhile, uses a similar strategy to help its shoppers fall in love with its Italian Classics private label line by keeping its website updated with recipes using these sauces and other items found in the store. From a classic meat lasagna recipe using its Seasoned Tomato Sauce (found in the deli section) to a Gnocchi Sorrentino made with its Grandma’s Pomodoro Sauce, the 93-store retailer has created an enticing and easy way for shoppers to get dinner ideas before they even visit the store.
Taking a Page from Restaurants’ Cookbooks
Up-and-coming pasta sauce manufacturers are experts at devising strategies to get their products off shelves through promotions and in-store sampling. Since many of these smaller companies offer small-batch, premium products that can pique shoppers’ interest and encourage them to reach for something other than the same old brand they have been buying for years. Matt Schultz, brand manager for Pasta Jay’s, a line from Boulder, Colo.-based 1908 Brands, says the fact that the sauces are inspired by recipes from a local restaurant helps push the brand, and they are working on ways to spark interest in shoppers who are not familiar with its roots.
“Our goal is to get the product off-shelf, support it with coupons, so people see it,” he says. “They hopefully have heard of Pasta Jay’s or have eaten at the restaurant, or, if not, it’s enough to have them pick up a bottle and look at it and say, ‘hey, I’ll save a dollar if I pick this up today.’ And then maybe they’ll read the little description on the side.”
Neil Fusco, chef and owner of the Mount Kisko, N.Y.-based Cucina Antica sauce brand, says if his company or retailers can get consumers to try his products, he is confident they will return for more due to the brand’s ‘high-quality ingredients, health attributes and homemade flavor.
“We are running special promotions to incentivize first-time customers to try our products such as temporary price reductions, BOGOs, demos, in store displays, in store coupons, digital coupons on retailers’ apps, flyers, ads, etc.,” he says. “In addition, we run a robust social media campaign that builds our brand awareness and helps drive consumers to the retailer’s stores.”
Manufacturers have also been helping retailers boost sauce sales with in-store promotions that play into pasta sauce shoppers’ lust for Italy. For example, The Food Network and Classico partnered up for a sweepstakes in which shoppers could enter for a chance to win a trip for two to Italy and $1,000. While no purchase was necessary to enter the contest, the words “win a trip to Italy” displayed prominently on a sign in front of the grocery store pasta sauce sections certainly brought attention to the set and got shoppers imagining the smell and taste of a fresh-cooked pasta dinner at a quaint Napoli restaurant.