Frozen dinners and entrees, always stalwart sellers, have a niche now that is outpacing traditional dinners on a plate. Bowls, or meals ready to eat after a short session in the microwave oven, showed a 79% growth in sales for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 30, 2000, according to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill.
"Bowls seem to be very hot for everybody right now," said Pat Brooks, frozen food category manager for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif. He said the bowl entrees, many of which come with rice, "have given dinners and entrees a little spark."
Retailers say this segment of the entree category provides convenience and the products taste good. Uncle Ben's -- which received an award at the National Frozen Food Convention in October for its new entries -- Healthy Choice and Kings Hawaiian were mentioned by several as having done a good job.
"It's quick, nutritious and easy to prepare. To me, it fits the home meal replacement, particularly in the work environment, where they have a microwave oven," Brooks continued. "They're quality foods at a value price: selling for about $1.99 to $4." Uncle Ben's had rice, and now is coming out with other types of meals in a bowl.
Mark Clements, frozen food manager of Clements' Market, Portsmouth, R.I., said his store has eight doors of frozen dinners and entrees, and the future will probably bring an increase in the facings of bowls, and perhaps he will have to give the segment another shelf.
Among the frozen bagged meals, which are all doing well, Clements said Skillet Sensations has been selling the best, followed by Voila! and Create-A-Meal, and the new Green Giant family-sized meals, 38 to 40 ounces, are seeing increased demand. Uncle Ben's rice bowls have sold very well, and so have all the Heinz Boston Market items, he added.
Most sales of frozen dinner items go to a mixture of middle-aged and elderly customers, he said. "I sell quite a bit to people 60 and over; we have a large elderly population here. Bagged items are more often bought by more young parents to the middle-aged," he said. Prices in that area range from $2.99 to $5.99.
Cascadian Farm, Sedro-Woolley, Wash., introduced four flavors of organic frozen bowl entrees in September.
A few Save Mart stores now have natural food sections, Brooks said. "We are doing some tests on natural foods and how we want to expand. Some will go mainstream. Amy's Kitchen does a great job and so does Cascadian Farm. I think it's just a matter of time before these folks become mainstream."
Total frozen dinners reached a dollar volume of $1.2 billion, a drop of 2% from the prior year, according to ACNielsen's statistics. But total entrees, including bowls, had sales of $2.9 billion, an increase of 8.1%, ACNielsen said.
D'Agostino's, Larchmont, N.Y., may be the exception which proves the rule. Customers of that upscale urban chain prefer the skillet dinner, which they can customize by adding spices or more meat or chicken, said Luigi Mucciacciaro, frozen food category manager.
"Birds Eye Voila! and Stouffer's Skillet Sensations, those are the top two brands right now. Bowls? We sell them, but they are not so big in our stores," Mucciacciaro said.
Frozen dinners have driven the increase in stockkeeping units, he added, by around four running feet, considerable for city stores.
"Category management had to come into play. In our stores, there's no two facings or three, or five, like some of the suburban stores. Our average frozen food case is anywhere from 19 to 23 doors, compared to 50 to 60 doors in larger stores," Mucciacciaro said.
SN was wondering what the difference is in definition between "dinner" and an "entree." Here it is, according to the experts:
Dinner is a more complete meal, with compartments for meat and a side dish or two. An entree is either meat or chicken mixed with vegetables, and usually it is a smaller portion than a dinner.
Signage in D'Agostino's is Dinners and Entrees, two separate categories. "We usually mix in the pot pies, with dinners, but entrees are strictly entrees alone. We have the light entrees, the Weight Watchers and Healthy Choice and all, under one heading," said Mucciacciaro.
In the Richmond, Va., market, SN visited a Wal-Mart Supercenter with 27 doors devoted to frozen dinners and entrees, and a Kroger that had 14 doors of frozen dinners, labeled Entrees, Light Entrees and "Dinner." They contained compartment dinners by Banquet, the Kroger brand and Swanson, and also Kid Cuisine by ConAgra, then a section of garlic bread, followed by three doors of the new Private Selections Kroger premium brand family meals, some on sale. The Stir Fry meals came next, followed by a range of frozen potatoes.
The Kroger store had family-size Stouffer's macaroni and cheese, and next to it the Private Selections' "Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese." Other items in the Private Selections line include a three-cheese lasagna, with the family size on sale at $7.99 (usually $9.99); microwavable Flaky Chicken Pies, Cheese Bruschetta, Chicken Strips, Mini Potato Skins, Pizza Style; Homestyle Potato-Topped Beef Pie; Buffalo Style Breaded Chicken Tenders; Homestyle Potato Topped Chicken Pie; and a 27.2 -ounce full rack of Baby Back Pork Ribs, $11.99 on sale, regularly $13.29.
Most frozen dinner consumers, retailers say, like to cook, but not from scratch. They like partially prepared meals that they can finish themselves, fine-tuning them by the addition of spices or more meat or poultry. Starting with ingredients that are already put together reduces the time from an hour to an hour-and-a-half, a more traditional time, to today's 10 to 20 minutes. "There is big demand, absolutely, for Viola! and Sensations," said Mucciacciaro. "This is a category that is just surfacing because it gives the consumer a chance to turn on the stove and takes less time than starting from scratch. A little touch-up, and they have a meal ready for one, or two, or a small family."
Information Resources Inc., Chicago, pegs the frozen dinner/entree category at $4.5 billion a year, showing a growth of 5.3% in dollar sales for the year ended Sept. 10, 2000.
The top 10 brands, according to IRI, are: Stouffer's, Healthy Choice, Marie Callender's, Weight Watchers Smart Ones, Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics, Swanson Hungryman, Swanson, Michelina's and Banquet, followed by Birdseye Viola!, Stouffer's Skillet Sensations and Stouffer's Oven Sensations. The greatest growth was shown by Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics (39.5%), Michelina's (22%) and Stouffer's Skillet Sensations (23%). The biggest decreases were represented by Stouffer's Lean Cuisine (-32%), Healthy Choice (-11%) and Swanson (-10%).