As consumers continue to turn to frozen meal solutions in place of takeout food, grocers are selling more internationally-flavored products, from rising crust frozen pizza to Chinese takeout in the familiar box-shaped containers.
"My Oriental business is strong," said a frozen food buyer from one of the nation's larger retailers. "Italian has been around forever and is still strong. Mexican is next, but ours is more on the low end. We're a value grocer, and more blue collar than upscale."
This buyer, who did not want to be identified, said he has had some success with Oriental food by promoting Pagoda Cafe egg rolls with Tai Pan entrees. "My feeling is, we're exposing more people to it," he said.
Total units of Italian/Mexican/Oriental frozen foods sold in supermarkets in the year ended June 17, 2000, were up 9% on an equalized basis, surpassing the increase of 6.5% the year before, while dollar sales were up by almost 12%, according to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill. Equalized unit sales of Italian food were up by almost 8%, while Mexican grew almost 9% and Oriental sales rose by almost 16% (less growth than the year before, when it increased by 24%). Total dollar volume in the food channel for the same period was $2.2 billion, or about $5 million less than in the three channels combined.
"The focus is on convenience rather than on exotic flavors," said John Carlson, a partner in Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn. "I don't think people go to the store wishing for Italian, Oriental or Mexican. It's more that they go looking for dinner, and what looks good to them is what they're going to get."
There's a lot going on right now in the Mexican segment of frozen foods, noted two supermarket frozens buyers, Pat Brooks of Save Mart, Modesto, Calif., and Bill Spears of Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz. Not only is manufacturer Delimex trying to expand nationally, but two new lines are launching. They are Jose Ole, a line of 26 items from Specialty Brands, Riverside, Calif., owned by Iowa Beef Purveyors, and Ortega, a line of 15 items, from Nestle, Solon, Ohio.
"We've carved out a Mexican category," said Bashas' Spears, of at least two doors in each store that hold Mexican products by different makers. He said the segment must be generating excitement because it is unusual that so many new items would make their debut at the same time.
"People are trying to take things that they used to buy ready-made and have them at home," said Bryan Nichols, frozen food category manager for Marsh's Supermarkets, Indianapolis. Stir-fry frozen products continue to do well, Nichols said, "and upscale Asian food is a growing category for us. I think there is a perception that the Oriental frozen food is a healthier product than other items. It's the same thing that drives the self-rising crust pizza or Boston Market -- people are trying to take things that they used to order as takeout, but make them at home.
"This is one of the ways that we're bringing people into the store. It's an evolution of our strategy to offer meal solutions," said Nichols.
Dennis Schess, the general manager of a Food Emporium at 969 Second Ave., Manhattan, N.Y., sounded a second. "I'm selling Goya, and this is not a Spanish neighborhood. It's just the name; people like it," he said.
Taj Gourmet is among the brands Schess carries; also Kofta Curry's vegetable dumplings and the Curry Classics entrees from Arch Foods, Union, N.J., such as Chicken Tikka Makhanwala and Lamb Curry.
"Mexican and Thai sell equally well. I sell a lot of both," Dennis said. The Italian theme, mainstream now most everywhere in the U.S., is advertised on special "every few weeks" Dennis said, "and it does phenomenal."
"Lasagna today is like mac and cheese, it's a standard staple."
Customer suggestion cards keep store personnel up on what shoppers want. All around the east side of Manhattan are restaurants with names like Taste of India or Teriyaki House, so it's not surprising that shoppers look for exotic tastes in the frozen food aisle, too.
"You're taking the best of the authentic, in terms of ingredients and flavor, and serving it up so that consumers can relate to it and say, 'My family will like it,' no matter what their background or heritage is," said Kathleen MacDonnell, president and chief executive officer of Delimex. "We put pepperoni pizza filling into corn tortillas. We like to say we are putting an American spin on a Mexican classic," MacDonnell said.
In the organic frozen international segment, Cascadian Farm, of Sedro-Woolley, Wash., has a line called Meals for a Small Planet, which includes Aztec, Indian, Moroccan, Mediterranean, Cajun and Szechuan.
Does Ciao Bella Gelato, Irvington, N.J., consider itself an international frozen food? Charlie Apt, the vice president of sales and one of the owners, replied, "It's all made here in the U.S., but the basic ingredient, the flavoring, is imported directly from Italy. We are a gelato-like product in terms of air content and butterfat, 12% versus an Italian one that is more like 8% butterfat. We made that modification to suit the demands of the American consumer who is used to a higher butterfat product. Gelato is typically made with egg yolks, but we don't use those either.
"We are a gelato product, so we're an Italian product. I guess we're international, but even Haagen-Dazs just came out with a gelato." True enough, it did, but just in Haagen-Dazs shops and its food service, said Elizabeth Hanlin, director of corporate communications for the Pillsbury Co., Minneapolis.