Supermarket chains and consumer packaged-goods manufacturers are always poking around in quick-service turf, probing for ways to grab back some of that stomach share they’ve lost so inexorably to dining out. Now, with a new wave of products and technologies that rely on customization, packaged-food players believe they might have finally created the big wedge they’ve been looking for.
In segments ranging from frozen pizza to frozen entrees, from fresh salads to fresh vegetable dishes, major companies including Kraft Foods, ConAgra, General Mills, and Dole are launching new supermarket products that invite consumers to create their own meals, primarily by combining pre-packaged and pre-cooked components.
Packaging and preparation innovations have allowed the food industry to cast these new customized entries as an improvement that offers consumers more freshness than typical supermarket fare, the convenience of being able to eat at home, the control of determining how ingredients will be combined, components, and value at price points meant to undercut quick-service competition.
The take-home and delivery pizza segment, for example, is the avowed target of new frozen customizable pizzas such as the Freschetta Build & Bake, by Schwan’s. The line offers consumers the opportunity to choose and combine crusts, sauces, cheeses, and other toppings. Asian quick-serve restaurants are unabashedly in the crosshairs of ConAgra Foods entry into the customizable products field. Its new Healthy Choice Café Steamers line includes separate Asian-twinged components that steam in the microwave and then are combined by the consumer.
“There’s always an opportunity in the convenience-meal space to source volume out of [quick-service],” says Bill Partryka, vice president of marketing for Healthy Choice. “And for us, Asian fare is the perfect target. They tend to be a little lighter than other quick-service meals and to focus on big flavors. And steaming delivers big flavor.”
At the same time, supermarket chains, which long have been nibbling at the edges of the quick-service market, are getting aggressive about developing more “meal replacements” with an increasing range of fresh and customizable offerings. They’re going far beyond the traditional deli counter with arrays of new take-home and sit-down offerings, including everything from pizza to Brazilian-style, churrasco open-pit barbecue.
Giant Eagle is a Pittsburgh-based chain testing a number of quick-service-threatening concepts, including an upscale Market District store that offers a broad menu of customizable, ready-to-eat offerings in the general style of a Whole Foods Market.