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Wawa's refrigerated entree onslaught: fast food ready to go, or to stay.

Wawa's Refrigerated Entree Onslaught: Fast Food Ready to Go, or to Stay

The frozen food industry had better take notice. Convenience store chain innovates where supermarkets fear to tread. Response from test-store customers brisk.

Take them home, or have them microwaved right in the store and eat them on the run. With Fresh Buffet refrigerated entrees from Wawa Food Markets, Wawa, Pa., you really can have it your way.

Wawa is a convenience store chain with 450 outlets in the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania and adjacent Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey -- and Fresh Buffet is its exclusive private label line of 20 entrees sold on a rotating schedule.

After successful test marketing in 50 stores, the range is being rolled out in the rest of the chain, and should be in all outlets by the end of this year or early next year, according to Lee Smith, Wawa's director of marketing for deli, prepared foods and produce.

Why did Wawa go into its own label for chilled entrees? "Nobody wanted to deal with a convenience store," explained Smith. Such fledging refrigerated entree brands as Campbell's Fresh Kitchens are looking to supermarkets. But Wawa thought convenience stores an ideal milieu for the new category.

You won't get any argument on that from the staff at one of the test stores in Concordville, Pa., where Fresh Buffet has been selling so briskly it has to be restocked twice a week. About 80% of the business is take-home, a clerk there told Quick Frozen Foods International, but 20% of the buyers have the meals microwaved right there for immediate consumption.

"That's one of the reasons we put microwave ovens in the stores," said Ed Burcher. "We didn't have them previously, but we knew that a lot of the products we were selling in the foodservice section were being eaten within 10 or 15 minutes of purchase." Among the items now being sold in foodservice are soups that may later be added to the Fresh Buffet line.

Fresh Buffet entrees are rotated every quarter; for the first quarter of this year, the lineup included lasagna bolognese, lasagna marinara, beef teriyaki, chicken mornay, chicken barbecue, chicken oriental, turkey pot pie and shrimp creole. Lasagna bolognese has been the top-selling item to date, followed closely by chicken mornay, lasagna marinara and turkey pot pie -- but some items, like beef teriyaki, are brand new.

Special fixtures have been installed in the 50 test market stores to display the Fresh Buffet entrees, along with a line of Fresh Buffet single-serve desserts (cheesecake, apple pie supreme, peanut butter pie, Jewish apple cake, chocolate chip cheesecake, carrot cake, cappuccino torte and chocolate fantasy). This strategy will be followed with the rollout to other Wawa stores, although the design of the fixture may change.

"I think chilled foods are the future," said Smith. Compared to canned and frozen foods, she argued, "they're better quality, require less salt in cooking and preserving, taste better and are better for you." Customer response cards included with the entrees have drawn a surprisingly positive reaction, Burcher added, and also led to fine-tuning formulations: the turkey pot pie, for example, had "too many onions" at first.

Safety is always a consideration with refrigerated foods. Drivers from KeyFresh Foods, West Chester, Pa., are specially trained to handle the entrees, and deliver them three times a week in customized trucks. The special display fixtures allow a variation of only four degrees in temperature; and as an added safeguard, the entree packages feature freshness indicators similar to Campbell's -- if the spot within a red circle turns dark, consumers should shun it.

In terms of quality, Burcher considers Fresh Buffet way ahead of Culinova (a failed venture in refrigerated entrees by General Foods), let alone such shelf-stable non-refrigerated items as Top Shelf. The line is apparently a first for private label, although Cub Foods, Minneapolis, Minn., is rolling out a similar line called Cub Cuisine (A&P, Montvale, N.J., once announced such a program, but it never got off the ground).

All that can be learned of Cub Cuisine at press time is that it has been introduced at two Cub stores in Green Bay, Wis., and another unit near Minneapolis. The items are prepared in-store, unlike Wawa's; but like Wawa's, they are sold in printed cartons rather than simply bubble-top containers with computer-generated price stickers. Grand Union, Wayne, N.J., Vons, El Monte, Calif., and other chains have in-store take-out food programs, but without any professional packaging or merchandising.

Fresh Buffet has been supported by small newspaper ads with coupons, Burcher says, but the limited distribution has made radio commercials impractical -- that should change when all 450 stores carry the line.

PHOTO : Special fixtures keep Wawa entrees chilled within a four-degree temperature range.
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Frozen Foods in North America; Wawa Food Market
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Previous Article:US government aims to crack down on unsubstantiated food health claims.
Next Article:New cold store construction continues as inventory turns, freezer demands gain.

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