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Another frozen food success formula: targeting emerging foodservice niches.

Another Frozen Food Success Formula: Targeting Emerging Foodservice Niches While overall market expansion is barely crawling, `a lot of interesting pockets' are out there for the `lining.' The only trick is to find them. Custom formulation is one place to look.

Ouch! The U.S. foodservice (catering) market is slowing down, with last year's growth estimated at 1.5% in constant dollars, and this year's growth forecast at only 1.2%.

But take heart. If the frozen food industry takes the trouble to research the market's needs and respond to them, it will find "a lot of interesting niches, a lot of interesting pockets."

If only frozen food manufacturers tap such specialized markets, they can make profits out of foodservice even when some of the main segments of the market are stagnating, said David Bekermier at the National Frozen Food Convention's foodservice workshop in Chicago.

Bekermier, vice president of Technomic, Inc., noted that while the commercial segment (60%) of foodservice has slowed almost to a stop, with conventional restaurants and lunchrooms actually in decline, the noncommercial segment is still showing strong growth -- five percent for airlines, for example.

And even in commercial restaurants, there are opportunities. "We need partially prepared frozen foods, or frozen foods as ingredients," said Allison Lima, director of product development for Unigate Restaurants, which runs Taco Bueno, a Mexican fast food operation; Black-Eyed Pea, a "home cooking" family restaurant chain; Casa Bonita, a Mexican dinner house chain; and Crystal's, a Mexican pizza concept.

Although freezer space is limited, especially in Taco Bueno outlets, and production equipment doesn't always lend itself to FF, there are projects in the works involving Lima's concepts. Instead of preparing refried beans from scratch, Taco Bueno will buy them frozen and partially prepared -- all but the refrying, which will still be done on site. Frozen green beans will replace hand-snapped fresh beans at Black-Eyed Pea, but with cooks adding spices on site: "They'll still feel as if they can manipulate the quality."

"The biggest thing you can come back with is custom formulations," Lima told the FF industry. "They [chain restaurants] want to be unique." Instead of developing products on their own, hoping somebody will want them, she said, FF manufacturers should work on what their customers actually want. Restaurants are looking for improved quality, especially flavor, she added, as well as better packaging. Boilable bags are good for restaurants, compatible with combination ovens and steamers, noted Lima, but packaging in which FF could be baked would be welcome.

International House of Pancakes is also looking for innovation, said Dr. Wally Barakat, its director of research and development for the last seven years. One specialty of his chain is a blend of fish and crab surimi with shrimp and scallops in a lobster newberg sauce--it can be used in both omelets and entrees. "Restaurant chains are always looking for new items to put on their menus -- products that are unique, different and have strong consumer appeal," he said, and frozen food offers not only consistent quality but consistent pricing.

Non-Commercial Input

Speaking for the (relatively) non-commercial end of the market, was Debra Bruhn, assistant general manager of Marriott Business and Food Services. Her company runs foodservice programs at two branches of First National Bank in Chicago, serving 4,400 meals a day. Some 80% of the operation's vegetables are bought frozen vs. 19% fresh and only one percent canned, she said, because frozen vegetables usually have the look and nutritional value of fresh, but offer a consistent price that is not available with fresh, and are generally more convenient.

But commodities aren't the be-all and end-all of Marriott's bank foodservice program. Also prominent, Bruhn said, are ethnic entrees, which, "if made from scratch, would be too labor-intensive to produce." Frozen dough and par-baked products, gourmet items and portioned meats are also used in the operation. "Frozen food, once just a trend, has become the mainstay of our industry," she said. But she'd like FF processors to pay more attention to nutritional values, and offer coupons and other promotional deals similar to those retailers get.

In response to an audience question about quality, specifically the problem of freezer burn, Lima said Unigate buys frozen halibut from Seattle in vacuum packs to avoid that problem, even though it is more expensive. Several people in the audience wondered what customers who asked if restaurant food is frozen should be told. Both Lima and Barakat avoided a direct answer, but said they seldom if ever get such questions. Lima said that for image reasons, rolls are baked on site at Black-Eye Pea, but fish is bought frozen because nobody cares if it's "home-made."
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Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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