Manufacturers try to fill consumers' craving for convenience but also good food

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Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2013 12:00 am

It sounds satisfying, the thought of putting a hot, healthy, homemade meal on the table for your family each night.

But those thoughts turn frazzled when it's time to execute the plan in the midst of jobs, school and other family activities.

Food manufacturers and supermarkets have been studying consumer behavior around dinner-hour choices and have a message for you: We get it. And, in increasing numbers, they're rolling out varieties of new products and services at grocery stores, catering to time-starved shoppers who still want to get involved in the cooking process.

“I think there's a constant struggle between wanting to make meals from scratch and the reality of getting food on the table,” said Jen Wulf, consumer insights manager for P.F. Chang's Home Menu and Bertolli brands, both owned by Omaha-based ConAgra Foods.

“These types of products fit that sweet spot of convenience you can feel good about,” she said — not too hard, not too easy.

They include new pre-made meals in bags, “oven-baked” foods from high-tech microwave trays, restaurant-style sauces in pouches, ready-to-grill produce and meat kits and ready-to-bake meals from the grocery store's in-house chef.

Consider the frozen, bagged dinners-for-two that are the cornerstone product of Wulf's brands, which ConAgra purchased from Unilever in 2012. Preparation is easy: open the bag of Chicken Florentine & Farfalle or Beef With Broccoli, dump the contents in a skillet, heat, stir and eat. Sounds simple — but there are a number of subconscious cues that go into the packaging and product design.

First is the pan; this is no microwave dinner. “There's definitely a higher engagement level of cooking it in a skillet,” Wulf said. “You still have to clean a pan, but it's only one pan.”

Second is the sight of the food: “When you dump it out you're seeing big chunks of meat and nice vegetables. (Consumers) feel less like they're compromising because they can see those premium ingredients.” Only full broccoli florets here.

Then there's the smell, as the frozen “sauce pucks” melt and the sauce bubbles and mingles with the food.

While the entree is heating on the stove, the home chef can toss a salad, set the table and call everyone to supper within 20 minutes —- and still feel like he or she “cooked.”

Wulf's research shows that Wednesday is the day of the week when consumers most often eat these bagged dinners. The week begins with well-planned meals, she said, but by Wednesday, the plans fall apart, and “backup” is ready in the freezer.

The success of those products has had the brands expanding, especially Bertolli. In addition to hearty Meal Soups and risotto dinners launched just before ConAgra bought the brand, the Omaha firm this year is launching a line of Bertolli Al Dente pasta meals for one and for two. These use a microwave “tray-in-tray” steamer bowl similar to what the company already uses in some of its Healthy Choice and Marie Callender's entrees.

ConAgra also is launching a line of Bertolli Rustico Bakes for one and for two that use the MicroRite tray, which ConAgra says heats food more evenly and gives a “baked” taste.

ConAgra considers the Rustico Bakes stuffed-pasta entrees, which include cannelloni and ravioli, to be premium products and something consumers might not be eager to attempt themselves, unlike relatively easy spaghetti, Wulf said, or something with an already-saturated market, like frozen lasagna.

Other companies also are competing to help harried consumers in the kitchen. Kraft makes Sizzling Salads, a dinner kit that contains two sauce pouches: one to cook chicken in, and one of salad dressing. More recently, Kraft started selling Recipe Makers, also with two sauce pouches, for meals like fajitas or sweet and sour chicken.

Campbell's is kick-starting meals and trying to connect with the millennial generation with Skillet Sauces in flavors like Thai green curry and creamy chipotle, flavors consumers may have tasted at a restaurant but not know how to create at home. The home cook just sautes chicken or another protein in a skillet, adds the sauce and serves over rice. Like its line of Go! Soup, the sauces are sold in plastic pouches; a Campbell's brand director told when the soup was introduced in 2012 that younger consumers have a negative perception of canned foods.

Kits are also popular for dry dinner mixes, and when it was launched two years ago, a Kraft product, Velveeta Cheesy Skillets, took market share from Hamburger Helper, the classic General Mills product.

General Mills' chief executive officer, Ken Powell, acknowledged that the Hamburger Helper brand has been “languishing,” and now the Minnesota company is launching a major Helper offensive.

New products will combine the customary dry mix and pasta with a sauce pouch. New offerings of Chicken Helper are on tap. Packaging will be revamped. And General Mills will retool its Hamburger Helper marketing plan, broadening its message to younger consumers.

Baby boomers are time-starved, he said, busy with second careers, grandchildren and hobbies.

“They don't want to spend hours in the kitchen cooking, although they've spent a fortune redoing it,” Lempert said. “There are a lot of brands out there that are really trying to help both those groups with shortcuts.”

Supermarkets themselves are adding pre-made meals and pre-assembled meal kits, even hiring in-store chefs to create the meals. “Just about every supermarket is doing it,” Lempert said. “They're all understanding that we've got a time-starved population who wants to get their hands involved in food but doesn't want to be Julia Child.”

West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee has expanded its selection of “value-added” meats and vegetables, such as ready-to-grill marinated meats, stuffed peppers, vegetable kebabs and pre-husked, bacon-wrapped corn on the cob. The stores' customers want to prepare healthy meals at home but can't find time to cook from scratch with both adults working and children with busy schedules, Hy-Vee spokeswoman Ruth Comer said.

The stores also have started hiring chefs, after managers noticed that customers were asking store dietitians for recipe and food preparation advice. The Hy-Vee that opened last August in Urbandale, Iowa, employs five chefs, Comer said.

The chefs have culinary training and restaurant experience. They advise customers, host cooking demonstrations and make Chef's Creations take-home items: entrees, side dishes and desserts made in-store and packaged for takeout.

When will it get to the point where people just pull up a chair at the grocery store to eat dinner?

That day has come. The Urbandale store is home to Hy-Vee's first Market Grille, what the company calls a casual dining spot that converts to a full-service restaurant at 4 p.m. Customers order from a grill menu and can drink wine or beer while waiting for a server to bring the food.

Hy-Vee's new Kearney, Neb., store will have a Market Grille, and its new store in Plattsmouth, Neb., will have a smaller version of the concept called a Market Cafe.

The NPD Group market research firm predicted in a report out last week that prepared food purchases from supermarkets and other retail outlets will grow 10 percent in the next decade, compared with a 4 percent growth in restaurant visits.

The forecast also found that consumers of all age groups make use of “home meal replacements,” although different demographics buy prepared foods for different reasons.

The changing needs of these different groups will present opportunities for retailers and a challenge for restaurateurs, NPD said, as baby boomers age and more adults in their 30s shop for prepared foods.

The rising number of consumers who rely on recipes to create new and interesting meals, also tracked by NPD Group, is another opportunity for supermarkets and food packagers.

Hy-Vee recently launched a companywide online recipe website called Simple Fix, highlighting different weekly recipes that can be made with just a few ingredients and preparation steps. Instead of a list of “directions,” the recipes describe “All You Do.” ConAgra has a similar site, ReadySetEat, launched in 2011 with recipes involving the company's foods that can be made in under 30 minutes and with seven or fewer ingredients. Megan West, manager for ConAgra's interactive and recipe strategy, said the recipes are tested by a three-member “culinary team.”

Every night is a new opportunity to gain business — when the dinner decision is made, there are just 23 hours before the dilemma appears again.

This report includes material from McClatchy Newspapers.

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