The buffet tables at last month's National Frozen Food Convention in Boston provided a showcase of new entrees. The new Birds Eye Voila! entries, Steak and Garlic Potatoes and Garlic Shrimp, bring that year-old line to 11 flavors now. Mrs. T's Pierogies, in Potato and Roasted Garlic, can be a meal or a snack. Dino Nuggets from Simmons Foods, Siloam Springs, Ark., and its Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets -- both nominated for Top 10 new frozen products of 1999 -- were there, along with Don Miguel microwaveable pastas and El Charrito Lean Ole Burritos.
Michael Angelo's lasagna, Nestle USA/Stouffer's Family Style Favorites in Chicken and Broccoli, as well as Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Skillet Sensations Chicken Primavera, Tyson Buffalo Tenders and Chicken Meatballs were also represented. Swanson's Boneless Roast Chicken with Herb Gravy with rice, carrot and corn side dishes and dessert makes a complete meal.
Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, a Philadelphia-based trend-tracking firm, said consumers gave frozen entrees a rating of 76 out of 100 points.
Val Vivenzio, director of frozen food and dairy for Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., said dinner sales are up at that chain, as they are nationally. At Big Y, "the increase is being driven by Marie Callender's and Weight Watchers products," he said.
The new Boston Market line, licensed by Pittsburgh-based Heinz Frozen Food Co., "looks like it will breathe new life into the section," Vivenzio said. "Restaurant spinoffs are doing very well, increasing sales volume within the department," he added.
Rolled out in California first, with 16 stockkeeping units, the Boston Market line should be in Big Y about the first of the year.
Sales of frozen dinners are up almost 11% for the year ended Sept. 4, 1999, according to market research firm ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill. -- the biggest increase in the last four years. For all outlets combined, total category sales were $6.5 billion. For the food stores doing more than $2 million a year in business, including supercenters, frozen entrees also increased by 10%, also the biggest increase in four years, but only slightly more than in 1997. Food stores, not surprisingly, had the lion's share of sales of frozen dinners -- $6.554 billion compared with $6.564 billion for all three channels.
An old standby, the 7-ounce frozen pot pie, popularized decades ago by Swanson and Banquet, is still around, offered sometimes at two for $1. ACNielsen figures show pot pie sales have been flat, except in 1997, when sales grew almost 8%.
"In the entree market, there is a trend basically moving out of the low-value cheap entree. The consumer is back into a mid-line and higher-tier, higher-priced, better-quality product," said John Beyer, frozen-food promotion manager at Supervalu's Central region, Xenia, Ohio. But Beyer, claiming to be a fan of pot pies himself, said Pepperidge Farm's higher-tier pot pie that sells at about $1.69 microwaves to a flaky crust.
He and other retailers point to the recent introduction, by Heinz/Ore-Ida, of the Boston Market Home Style Meals as an example of expected consumer acceptance of this higher-fat, higher-priced entree.
Among other examples mentioned by Beyer is the new Marie Callender family entree, which serves four to six. He hasn't seen them yet, but his region, Supervalu's largest with almost 600 stores, will buy them when they come out about Jan. 1.
Last fall when Stouffer's introduced Skillet Sensations, "they couldn't keep up with demand," Beyer said. "It took off very, very well, and it's still selling very well. The all-in-one-bag meals are of good quality at good price points, $3.99 to $4.39 suggested retail price, and that's a good price ring."
Within the past two years there's been a big shift away from the traditional frozen entree to more convenient items, such as the all-in-one bag dinners, noted a buyer for a large national chain who wished to remain anonymous. "The success of those items shows we've got some quality items, and there is a value to convenience." He predicted there will be increasing meal solutions in the frozens department, and frozens' star will continue to rise because consumers don't have to worry about shelf life with a frozen dinner, and they can buy a week's supply at a time.
"That's where I am trying to head in dinners and entrees, to make it more convenient, doing things with different vendors with some different ideas, meals for four, and things like that," the buyer said.
"You start thinking about the Swanson TV dinners; that's where it all started, and there wasn't too much competition then for home-meal replacements, unlike now," said Joe Chan, frozen-food category manager for Safeway's Northern California division, Pleasanton, Calif.
All the meal-in-a bag items, he said, have quality and convenience, and as far as where they are placed in the store, "if you looked at that as HMR you'd want to have it closer to the dinners. We have it in the prepared- food section."
Private label should not be forgotten either, according to Chan. "You really will find a lot of variety and should not find yourself having to sacrifice taste and selection," he said.
He told SN about some unique things, like a tamale pie in the Gourmet Club line (Safeway's signature in frozen prepared foods). Frozen porcini mushroom ravioli is "outstanding, well priced and something you could definitely serve at a very nice dinner party," said Debra Lambert, corporate director of public affairs at Safeway.
Russ Hahn, buyer/merchandiser for frozen foods at Scolari's Food & Drug, Sparks, Nev., said Swanson's and Banquet brands are holding their own, with Banquet "doing a lot of profiling with their money. Their competitive Value Dinners, Select Dinners are the workhorses, selling for $1.59, but on special at 89 cents or 99 cents. They are pretty aggressive and they are getting their price points down pretty low." Swanson, owned by Vlasic Foods International, Cherry Hill, N.J., he said, is starting to get a little more aggressive and upscale.
Hahn had to discontinue Claim Jumpers dinners, a restaurant spinoff, probably because his consumers were not familiar with the chain, the closest unit of which is in Phoenix, he said. "The restaurant is excellent; I'm not sure they came out with the right items -- they were large portions that required a little more handling than someone on the go would want," said Hahn.
Pat Brooks, frozen-food buyer for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., agreed that Claim Jumpers products were excellent but they took "a little too long" to defrost in the microwave and cost too much at $3.99 to $14.99. "If you demo them, people like them, but people are not willing to pay that much for home-meal replacements," he said.
Boston Market, being marketed by the Heinz group, was going into Save Mart stores when Brooks spoke with SN. "It's probably one of the most recognized names. They closed a bunch of restaurants, but still, Boston Market is a recognizable name to the consumer. Once people buy a product, if the taste and quality is in the product, then it may have a lot of merit.
"Everybody thought Marie Callender would have a hard time, but there are people who are looking for full-bodied foods. Taste comes from butterfat. These [Boston Market items] are more along those lines, not a Weight Watcher item." Brooks said the Boston Market items would be advertised by Save Mart, and demonstrated in the stores.
"Weight Watchers goes to people who are concerned about portion control and calorie intake. Boston Market will take that manufacturing group into another segment in the entree cabinet," Brooks said.
Rice-bowl items like Uncle Ben's, Kings Hawaiian and Healthy Choice have done well, and a local company named Maeta Bros. is coming out with three or four chili-bowl items that Brooks said he plans to carry.
Although it's a niche, frozen entrees from organically grown ingredients are one of the fastest-growing areas for organics, said Angela Sterns, marketing director of the Organic Alliance, St. Paul, Minn.