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Steak express: high speed expansion in UK hand-held snack meals market.

New and innovative lines -- some developed in association with American relations -- pass taste test with British consumers. From Hot Dogs to Sloppy Joes, sales are running strong.

Steak Express could not be more aptly named. In just over two years, the Stockport-based company has speedily wrested away leadership in the competitive UK hand-held meat meals market from long-entrenched specialists in the field.

Just what makes this rising young concern from suburban Manchester tick, anyway? For starters, a main spring in the USA by the name of ConAgra. The Omaha, Nebraska-headquartered parent just happens to be the largest frozen food packer in North America, and the second biggest processor of all kinds of foods in the States.

To gauge the dimensions of the conglomerate, records show that in the decade of the '80s sales grew at a compound rate of 33% -- from US$ 847 million to over $20 billion. Among the major brands which fall under its aegis are Healthy Choice, Kid Cuisine, Butterball, Armour, Beatrice/Hunt Wesson and La Choy.

With that kind of pedigree, Steak Express management would be the first to admit of their good fortune to be able to call upon such a pool of expertise to enhance the UK operation. In this respect, it is interesting to note that in the $2.7 billion frozen dinners and entrees sector of the American QFF market, there has been quite an escalation in healthy-eating products in which ConAgra's Healthy Choice range specializes.

ConAgra's move into Britain was not attended by any high-profile exposure -- quite the contrary. In April of 1991 it acquired Hyman Foods, a relatively diminutive meat processor from which emerged Steak Express. The company had two plants: one in Ashton-under-Lyme and the other in Stockport. The former was originally commissioned to handle about $1.5 million of product.

Over the past two years, however, there has been a complete re-orientation in personnel, marketing philosophy, manufacturing structure, and the approach to new and innovative meat products. Among the fundamental changes that have taken place is increased production capacity at the Ashton-under-Lyme plant, which is now able to turn out $9 million worth of product annually. EEC-approved, it boasts some 5,000 square feet of production space, combined with a cold storage facility of the same area.

The workforce now consists of 180 people at all levels, and with market expansion increasing, this could rise dramatically over the next few years.

To underwrite the service aspect of the operation, the company has ordered a completely new fleet of temperature controlled vehicles. And to project a new-look image, the Steak Express name was adopted.

Conscious of the impact that packaging has on consumers, colorful USA-style packs have been developed to act as a catalyst at the retail level. And importantly, product development with associate companies in the States is ongoing.

There is also, as part of the marketing program, a determined drive to win overseas customers with the new and innovative items it makes available. Representation has been achieved in Spain and Eire to complement existing business in Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands.

Central to the entire operation is, naturally, the product range. Overall, including both the retail and catering lines, there are some 90 different listings. These range from comminuted meats such as chili burgers, pork and lamb grill carved and shaped, to ribs, kebabs, beef steaklets, chicken breast sandwiches, Swiss steaks, battered chicken breast steaks, and chicken nuggets. Then there's the newest arrival, Sloppy Joes, which was devised in conjunction with a Stateside associate.

American-style Sloppy Joes are pure beef products with onions, tomatoes and green peppers that come replete with sauce in a bun. Its launch was supported by wide media exposure, which resulted in favorable reception from consumers.

Malcolm Symes, sales and marketing director of Steak Express, stressed the emphasis being placed on creativity. "We realize that the way forward must be with new and innovative products. Whilst we are naturally looking at product development in the United Kingdom, often in conjunction with supermarket chains, we shall obviously draw upon ConAgra's ranges and, where necessary, modify products to meet local requirements."

Symes indicated that Steak Express would continue to call on the technical resources of ConAgra in its developmental stage. "We have to do all this and still come in at an extremely competitive price," he said. "Overheads will be kept down by placing increasing emphasis on the employment of the latest in technology."

One thing Steak Express is not is a "me-too" company. Since last year 15 new products were brought out. Additional introductions are planned over the next nine months to complement present ranges.

But while hand-held snack meals will continue to be the main marketing thrust, Symes made it abundantly clear that this would certainly not be to the exclusion of everything else.

"Two simple ready meals were launched in March," he said, "and because of the price structure and the value-for-money content, we should hit seven figures with these two lines during the current year. And since the value-for-money/price equation is just right -- we will be bringing in another two meals to complement the originals."

The sales and marketing director went on to say he felt that in the early days of pioneering ready meals, manufacturers and retailers had to take risks in establishing the market. And consumers took risks when they bought an unknown quantity. In effect, at that time only two out of 10 ready meals proved successful.

He concluded: "A similar problem today exists to a certain extent in the hand-held snack meal market, but we have taken steps to minimize the risk and instill confidence in both the buyer and the consumer. Initially the supermarket buyers did not think that hand-held snack meals would take off, but we now have an established track record and disabused them of this idea."
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Author:Abrahams, Ray
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Where's the beef? It's mooving! Frozen meat trade is on the upsurge.
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