As vice president and general manager of Buitoni North America, it’s not unusual that Terri Tinella would visit the unit’s refrigerated pasta plant in Danville, Va. Nor is it out of the ordinary that plant officials would prepare a little “show-and-tell” presentation for Tinella’s visits.

Yet one May trip to Danville this year was memorable for other reasons. When Tinella arrived, factory managers and employees presented her with a single piece of tortellini. It was the very first one (now preserved in acrylic) to come off the line at Danville during its 1988 start-up - when Nestlé Prepared Foods entered the refrigerated pasta business.

But it’s not as though Buitoni is now 20-years-old. On the contrary, Tinella regards it as 20 years young.

“Buitoni is one of only six global strategic brands for Nestlé [S.A.],” she says. “The brand and business have caught the fancy of many senior managers in our head office and our aggressive stance today is fueled by their appetite to see this brand hit its full potential.

“We have the commitment, resources and support of the world’s largest food company and - for as much as we’re proud of the growth and [category] share - we are looking forward to doubling or tripling our business in the future. We believe that this business is still only in its infancy.”

Although it took its lumps during the low-carb craze of 2003, Tinella says the refrigerated pasta category lately has posted 47 consecutive months of growth. In fact, Nielsen data show today’s $330 million category posting 12.9 percent and 9 percent dollar and unit volume sales gains respectively (excluding Wal-Mart) during a 52-week tracking period ended July 12, 2008.  For the record, Nielsen shows Buitoni with nearly an 80 percent dollar share of the category.

“Despite this category’s tremendous growth, we still have a low household penetration level,” notes Tinella. “But that’s one cause for optimism! Category insights research tells us that most of our category purchases are impulse and that on-shelf merchandising - with secondary displays during promotions - is key to success.

“The refrigerated meal category is on-trend,” she continues. “Moreover, this is a valuable consumer to the retailer. Our customer is an affluent, [store] perimeter shopper looking for a meal solution for that night. . . . We’re continually analyzing the category and addressing that in-store opportunity with our retail customers.”

Perhaps most important to its success, Tinella notes, is that Buitoni is the only brand that is consistently - and significantly - investing in the consumer. As brand leader and the only refrigerated Italian products line distributed nationwide, Nestlé Prepared Foods also is doing its part to drive consumers to the store.

Tinella says Buitoni continues to invest in traditional TV and print advertising. It likewise works to feature Buitoni anywhere and everywhere consumers look for quick meal ideas. These product placements range from the Food Network’s Rachel Ray cooking show to meal planning books fromReal Simple.

Nestlé, meanwhile, has been doing its part. For starters, the company expanded its processing and new product development capabilities with the 2006 purchase of Joseph’s Gourmet Pasta and Sauces Co., a frozen foodservice business in Haverhill, Mass. Last year also saw Nestlé Prepared Foods invest $20 million to bolster refrigerated pasta and sauce production and to improve quality in Danville.

The company also is doing its part with product, packaging and marketing news. For the record, today’s business boasts more than 20 pasta offerings (ravioli, tortellini, tortelloni and cut pasta), 12 toppings (assorted sauces) and shredded cheese. After introducing two 100 percent whole wheat varieties in 2006, the business returned this year with a 20-ounce Whole Wheat Chicken & Prosciutto Ravioli and its latest sauce varieties: Vodka and Arrabbiata.

“We’re even more excited about what’s on the horizon with more innovative product activity, though I can’t talk about that yet,” says Tinella. “Now that we’ve brought Joseph’s into our business, it’s been fun to throw those talented people (Buitoni and Joseph’s) together and incorporate that into our planning and development.”

Addressing the consumer “impulse” nature of it business, Nestlé Prepared Foods also upgraded Buitoni packaging last year. Tinella says the entire line now features more “premium” cues, brighter front panels and color codes to make the various offerings easier and quicker to distinguish.

 “We’re the only brand employing consumer-marketing tactics to drive category growth and we’re working with customers to make our category easier to find as a destination for tonight’s meal,” she says. “Meanwhile, as an organization, it’s clear that Nestlé is investing - whether you’re talking about consumer support, new equipment or an acquisition - so that we can help realize this vision. We’re walking the talk and we believe that growth is there for the taking.”<