Product-Introduction Rate Decline Reported After Marketing Setbacks

Times Staff Writer

The rate of new food-product introductions has slowed in recent months as manufacturers retrench after a series of marketing setbacks, according to an industry analyst who charts the field.

In fact, the number of food and household items that will enter retail channels this year is expected to increase only modestly over 1987’s totals, according to Martin J. Friedman, editor of Gorman’s New Product News.

And most of the entries in 1988, he added, will be simple flavor additions or size variations of existing brands.

“The major national food companies are worried about introducing too many dogs. The failures (in recent years) have had a chilling effect,” Friedman said. “There is now an aura of caution. . . . Consumers were not responding (to previous offerings).”

Another problem facing manufacturers is “slotting allowances,” demanded by the supermarket chains, he said. The so-called allowances are, in essence, cash incentives paid by food companies to the retailers for rent of precious store shelf space, already clogged by the more than 30,000 items that markets typically carry.


Even so, Friedman says that significant changes are under way in the processed-food world but that the developments are based more on packaging innovations than ingredient formulations.

“There is a major revolution under way that will change the way people buy, prepare and serve food,” he said. “The next five years will be exciting.”

Those categories likely to be in the forefront of this movement are microwaveable products, refrigerated foods and shelf-stable entrees.

Several examples of these recently introduced items are worth noting.

Quick & Convenient--For more than a decade fast-food chains have been the supermarket industry’s nemesis. Now the grocers have an opportunity to strike back with microwaveable sandwiches that are ready in minutes.

“People seem to be on the fastest time track in history. And manufacturers are responding. As a result, you can now have fast food at home,” said Friedman.

Geo. A. Hormel & Co. is making a major introduction in this area with its New Traditions line of frozen food. Typical fast-food fare--cheeseburgers, chicken-breast patties on sesame seed rolls and fillet of fish sandwiches--are among the selections offered by Hormel. There are a total of 20 different New Traditions products, including a full line of breakfast offerings. Some of the familiar morning-meal combinations, each served on a buttermilk biscuit, include sausage/egg, Canadian bacon/egg/cheese or steak.

The Austin, Minn.,-based firm plans to add other items to its “real food, real fast, at home,” concept shortly.

Swift-Eckrich Inc. is going a touch more upscale in the morning food competition with its Brown ‘N Serve Breakfast Sandwiches by using croissants. The frozen combinations include bacon/egg as well as ham/cheese. The name Brown ‘N Serve is a bit misleading because the sandwiches are all microwaveable and ready in minutes. Swift also has the traditional sausage/egg on biscuits or English muffins.

But Hormel, for now, has the last word in breakfast foods: Bacon specially packaged for the microwave. Inside each package of Hormel’s Microwave line are four separate packets. Each plastic-enclosed pack contains four bacon strips. A paper-like material absorbs the grease inside each of the bag-like containers that, when microwaved, fully cook the bacon in four minutes. The ease in preparation and clean-up has prompted Hormel to claim, in promotional material, that the product, “could easily make frying bacon obsolete.”

Friedman, in noting the recent Hormel entries, said that the company is on the leading edge of microwaveable foods.

Anytime Meals--One of the more important introductions supporting Friedman’s contention is Hormel’s Top Shelf--fully prepared entrees that do not require refrigeration.

In a sense, the process is a descendant of both canned and frozen food. Whereas the 10 available Top Shelf varieties resemble a typical frozen main dish, the technology used to allow items like lasagna to sit on store or pantry shelves is faintly similar to canned foods.

The food is placed in sterilized plastic trays and sealed airtight. Then the containers are pressure-cooked. The end product is, therefore, not susceptible to normal spoilage. Top Shelf, however, cannot be heated in a conventional oven and must be microwaved or heated (well sealed) in boiling water.

While Top Shelf is likely to cut into sales of premium frozen entrees, a new style of can will soon modernize one of the oldest food packagings. The containers, known as omni cans, are actually a plastic cup sealed with a metal lid.

The premiere brand in this field is Lunch Bucket Microwaveable Meals. Consumers need only remove the metal lid, replace it with a similar plastic cover and heat. Lunch Bucket, in addition to several soups, also offers entrees such as lasagna, pasta and chicken, chili and corned beef hash. Chef Boyardee also employs the omni can for its Microwave Meals line, which includes several pasta dishes.

Also with a nod toward convenience is a new poultry item from Norbest. The Midvale, Utah,-based firm is introducing fully roasted whole turkeys. The birds, most likely available from store’s deli counters, can be served cold or reheated in conventional or microwave ovens.

Between Meals--The snack-food category has also been quite active.

J&J; Snack Foods of Pennsauken, N.J., is introducing Soft Pretzel Bites under its Superpretzel brand of frozen foods. The nugget-sized, salted dough bits are designed for those who enjoy soft pretzels but find the large, twisted version unwieldy at parties, according to a company representative. The bites can be oven-heated or microwaved.

S&W; Fine Foods also has small in mind with its new Pik-Nik Bite-Size Russet Chips. Two features distinguish the latest chip. The first is that S&W; selects the smallest Russet potatoes available, and then the unpeeled tubers are sliced into mouth-sized chips. Second, Pik-Nik is also packaged in a resealable canister that limits breakage and lengthens shelf life once opened.

The leading maker of rice cakes, Chico-San, hopes that the crunchy wafer format will also work if popcorn is added to the mix. The company’s Popcorn Cakes, lightly salted and flavored with butter, will be promoted as a snack for the “health conscious.”

Examples of the emerging “hand-to-mouth syndrome,” according to Friedman, are products like Sara Lee’s Snacks. The company is introducing miniature cakes, available in the frozen-food section. The selection includes Classic Cheesecake, Deluxe Carrot Cake, Chocolate Fudge and All Butter Pound Cake. The palm-sized pastries can be eaten frozen, according to a Sara Lee statement, or thawed.

Yet another competitor in the frozen-food counter is Dannon’s Frozen Yogurt On-A-Stick. The use of yogurt is the natural extension of the frozen-juice-bar craze that has been prominent in the ice cream section the last few years. The appeal of Dannon’s frozen novelty is that it also contains chunks of fruit at a slim 50 calories per bar.

Fruit & Vegetables--Frieda’s Finest, a Los Angeles-based produce company, is also introducing several new items. Certainly the most unusual are coquitos, miniature, ready-to-eat baby coconuts. The coquitos, harvested from Chilean palm trees, are being called “a new kind of snack food” by the firm.

The company is also marketing another novelty item in its Frieda Fajita--packaged fresh peppers, garlic, shallots and tomatillos that just need to be sliced, cooked and added to a sauteed meat for the creation of the popular Mexican dish.

“All of (Frieda Fajita) can be eaten plain, after stir frying, or you can add beef, chicken or seafood and serve on a warm tortilla for a main dish,” said Frieda Caplan, the firm’s founder. “We’ve had successes before, but nothing has skyrocketed like the Frieda Fajita.”

Rounding out the latest selection of exotics from Frieda’s Finest is the cherimoya, a tropical fruit that resembles an artichoke on the outside and an apple on the inside. The sherbet-like texture, though, yields a pineapple-papaya flavor.

No-Mess Grill--With convenience and ease-of-preparation being the prime motivating factors in the recent crop of new products, it is no surprise that the theme has extended to the home barbecue field.

From Two Trees Corp. of Gardena comes Best of the West 100% mesquite charcoal. However, it is not the mesquite that’s new, but the fact that the charcoal is in handy 2.2-pound bags that fit easily into grills. There is no need to measure the amount of charcoal for use nor is it necessary to douse the grill with lighter fluid. According to the manufacturer, all that’s required is to tear the bag’s top off and light the paper.

Though other firms are also marketing similar-sized bags of charcoal for the barbecue, Two Trees is the only company to offer mesquite in such a convenient package. In fact, the company sells three of the 2.2-pound bags in an easy-carrying case.