CHICAGO -- Supermarkets already have everything they need to successfully implement and run a fresh-meals program, without having to hire specialized labor or invest in expensive equipment, said an industry consultant during a seminar on meal solutions at the annual Food Marketing Institute show here.
George Chirtea, a retired supermarket and wholesale-grocery executive, said that retailers can avoid the pitfalls associated with running an in-store restaurant operation by simply organizing and promoting existing items under a meals solutions banner.
"What we're talking about here is satisfying the customer, nothing else," he said. "You don't have to do a lot more than you're doing today if you simply change the way you approach selling to your customer."
Chirtea, who now runs Presentations by George, Atlanta, said that meal solutions reside in the value-added meat case, in the frozen food aisle and in produce. Together, they represent an untapped opportunity for retailers to leverage the whole store in meeting customers' meals demands.
"We have to teach the rest of the store that [fresh meals] is not a deli project," he said. "It's a store project."
To that end, Chirtea predicted that the future of supermarket fresh meals lies in chilled and frozen prepared foods, and not in hot foods or restaurant clones. Today's "typical" consumer is not always looking for pan-fried yellowtail snapper with oranges, he said.
"We took our eye off the ball and we started to try and figure out how to compete with restaurants," he added.
Chirtea cited 1998 statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce to show that today's shopper is not always looking for gourmet hot food in a retail setting: one in five families in the country has a household income of $13,500, while more than one-third has a combined income of only $25,000. Likewise, more than 57% are one- and two-person households, while nearly 11% of all households are comprised of one parent living with children under the age of 18 years.
"They want a meal that mom would have cooked before she decided she wasn't cooking tonight," he quipped. "The masses are not wealthy. They are not even well off," he added.
Using a side-by-side comparison, Chirtea displayed slides depicting identical amounts of like items, and compared prices.
In one slide, a 2-pound package of name-brand lasagna found in the frozen food section was marked $3.99, while the same amount from a well-known takeout restaurant cost $7.99.
Similarly, a package of name-brand boxed macaroni and cheese found in the grocery section, sold for $1.39, while a same amount from the restaurant cost $3.99.
"Is the [restaurant food] any better? It probably has a little better quality," Chirtea said. "But will my 28-year-old son really notice the difference?"
These examples can be replicated throughout the store. "This is a meal solution!" Chirtea intoned repeatedly as photographs of fruit, soups and cereal were flashed on the screen.
He pointed to value-added meats -- such as premarinated, heat-and-eat pot roast -- and produce -- bagged complete salads -- as more specific examples of fresh-meal items that have yet to be treated as such by retailers in any serious way.
According to Chirtea, retailers such as Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., and Sav-A-Lot, a division of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu, are among the fastest-growing chains because they maintain a core of value, convenience and price. While retailers in general may think that they have to serve hot prepared foods, Chirtea said that most supermarkets still have a problem convincing consumers their food is fresh.
"Prepared food should be at its peak when it's eaten, not when it's served in the supermarket," he said. "Unless you're in the restaurant business, you cannot [guarantee freshness] in a supermarket," he said.
Chilled foods sourced from national manufacturers are one option supermarkets can use in fulfilling customer demand for value, convenience and price. Better choices are frozen foods, which have improved in taste and quality, he said.
Chirtea said there are a few retailers who have made a long-term commitment to hot prepared foods, and have been able to do it well. But those operators incorporated these items into their store mix "long before the HMR craze came around," he pointed out.
Recalling a visit to a well-known supermarket chain soon after he moved to Atlanta, known for its fried chicken, Chirtea warned that retailers can get hurt trying to run a restautant operation without making the commitment. In this case, he said he arrived at the hot-food counter at 5:45 p.m. to find it empty, except for a few unappetizing pieces, and a sullen associate who resisted making a new batch because she had just cleaned the fryer.
Whereas years ago, supermarket customers may have accepted that situation, today they have abundant choices from which they can buy their food, including restaurants, discount stores and convenience stores, said Chirtea.