EDISON, N.J. -- Finding home-meal replacement solutions topped off the agendas of many retailers attending the 27th Annual Eastern Dairy Deli Bakery Association Taste Show & Exhibition here, judging from interviews on the show floor.
Attendees told SN they are on the lookout for food programs from suppliers that offer better quality and more desirable nutritional profiles. They said that while they were spotting some of what they sought on the EDDA show floor, the market in general still leaves much to be desired.
"That is why we are here," said Greg Patton, buyer for Bentonville, Ark.-based Sam's Club. Searching for new HMR products "was our main objective for coming."
"It's important to understand how fast the category is growing," added John Jones, sales manager for Strategic Alliances, Dallas, who was accompanying Patton on the floor. "By the year 2000, it is predicted 70% of all meals will be eaten out of the home."
And when Bob Schwartz, a merchandiser for Red Apple Cos., New York, was asked if he was looking for HMR items at the show, he replied, "Unequivocally, yes."
Patton said Sam's Club is already planning to offer expanded merchandising space, in the neighborhood of 80 feet, to support HMR programs in some 100 new units it has on the drawing board.
"I would think this will be a major focus in the next two to three years," he said.
But he and other retailers at the EDDA show also said finding quality products and suppliers with adaptable programs is a challenge.
"What we are finding is that the programs end up needing a lot of work. What one program lacks the other offers, and there is no balance," said Patton.
"We do not want to end up with a product that is full of soy fillers and salt. It has to be nutritional," said Patton, who expressed concern over the number of new suppliers that have "jumped into the market" with mediocre product lines, "trying to make a quick dollar."
"Parents do not want to buy a glorified TV dinner. That is not what home-meal replacement is all about," said Jones.
Both Patton and Jones said they were encouraged by some of the products they examined at the show, such as a line of fresh entrees and sauces exhibited by Ed & Joan DeLuca Co., Middlebury, Conn.
The never-frozen line is made of all natural ingredients, contains no preservatives and provides retailers a 30-day shelf life.
"If programs like DeLuca's can be successful, it could set an example for the industry," said Patton.
Another show item that caught their attention was a turkey breast meat snack, called Gobblestix, that is fat-free and contains no fillers. It is a product of Jerome Foods, Barron, Wis., under its Turkey Store brand line.
They said they'd also discovered some HMR items with potential at the Perdue booth, and some sushi items that also showed promise.
Samantha Attew, director of technology for Kings Super Markets, West Caldwell, N.J., described her trip to the EDDA show "as a very general visit.
"We are here to see what is new and to meet our suppliers." She added the company always has an eye out for new HMR ideas, but noted, "We have quite an extensive convenience-foods program already."
The chain's plans are to continue to develop its prepared-foods areas along with some other programs it is now looking to expand, she said. However, Attew did not provide details of those plans.
Two local store managers from Perlmart, Toms River, N.J., said their four-store company, whose units average 60,000 square feet, was in the process of establishing HMR programs. The stores are operated under the ShopRite banner.
A "foods-to-go" type program was created in one store a year ago, featuring pizza, a salad bar, other food stations and seating, according to Jennifer Vassalo, store manager.
"It is doing excellent," she said.
"It seems like there is a lot of support out there and this is the next big thing," said Vassalo's colleague, Paul Spence. "It is a major, major push at our company."
Another Perlmart unit is currently undergoing renovation and its "foods-to-go" program should be in place by year-end, they said.
"We are not looking for anything in particular at the show, we are here just to get an idea of 'what's out there,' " said Vassalo.
Bruce Kaiser, a buyer for Jersey Lynn Farms, a Brooklyn-based fresh-foods wholesale distributor, held sample packages of Chinese dumplings and egg rolls he thinks his company might try.
He too acknowledged there is a "big market now" for prepared foods. And as a fresh-foods supplier, his company has benefited from the growth in the prepared-foods marketplace.
"There is a big market because of the two-worker household and the demands of the kids," said Kaiser. "It is hard."
And like Sam's Club, "we are looking for more offerings of better, more nutritional items," said Kaiser. "There is nothing like home cooking, but if you have some good items to throw into the microwave sometime, that can be good too."
Jersey Lynn, which supplies retailers in the five boroughs, including Bravo, C-Town and Key Foods, has gotten more involved with prepared-foods programs at the retail level "because of the demand," said Kaiser.
Bob Mutchler, a broker representing Carnival Brands Seafood Co., Kansas City, Kan., a first-time exhibitor at the show, said its product line of microwavable seafood items was now carried at Kings Super Markets units. Currently sold through the refrigerated seafood case, his line could make its way into HMR programs.
"It is aimed at consumers, many of whom don't know how to cook seafood," said Mutchler.
Patton and Jones said they had been particularly intrigued by advanced publicity for the show that mentioned the EDDA would showcase seafood exhibits this year; but they said they were slightly disappointed by the limited offerings found on the show floor.
"Everybody does meat loaf and meatballs. We are looking for more fish programs to fill in," said Patton of Sam's Club.
According to the EDDA executive director, Marvin Spira, there were at least 10 seafood exhibitors at this year's show, and hopes are that next year that will grow to 40 to 50 booths.
Recognizing seafood's expanding role in providing HMR solutions, the EDDA created a Seafood Advisory Council this year, Spira added.
The search for appropriate HMR programs is also what drew David D'Agostino, former deli director for D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., and now a director for the chain, to the EDDA show.
"My experience has been that it is hard to find what you are looking for. The big suppliers have their own programs set up and they will only do it 'this way,' " said D'Agostino.
He said he has noticed an unwillingness to modify programs, "even when we know we want only part of their program, and they have what we want. And with the smaller players, there is a problem with inconsistent quality and distribution."
Thus, D'Agostino was busy perusing the aisles for new items and new ideas. "Fresh prepared foods is a growing area and you can only have so many twists on turkey, so I am really here to see what is new in the market."
He told SN he'd so far seen some appealing new Chinese food items. In addition, a few crossover items, including a line of products packaged under the Nathan's brand, caught his attention.
"Those types of products can give both the retailer and the restaurant exposure," he commented.
According to Spira, the continuing development of fresh-foods departments in supermarkets has made this year's EDDA show the largest yet.
Floor exhibit space was expanded by 45,000 square feet, from last year, to 120,000 square feet; attendance is up 20% to approximately 10,000; and the number of exhibitors grew about 15% to some 320 with 400 booths, he said.
"Home-meal replacement has been here forever -- it's just that we recently defined it," Spira added. He contended the defining moment in supermarket awareness came when data showed 51% of meals were being eaten away from the supermarket. Up to that point, supermarkets had always enjoyed a majority of food sales.
"And with perishables departments giving retailers the highest margins, up to 55% in bakery, those areas are so important," said Spira.
In addition to newly added seafood booths, there was an increased international presence this year, with new exhibitors from Argentina and Chile, he said.
And a program offering private meeting rooms for retailers was taken advantage of by several chains, including Big V, Nicholas Markets and Davidson's Foodtown jointly, and A&P, whose meeting was attended by at least 200 company associates, he said.
Spira said the regional show continues to draw attendees from beyond the East Coast, including representatives of West Coast retailers, Vons Cos. and Ralphs Grocery Co.; Kroger Co. from the Midwest; and Southern chains, such as Publix Super Markets and Winn-Dixie Stores. And there has always been some international interest in the show as well -- this year with contingents from the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and Great Britain, among others.