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Private label microwave sandwiches, breakfasts bucking prepared FF barrier?

Private Label Microwave Sandwiches, Breakfasts Bucking Prepared FF Barrier?

Dinners seem a lost cause, and entrees are iffy. Pasta-vegetable combos and stir-fry vegetables offer opportunities in some areas.

Breakfast entrees, breakfast sandwiches, hamburgers, cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches all seem to be doing what prepared frozen foods have rarely done in private label: survive.

It doesn't look like a good year for more ambitious private label programs. Premium frozen dinners at Kroger, Cincinnati, Ohio, and light entrees at Fleming, Oklahoma City, Okla., are on the way out.

But Stop & Shop, Boston, Mass., has introduced a line of microwave sandwiches -- hamburgers, cheeseburgers and chicken breast sandwiches -- to tap the take-home fast food market pioneered by J.R. Simplot's MicroMagic.

Stop & Shop also offers private label pea pods and pea pods with water chestnuts to cater to the stir-fry generation. So does Jewel Food, Melrose Park, Ill., and both chains feature pasta-vegetable combos.

Private label light entrees for Topco Associates, Skokie, Ill., are still doing fairly well, according to the buying group's supplier -- but nobody else has signed on for such a program. Another supplier sees potential in entrees positioned against ConAgra's Healthy Choice brand.

Stop & Shop no longer talks to the trade press, but reportedly its microwave sandwiches face a tough battle against dealing by MicroMagic and Hormel's New Traditions. Private label was recently priced at $1.29 for hamburgers, $1.39 for cheeseburgers and $1.59 for chicken sandwiches. Branded items, some on sale, were in the $1.49 to $1.59 range.

The New England chain apparently puts more faith in its private label pasta-vegetable combinations, which were recently featured at $1.29 each in the frozen food equivalent of end caps as well as in the main cabinets. Varieties include Fusilli (plain and spinach pasta spirals, petite peas, carrots, red bell peppers, celery and onion), Orientale (Chinese noodles, broccoli, pea pods, water chestnuts and red bell peppers) and Pastina (petite shell pasta, red kidney beans, sweet corn, carrots, onions and green beans).

But the category has shown mixed results. Fleming has had a line for three years, and it hasn't done all that well, said James Duffield, frozen food manager. Fleming's supplier says all-vegetable mixes, especially California blend, are doing much better. All the same Federated Foods, Arlington Heights, Ill., has introduced a line including D'Oro (bow pasta, broccoli cuts, Italian beans, corn, kidney beans and red peppers), Bolino (enriched rotini pasta, broccoli cuts, yellow crookneck squash and red peppers), Genoa (rotini, broccoli, carrots and red and green peppers) and Capri (rotini, broccoli cuts, carrots, zucchini and red peppers).

Available under the Red & White, Parade and Hy-Top labels, these blends were developed exclusively for Federated, as were three others (Rossano, Marsala and Napoli) for Western Family Foods, Tigard, Ore., more than a year ago. Meanwhile, Jewel Foods has two varieties, Pastina and Farfalle. Perhaps a regional segmentation in taste is developing, as reflected in such varying pasta-vegetable mixes; or, as Western Family's Dick Gardiner and several frozen vegetable processors agree, it may be simply a question of retailers and wholesalers feeling their way in a new and unfamiliar category. Things may be clearer a year from now.

Like other 16-ounce packs, pasta-vegetable combinations are marketed in polybags. But even the traditional nine and 10-ounce commodity vegetables may come in polybags in years to come, if American Stores, Salt Lake City, Utah, has anything to do with it. Packaging has already been changed over at Alpha Beta Markets, La Habra, Calif., and Acme Markets, Philadelphia, Pa., for all but the wet pack vegetables -- broccoli and spinach. But Lucky Stores, Dublin, Calif., and Jewel Food, which, like Alpha Beta and Acme, are also owned by American Stores, are sticking with cartons. "I think those small polybags are lousy from a display standpoint," opined one industry skeptic. "But Alpha Beta and Acme say they're doing well with them."

"Microwaveable in pouch" boast messages on the Acme and Alpha Beta commodity vegetable packs, which means American Stores is challenging the microwave box -- a package developed for the private label industry and first introduced a few years ago at Ralphs Grocery, Compton, Calif. Use of the microwave box has spread gradually since then, as processors have geared up for production and retailers have accepted the concept. Still, there are some holdouts. Bill Davis, formerly head of frozen foods for Fleming, thought a sleeve box would be a better idea. Jim Duffield, his successor, said he is "really impressed" by the microwave polybag -- but that doesn't necessarily mean Fleming is about to go into it.

Microwave packs of one kind or another seem to be the coming thing in private label. Pathmark (Supermarkets General, Woodbridge, N.J.) is the first out with microwaveable French fries, available in three-ounce boxes in both regular and crinkle cut varieties. They were recently featured on sale at only 39-cents, vs. 59-cents for Ore-Ida. Other wholesalers and retailers are looking into the category. Potato products generally may be doing better in private label than in brands; both Pathmark and Winn-Dixie, Jacksonville, Fla., carry stuffed potatoes in cheddar cheese and sour cream and sour cream and cheese flavors, while Fleming has scored a hit with Letter Bites, a private label version of Alpha-Bites.

"It's been very successful; we sell a tremendous amount of them," said Duffield. "We must be one of the few wholesalers that has them, and they're available in all divisions." Another category Fleming is looking into is Cajun-style seasoned fries. Fleming moves truckloads of private label during its Spudtacular promotion the first quarter of the year. Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan., meanwhile, is introducing a first-line Best Choice potato products program after having achieved spectacular success (four million pounds a year) already with its neogeneric Always Save line. Look out, Ore-Ida, here they come!

Frozen cob corn is another fast-growing category for private label, in spite of a post-drought shortage (too much of last year's crop failed to measure up to specifications for cob, as opposed to kernel corn). Maybe it won't catch on everywhere, but Pathmark has a new jumbo pack of 24 pieces (about three inches each) of cob corn, recently priced at $4.99 or 20.8 cents a piece. The jumbo pack is a box about the size of the "suitcase packs" used for canned soft drink promotions. Polybags are available for those who are not keen on buying that much cob corn at a time, in counts of four and six ears and eight and 12 pieces.

Stir-fry vegetables -- the pea pods and water chestnuts -- offer a limited market for private label, say observers. But one processor, at least, is getting ready to offer sugar snap peas for private label this fall, after the first substantial harvest. Sugar snap peas, like Chinese pea pods, are eaten pod and all -- but the peas themselves are mature. General Foods has achieved some success in the category, and the processor thinks some retailers and wholesalers will be ready for private label.

Southern vegetables (collard greens, okra, kale, black-eyed peas, etc.) are showing greater strength in private label. Wetterau, Inc., St. Louis, Mo., reports they are actually doing better in the North these days than in the South. Some northern retailers still carry them in off-brands, but they may want to consider private label. "In the past, you could hardly sell the things at all," remarked Jim Moss, director of dairy and frozen foods at Wetterau. Another category to keep an eye on, although it isn't significant in private label yet: breaded vegetables, which have become popular at restaurants.

Private label in prepared frozen foods has always had its ups and downs. But some breakfast categories, such as bagels, have become firmly established. Breakfast croissants have won a place in private label at houses like Pathmark and ShopRite (Wakefern Foods, Elizabeth, N.J.), and waffles have become a staple -- with a growing number of accounts, such as Wetterau, switching to round versions. But breakfast entrees and sandwiches, although apparently solidly established at Pathmark, ShopRite and other places, aren't universally successful -- Acme seems to have dropped out.

Still, Federated Foods has developed five private label breakfast items under the Red & White label for S.M. Flickinger (West Seneca, N.Y.), division of Scrivner, Inc., Oklahoma City, Okla. It includes three entrees (scrambled eggs and sausage with hashed brown potatoes, French toast and sausages, and Pancakes and sausages) and two sandwiches (Sausage, egg and cheese; and Egg, Canadian-style bacon and cheese). According to the leading supplier for private label breakfast items, three or four major chains or wholesalers in the South and two in the Midwest are about to jump into the category -- Wetterau, Inc., St. Louis, Mo., has already done so under the Why Pay More? label.

But at Wetterau, where breakfast items were introduced in private label last year, they are moving "very slowly," according to Moss; chicken patties and nuggets are far better performers. Duffield reports that Fleming has looked into the category, but without making any commitment -- although he admits that "the whole microwave area is exploding." Fleming's failure with light entrees, Duffield said, was due to poor positioning of the line by independent retailers. "It didn't get where we wanted it," he said -- retailers positioned TV Lite Entrees against Budget Gourmet, although they were quality items usually "priced a little bit over" Budget Gourmet.

Still, the decline and fall of Fleming's TV entree program hasn't been nearly as depressing as the failure of premium frozen dinners at the 1,000-store Kroger. In late 1988, the premium line was rolled out with great fanfare and high hopes. Now production has been discontinued, and the largest chain in the country is trying to get rid of inventory as quickly as possible, selling the dinners at cost. Kroger just couldn't make it against brands like Armour, which had already killed a similar private label program at Safeway, Oakland, Calif., several years ago -- after Safeway pioneered the category. If the two largest chains in the country can't make a go of dinners, who can?

Neither frozen breakfast items nor entrees seem to have aroused much interest on the West Coast, although the former are being offered to retailers and wholesalers there. Western Family, Tigard, Ore., isn't interested at this point. Neither is Ralphs, which has what must be the most aggressive program in California. Except for Topco, nobody seems to be hanging in there with light entrees; but the same supplier that has been setting up frozen breakfast programs in the East, Midwest and South insists that there is a strong potential for low-cholesterol, low-salt private label entrees positioned against Healthy Choice. Up to now, own label light entrees have stressed only reduced calorie counts.

Some prepared FF items seem to fit into regional niches; others seem inspired by new retail brands. At Stop & Shop, private label pasta items include eight-ounce meat and cheese tortellinis (recently priced at $1.69), positioned against regional brands, as well as the more common 16-ounce cheese ravioli. Another Stop & Shop item is a 10-ounce frozen macaroni and cheese dinner (recently priced at $1.19), positioned against Howard Johnson's ($1.99) -- which was once sold only through the now-defunct restaurant chain. As long as there is a reliable source for private label, other regional and specialty items might be just as viable in other parts of the country.

Pizza on Rise

Pizza is another category that seems to be growing steadily in private label. Nine-slice and French bread varieties were introduced recently by Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., while Associated Wholesale Grocers has launched a line of commodity pizzas under its Always Save label (hamburger-sausage, pepperoni and combination in 7.5-ounce sizes). "We moved 50,000 cases on introduction," said Dennis Kinser, director of private label procurement for the wholesaler. "We feel the trend is toward upscale pizza, but we felt we needed the commodity line first."

Frozen fish should have a great potential in private label -- if only the category can overcome its image as inferior to "fresh" (which is often actually days or weeks old). First National Supermarkets, Windsor Locks, Conn., now offers a fillet line with items priced for everyone: sole at $4.49 a pound, flounder at $4.29, haddock at $3.89, cod at $3.29 and pollock at $2.39, not to mention relatively innovative fried clams. Stop & Shop's line includes polybagged shrimp in medium (70-88 count), large (50-63) and colossal (20-31) sizes.

PHOTO : Private label packers are out to knock off branded frozen sandwiches such as this Hormel

PHOTO : New Traditions offering. The name brands are fighting back by trimming profit margins. The

PHOTO : above four-ounce, 100% chicken breast sandwich was selling for $1.39 in New Jersey.

PHOTO : Supermarket private labels are taking on branded products in the growing segment for

PHOTO : take-home fast food products.

PHOTO : Look out Ore-Ida, own label microwaveable French fries are popping onto retail shelves.

PHOTO : The Pathmark crinkle cut product is thought to be the first to challenge the big boys.

PHOTO : Red & White's private label is seen on Pasta Classics Capri, a blend of rotini, broccoli

PHOTO : cuts, carrots, zucchini and red peppers.

PHOTO : French Toast and Sausages (top) and Egg, Canadian Style Bacon and Cheese on a Muffin

PHOTO : (above) are among the microwaveable Red & White private label frozen breakfasts packed for

PHOTO : Federated Foods.
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Frozen Foods in North America; frozen food
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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