It's hard to believe that, not too long ago, frozen foods were a novelty, even an oddity. But for those who lived through the creation and evolution of the frozen food industry, it's not so hard. For them, the obstacles still stand in sharp relief, from limits in technology at the plant and home to the limited imaginations among both consumer and industry minds.
Gathered together for an industry reunion last month in Boca Raton, Fla., some hearty, persistent souls -- pioneers, if you will -- from the frozens manufacturing and retail communities shared with SN their recollections of a business that was shaped and strengthened by overcoming obstacles -- and one that has some growing pains still.
"What is this fuss about an industry that has less sales than sauerkraut and pickles?" That question was posed by a 1945 article about frozen food in Fortune magazine. "Hundreds of thousands of people are suddenly talking and acting as though frozen foods were as indispensable to their daily comfort as the toothbrush or the radio."
That tone of incredulity still amuses Bob Rich Sr., founder and chairman of Rich Products, Buffalo, N.Y., who quoted the article to SN. Fortunately, that "fuss" continued.
The pioneers of the frozen food industry have a lot in common with the 19th century trailblazers of the West. Both groups raced to capture the riches of their respective promised lands. And while one group had Indians to deal with, pioneering frozen food manufacturers also had arrows slung at them -- by skeptical supermarket buyers.
Convincing those buyers, and the public, that frozen foods would work was a tall order, industry pioneers told SN.
Joe Settineri, who went on to produce the Roman line of frozen Italian products and popularize frozen pizza, even had a hard time convincing his mother. "When I told my mother I was going to freeze ravioli, she said, 'Well, you're crazy, son.' I said, 'I'm also going to pack the sauce.' She said, 'Well, you're not going to make it.' "
Bill Carey, former vice president and director of national sales at Snow Crop, New York, also remembers the struggle.
"It was the introduction of frozen orange juice, and you really couldn't give it away," said Carey, who started with Snow Crop in 1948. "It was a small, 6-ounce can you were trying to sell for 29 cents, and people didn't know what it was." Snow Crop, Carey said, was the first frozen orange juice. Minute Maid came later, grew faster and eventually acquired Snow Crop.
"The problem was not only selling Mrs. Jones, the consumer. It was selling the chains," Carey said. "They had limited space. Bird's Eye had most of their vegetables in there, so there was not enough space to demonstrate the juice. I think we were the first ones to buy frozen food cabinets and give them to stores for free, if they stocked Snow Crop."
Gene Merkert, who founded and served as president of Merkert Enterprises, Canton, Mass., which has gone on to become one of the industry's most successful food brokerages, said early supermarket buyers were trained "to be mean."
Merkert recalled a visit to a buyer with A&P shortly after World War II. "I started making my presentation and he kept tapping his pencil on the desk and talking to his secretary. I stopped, so he asked me if I was done. I said I was just waiting for him to finish his conversation."
Merkert said he continued and the same scenario happened two more times. Finally, Merkert began pounding on the desk to get the buyer's attention. Within seconds, he was thrown out of the office and told not to come back until he was a gentleman.
Many people were still skeptical of frozen foods in 1961, when Gene Pfister became national sales manager for Green Giant. "They all said frozen food was just a passing fad. The grocery buyer was still buying it in most stores. It was 2% or 3% of store sales. Most of them felt they could get along without it."
Pfister said his selling point was to show that frozen foods could be the supermarket's way of counteracting the "eat-outs."
"I remember I made three or four talks, to the fact that supermarkets are looking at the wrong competition. It isn't their [supermarket] competitor down the next block. It's the McDonald's, the Burger King."
Eventually, his message filtered through the retail community and was adapted in speeches by the chairmen of several big chains. "I look at that as the shining moment of getting our message out. It became the hot button and it still is today."
The stores would prove the greatest link in the chain of evolution for the business, and some companies realized this right away.
Ore-Ida decided "in the early days" to place special emphasis on the retail segment of its business, which kept it on the cutting edge of innovation, said Bob Pedersen, president of Ore-Ida from 1968 to 1977 and then chairman through 1980.
"Our people saw a niche there, and we kept exploiting that. We therefore got into a lot of product development, away from just the ordinary so-called french fry."
With an eye toward retail, pioneering suppliers helped shape some important merchandising and distribution methods.
"I think one of the most successful things I did back in those days was selling the meal concept, of putting the components of a meal in an end cabinet and advertising it as a meal," said Pfister of his days at Green Giant. Pfister added, however, that many of today's retailers have moved away from that concept. "If they have a hot item, they'll put the whole end cabinet in that one item. But if you're going to bring the traffic over to the cabinet, why not sell something that you make a profit on at the same time?"
Sam Bailin, a former distributor, said retailers in the early days of frozen foods needed help managing their departments.
"My business was the forerunner of how John Rotelle [a well-known frozen food distributor] did business -- not giving up the involvement in the display. John wanted to optimize the product that went through those cases. We did the same thing.
"We understood the point-of-purchase service was absolutely necessary, because the retailer couldn't manage frozens unless he put somebody there," Bailin said.
"We saw we needed to construct a service that was at the point of purchase, so we always managed our displays and stayed highly involved. We would try to convince a store to give us an area of the cabinet that was ours and then judge us on what we would get to go through that cabinet."
New products were crucial to the acceptance and growth of the business. Pfister and others said the new product game had a "me first" emphasis in the early days.
"The trade always wanted to see who could be the first one on the market to put product in their stores and run an ad saying, 'We're the first in town to offer it.' They'd run it at regular shelf price and put up displays. Of course, a lot of the products in those days were actually new and different. You can't always say that today."
Murray Lender could say that when he was introducing his frozen bagels in the early 1960s. "I was trying to do with bagels what Joe Settineri did with pizza, -- and bring bagels into the mainstream," Lender said. The challenge was that many people had no idea what a bagel was.
Lender made an appointment with the corporate director of frozens at A&P. "I was really into my pitch, about 10 to 12 minutes in, which is an eternity in terms of the amount of time you were normally given on the corporate level of any major chain. He interrupted me and asked, 'Could you please start again and tell me exactly what a bagel is?' "
Rich of Rich Products, which will mark its 50th year in business in 1995, said his business took off with the aid of what at the time was a product mishap.
Rich Products started first as a maker of fresh products, including its vegetable-based whipped toppings. One day in 1945, Rich loaded some fresh topping wrapped in paper and dry ice to take to a presentation. When he arrived, his samples were frozen solid. "I didn't even know if I should whip it up," Rich said. "Those were the days before electric mixers. I borrowed a knife from one of the drivers there and cut it up in chunks and started whipping it. All of a sudden it came up beautifully, which surprised the hell out of me. Three months later we were freezing all our product."
"Bird's Eye had introduced Cool Whip in the late 1960s, and it went a little bit better than they thought it would. They had to ship Cool Whip West to East, and we had a big promotion going and they couldn't fill it, so they shipped us a car of Cool Whip out of Washington and over the mountains.
"They learned a lesson when we opened the doors. Because of the change of pressure going up in the mountains, the Cool Whip had crawled out of the containers and out of the cases. We had this one big blob of Cool Whip."
Cool Whip survived the mishap. But while frozen food pioneers enjoy remembering product success stories, they also can't forget the ones that didn't make it.
"We had a lot of failures," said Jim McNutt, former president of Campbell Soup. One was a parfait cake, introduced around 1960. "It looked like an ice cream cake. We sold everybody. We had eight varieties and boy, we were going gangbusters. But after about six months, they just fell flat. We had to go all across the country, pick them all up and destroy them."
Ironically, even failed products, McNutt said, had some loyal customers. "We were trying to sell frozen soups in a can, which was a fairly bad idea," he said with a chuckle. "After we took it off the market, we got thousands of letters asking why we did it."
Several pioneers admitted that they did not foresee some of the turns in product development and marketing that the industry took.
Take George Vail, who eventually became president of Morton's. He had brushes with two of the biggest names in the industry while he was running the prepared foods division of Bird's Eye.
In that era, some Bird's Eye products were packed in the Swanson plant. Vail had an experience that later convinced him he'd never become a soothsayer.
"When Clark Swanson came to me and asked, 'What do you think of our idea to call our dinners TV dinners?' I said, 'That's so corny, I don't think you'll sell 10 dinners!' Of course, it was the hottest thing that ever hit the industry."
Vail was also the man to "let Clarence Birdseye go," though he said he wasn't as harsh as it may sound. "He was an inventor. After he got into this business, he didn't have the interest in it that you need. You know how the artist types are. He was interested in creativity. He didn't care too much about how much money he made. His contract was up and it was basically a mutual agreement."
Jeno Paulucci knows all about introducing new frozen food products -- and how the game can change, having launched three lines over a career that has spanned more than 50 years.
He got an early start with Chun King in 1944, sold that operation in 1967 and helped start RJ Reynolds Foods, which became Nabisco Reynolds. At the same time, he was starting Jeno's, which he sold to Pillsbury in 1985. Finally, in 1990, Paulucci launched Luigino's, which includes the Michelina line of entrees.
To market the brand-new concepts in his first two ventures, Paulucci relied heavily on advertising. For Luigino's now, however, he avoids it.
"Advertising today is the biggest waste there ever was. You can't have 40 stations, 50 commercials an hour." Store promotions, he said, are the way to go.
Indeed, the pioneers agreed that the store is where the action in the category gravitated and remains today.
One result of that emphasis is slotting charges, which they said they eventually grew to accept. "We tried to get around it, ignore it, negotiate against it and so forth. We've accepted it like death and taxes," Paulucci said.
But it seems once frozen foods gets in your blood, it's tough to let go. Many pioneers from the supplier and retailer sides are still active in the industry, some as consultants, others still with their original businesses.
Rich, still at the helm of Rich Products, certainly wouldn't disagree. When people ask him about retirement, he says, "When you read my obituary, you'll know I retired the day before."