More entrees tout "all-natural" appeal.


Not only has it survived the world of big network TV, but CBS “Survivor” reality series has thrived, and now has 15 seasons under its belt. Loyal viewers know that the show places a group of about 20 people in a desolate location and divides them into “tribes.” Halfway through each season, the tribes merge into one and the game shifts to an individual competition.

Says CBS, “The game is simple: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast . . . ‘Survivor’ is a game of adaptation . . .”

There’s perhaps no better comparison to life in the prepared meal and entrée category. Although it’s not a “desolate” area, sales in this $5 billion-plus retail category (all retail channels, excluding Wal-Mart) have been flat. Chicago’s Information Resources Inc. reports that during the 52 weeks ended December 30, 2007, frozen entrée sales rose just 0.9 percent to $3.7 billion with a 0.8 percent decline in unit volume. Similarly, sales of frozen multi-serve offerings rose just 0.7 percent to $1.2 billion with a 3.6 percent drop in unit volume.

The stronger comparison is this: like tribes themselves, groups of entrées (including frozen single-serve, multi-serve and refrigerated varieties) are competing for the consumer’s meal dollar. And here, too, it comes down to how processor-vendors adapt to changing market conditions and outwit, outplay and outlast their competitors.

The good news for processors? There are monetary rewards for the winners. In a January 2008 report titled, Convenience Foods in the U.S.: Fresh and Frozen, Packaged Facts, New York, wrote that retailers - and refrigerated and frozen prepared convenience foods, in particular - will benefit greatly from busier consumer lifestyles, Americans’ growing concern with health and their interest in ethnic cuisines and flavors.

To that end, Packaged Facts projects that the retail convenience food market will generate $47.5 billion in sales by 2012 - with as much as $28.5 billion coming from fresh foods and $19 billion in frozen.

“Frozen food, in particular, is competitive,” the report said, “because consumers can purchase in bulk at low prices and then pull food out of the freezer at their convenience.”

In April, Brandweek quoted JPMorgan analyst Pablo Zuanic, who noted to clients that H.J. Heinz’s frozen dinner business - including Smart Ones and Boston Market - was up 42 percent during a previous four-week period. Although they don’t necessarily see consumers rushing out to embrace the category, other analysts still recognize category improvements.

“A lot of it comes down to product innovation,” said Edward Jones’ Matt Arnold. According to Brandweek, Arnold noted that microwaveable “steamer” product technology has noticeably improved product taste.

Besides innovation, there’s proof, too, that entrée processors are adapting. Recognizing that more consumers are eating at home than dining out, Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn., this spring launched an ad campaign (TV and print) titled, “Create Something Great.” In a TV spot for Hormel refrigerated entrees, a mom drives away from the grocery store while being chased on foot by fast-food restaurant character icons. Pulling into her driveway, she tells them to “back off” and then flashes a Hormel Beef Roast Aus Jus.

Steve Venenga, group product manager for Hormel’s Dinner Group, told Brandweek, “The goal of the campaign is to position Hormel products - such as refrigerated entrees, Natural Choice and Compleats - as ‘great’ alternatives to other ‘somethings’ in the marketplace [i.e., leftovers, fast food, nutritionally questionable food]. The products provide easy-to-make and flavorful meal options.”

Speaking of convenient and flavorful meal options, the largest entrée group, the frozen single-serve category, is mixing things up to attract more consumers.

Category leader Nestlé Prepared Foods, Solon, Ohio, leads the way across several fronts. Success with frozen panini sandwiches in 2006 led to the company’s 2007 launch of Stouffer’s Corner Bistro Flatbreads. This January, Nestlé came back with four new Stouffers’ Lean Cuisine Flatbread Melts, described as soft on the outside with flavorful sauces, cheeses, meats and ingredients on the inside. Officials compare the product to a high-end lunch wrap typically served at a restaurant or café.

Perhaps even more intriguing will be Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Seafood Selections, an all-new nine-item line. Set to roll out this summer, the line includes Parmesan Crusted Fish, Shrimp Alfredo, Szechuan Style Stir Fry with Shrimp and Tortilla Crusted Fish.

“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage eating two servings of fish per week,” says Kristin Gibbs, Lean Cuisine’s director of marketing. “Seafood Selections offer a convenient way for women to include more omega-3s into their diet.”

Another company offering healthier, more convenient options is Pittsburgh’s H.J. Heinz. This January, the company introduced a four-item line of Weight Watchers Smart Ones Fruit Inspirations, each product with a half-serving of fruit. Varieties include: Orange Sesame Chicken, Pineapple Beef Teriyaki, Honey Mango Barbeque Chicken and Cranberry Turkey Medallions.

“Research shows that 91 percent of women don’t consume the recommended four servings of fruit per day,” says spokesperson Jessica Jackson. “[Fruit Inspirations] provide a convenient solution for squeezing more real fruit into Americans’ diets, curbing sweet cravings and satisfying hunger long-term.”

More new entrees also target a balance of flavor and health. Having recast its South Beach Diet brand to South Beach Living, Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., recently introduced three new single-serve entrees, each containing 340 calories or less, 15 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving.

And how about an ethnic twist on health and flavor? Among the latest new offerings from Kahiki Foods, Gahanna, Ohio, is Kahiki Naturals, a six-item line with every product with 100-percent natural ingredients, no artificial additives or colors and no preservatives. The products also contain zero grams trans fat and are free of genetically modified ingredients.

Another mainline product category involves multi-serve entrees. Here, too, processors are bringing more ethnic adventure to the table. A broadline marketer of On The Border Mexican Cantina products, Truco Enterprises, Dallas, introduced two frozen multi-serve fajita kits (Chicken, Steak) last fall. As recent as this May, Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif., said it began testing five new El Monterey Family Meals. Each offering comes packaged in a heat-and-serve, dual-ovenable tray.

Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark., also bolstered its multi-serve entrée line last fall with three Tyson Refrigerated Heat ‘N Eat Entrees: Chicken Breast Medallions in Italian Herb Sauce, Chicken Breast Medallions in White Wine and Garlic Sauce and Beef Steak Tips in Bourbon Sauce.

Said one Tyson official, “We’re excited about these products and believe they’ll help meet the need of consumers who want the taste and quality of an upscale meal but don’t have time to make it from scratch.”