After a harried three days in Los Angeles at the FMI MealSolutions conference this fall, meal executives returned home laden with ideas and recommendations. Now, as the blur of seminars, program prototypes and sales pitches fades, the question remains: Was MealSolutions the solution?
According to a very unscientific sampling of executives by SN, the answer is a resounding "could be."
More than 4,000 supermarket executives, deli managers, food-service experts and manufacturers attended the FMI's second annual meals conference in September. Attendance -- in terms of both retailers and exhibitors -- was way up, according to the FMI. And while the range of seminars and exhibitors was generally considered a step forward for the conference, some attendees -- including a few considered to be in the vanguard of the supermarket industry -- said the show needs to attract a still wider range of companies with newer products.
Especially sought-after are companies that have developed information systems software to help automate the increasingly complex meals programs, and more distinctive product manufacturers.
Other attendees said they want more attention paid to programs like the Idea Center, a popular spot on the show floor where consultants and manufacturers joined to offer prototype meal departments.
But for the most part, executives believe that MealSolutions offers them an opportunity to learn what other companies are trying, while giving them a chance to prove to cohorts that home-meal replacement means more than employing restaurant personnel.
"A lot of people think they hire the executive chef and that will solve their problems," said Phil Anderson, assistant department director of food service and prepared meals for Baker's Supermarkets, Omaha, Neb. -- a division of Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City.
"An executive chef knows how to combine ingredients to make flavorful food and most likely will cut your figures, get you the numbers you need and deal with some personnel issues, but certainly not take care of information technology, recruitment and all the things that need to happen. There's a plethora of issues that need to be looked at; the good news is the process is beginning."
"The biggest thing, I think, is the feeling that mass market stores were there, saying 'OK, we finally surrender, we're going to do it. This is not something that's going to go away and we really need to start focusing on it if we're going to take this to the 21st century and really compete.'
"The educational part of the show really turned the mind-set around and that's what we gained most from the conference. If the Hy-Vees and the Albertson's in this industry don't respond the same way we respond, we'll still struggle with changing the consumers' minds about buying fresh meals at the supermarket, and we'll convert some, but not as many as we need to survive.
"It needs to get broader and include accounting, information systems and engineering people. We went to the show looking for merchandisers that were different, that showed theater and the food right in the customer's face."
Anderson said that while the cases at the show were top quality, he still can't find what he's looking for.
"I'm designing kitchens right now for a couple of new stores going in next year, and it's really tough to find equipment that can merchandise something that's self-service, and at the same time have the chef behind the case preparing the pizza or pasta or sandwiches and put all that in the view of the customer and still work right. There's a whole new industry that will blossom when manufacturers realize it's really important, that people want to see production and theater."
But as for exhibitors, Anderson said they're still holding back. "In general, manufacturers aren't responding to our needs. I know they say they really want to. I speak to a lot of them but they seem to want to sell what they currently have, and they don't want to develop anything new. it's easier to sell what you already have.
"I'm really reaching out to the vendors and manufacturers, telling them we really need their help; that we really need to drive the product now and they can't drive it any longer. I don't want to develop products to put in their packaging; I want them to develop packaging that my products will work well in."
Anderson said the full range of retail systems needs to be grown to include meal solutions. "From the president on down, all understand the need for us to convert into a fresh prepared-food store, combining seafood and meats and produce and even grocery into freshly prepared food, but there's another level that hasn't bought into this -- information systems.
"They have so much to do already that they really don't prioritize food service; after all, food service is only about 3.5% of total sales at mass market retail, so it doesn't represent a big chunk of change when compared with other things. But we need to get the whole company to convert, as well."
"The show floor was great, with lots of new ideas, new concepts and new products available. For us, there are so many products we can't get across the border, so we have to pick up the concepts, bring them back and do them ourselves in our central kitchen. That's specifically why we opened our own central kitchen four years ago, because a lot of the meat and other products can't come across the border."
Boughton-Popeil said there were some innovations in packaging and equipment that she and her deli managers found interesting. And as for products that she probably can't get in Canada,"There were a lot we are interested in duplicating. There were some items I have put my suppliers onto, and they're starting to hunt down who they can buy them from."
Response by manufacturers in Canada is even slower than in the United States. "We haven't got companies like [Los Angeles-based fresh-food manufacturer] Huxtable's Kitchen up here, and at the show there were at least 12 companies that had meals or components to go prepackaged.
"Where I can't get the product directly, I pass along the information to suppliers, who say, 'Do you think this is going to sell?' I tell them we have to train the customer since they haven't been exposed to Boston Market or anything like that up here."
Boughton-Popeil said the increase in seminars didn't serve her purposes. "In Phoenix last year, there were fewer sessions on at one time. This time, I was lucky that I brought people with me, because I couldn't get to everything. That was my biggest complaint.
"Like they've always said, we're about 10 years behind you. We're catching up, but we're still behind. I found it interesting that a number of the speakers were saying there are still a lot of problems. And we thought it was because we're so new to it."
"My general observation is that there wasn't a lot of new information shared. To be honest, what we picked up came from the Idea Center and the equipment-case presentations, the service-case applications. Some of the Hussmann products, with service/self-service bases in the Idea Center, spurred the thought process for us and made the visit worthwhile. Some of the things being done in rotisserie, like hot self-service cases, we found very interesting.
"The big difference I saw was the tremendous number of packaging suppliers. That's positive, but on the flip side, I didn't see a lot of new packaging. We, as an organization, have been experimenting with a lot of things, so maybe we're looking from a different angle. Maybe somebody who is just hopping into chilled prepared food saw a lot of new things there.
"For instance, the package we use now, we spent a lot of time with the manufacturers of the base and the lid to develop, and they're selling them. Now, people who are just getting into this business have a great opportunity at the show to get a full view of what's out there."
DeVries said many manufacturers are responding better to retailer needs. "Hussmann, for instance, has been on the crest of that wave of understanding what we want and how we need to merchandise our products differently. A lot of other companies are way behind that curve, and it was pretty obvious at that show who those companies were.
"At the next show, I'd like to see more small operators getting involved to show us different things. I'd also like to see more information technology systems. I think there's a huge opportunity for our industry to get more systemized and automated in how we deal with food service. It would be neat to see some providers of software come and share their ideas on how to integrate this new food-service arena into the supermarket through automated production guides and preparation guides."
"MealSolutions reconfirmed our commitment to the meal-solutions game. It emphasized to us that if you don't get in it, you're just going to continually lose market share."
DiGeronimo said Victory officials know that both in-store preparation and outsourced prepared and prepacked product are needed to fulfill self-service needs.
"We know it's important to develop signature products so you're the only one that has them. Otherwise, everybody will have the same thing. I'm convinced there has to be some product cooked fresh in the store," he said.
DiGeronimo said he was let down by the exhibition. "The show floor was a little less than I had expected. The best part was how to set up a food court [that is, the Meals Idea Center]."
Asked if manufacturers are responding to what retailers need in HMR, however, he said, "Absolutely. They've got it. They're getting better."
"Actually, I think MealSolutions was too much of a duplicate of last year. There was a whole lot of 'We really don't have the answer, but you should go ahead and try our+' sort of thing.
"The conference last year had a lot of value to me because it was all new. I took more than 20 pages of notes at that one, and only one page at this one.
"The presentation by the consultants on the show floor [Meals Idea Center] was nice, but it didn't apply to us. Our core customer is lower income, and all of that was more gourmet.
"My major concern is getting the confidence of the customer, because prepared food in supermarkets has had a bad reputation. Getting them to know that our products are freshly prepared and the quality is good and it's at a cheaper price than a restaurant is difficult." Eagleson said the show didn't provide him with those answers.
"There were only three or four people that had packaged prepared food exhibited. The packaging looked better, and the eye appeal of the product was better.
"I don't think manufacturers are meeting the needs of retailers when it comes to home-meal replacement. I think they're just as confused as we are."
"I think the definition of terms was a little better understood by everybody this year. The language was established, such as 'ready-to-eat' and 'meal solutions' and 'value-added.' And I think after a year, people were more motivated to get into the game. The world is changing and it's dramatically expressed in the way people take their meals.
"I think retailers were paying more attention this year because they are seeing meal solutions literally as a survival tactic. To survive, supermarkets need to be in the business of selling meals.
"Last year, a lot of principals attended, but this year people with titles that had to do with HMR and meal solutions were there. Those jobs weren't even defined last year. Now, we have people whose primary responsibility is to deal with meal solutions. So the whole thing has crystallized a bit.
"The seminars were the highlight of the show. They delivered the information, and were a little less theoretical than last year."
"At last year's conference, there was interest at the retail level in finding out what [home-meal replacement] was all about. By this year, some had entered the arena, so people could share their stories. It was more like, 'Now we're at the problem-solving stage. Let's compare solutions.'
"The types of seminars this year were more tightly focused. One that I participated in was a roundtable for independents, for example. There were people who said what they described last year didn't work, and there was practical information offered.
"One immediate action I took when I went home was to take down signs in our stores that said anything about home-meal replacement or meal solutions. I actually had some 10-foot signs that read, 'Meal Solutions Found Here.' But one of the seminar speakers pointed out that customers don't know what those words mean, that they're just industry terms. We're still working on what the new signs will say, but it will probably be something like 'Here's Dinner.' Customers don't put meal solutions on their shopping lists.
"On the exhibit floor, there were more products with a focused [HMR] direction this year. Last year, it was more generalized. As it becomes clearer that there's a need for equipment, equipment suppliers are lining up to meet the need. That's one example.
"I particularly liked the food-court area [on the exhibit floor] where different approaches to home-meal replacement were shown. I didn't expect to see that and I thought it was helpful.
"My guess is that next year, there will be even more definition. [MealSolutions] started out last year with a broad view. When you begin anything, it's a pretty fuzzy picture. Then, as you go on, you can identify more pieces of the puzzle.
"This year, there was a lot of interest [among retailers] in blast chillers, for example. As recently as three years ago, a manufacturer wouldn't have had the opportunity to sell them nationally [to retailers]."