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Companies See Cold Cash in Courting Young Taste Buds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The idea struck Barry Robbins, founder of San Diego-based Chicago Brothers Pizza, shortly after he read two consumer surveys last summer that showed pizza was children’s favorite food. Robbins suddenly saw that there was a huge potential profit in shaping and packaging frozen pizzas to make them appealing to kids.

The result was Chicago Brothers’ line of “microwaveable” Pizza for Kids, which comes in dog, bear and cat shapes in brightly decorated boxes. Robbins, who says the line has been successful since its introduction in May, called the kiddie pizzas among the first frozen meals marketed strictly for kids.

Chicago Brothers, which distributes its frozen pizza products nationwide while operating only one retail outlet in San Diego, isn’t the only frozen food company trying to cash in on young taste buds.

Within the past six months, major frozen food manufacturers, such as ConAgra Frozen Foods, Tyson Foods and others, have aggressively introduced products designed to whet kids’ appetites with favorites such as pizza, macaroni and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs. A New Jersey company got into the act by introducing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pizza, following the release of the blockbuster movie.

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With more than 30 million youngsters between the ages of 3 and 10 in the United States, frozen food companies see a huge potential market, one that industry observers say could balloon in coming years to $500 million annually. Sales have already reached an annualized rate of $150 million, say officials at Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods.

The widespread use and availability of microwave ovens, the growing number of working parents who have little time to cook, and the increase in “latchkey” children microwaving meals for themselves have provided the right conditions for frozen-food makers to pitch their products to kids, observers say.

The most critical element in the growth of the kiddie food market is the proliferation of microwave ovens. The American Frozen Food Institute reports that 62% of American children under age 13 now use a microwave to prepare one or more meals on their own each week.

“Microwaves are so fast and easy to use . . . now you have kids in the kitchen preparing food,” said Jackie Binkow, editor of the Grocers Journal of California, a publication of the Southern California Grocers Assn., a 1,200-member, Los Angeles-based trade group made up of grocery wholesalers and retailers.

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“You could almost say (frozen food companies) are using the microwave as a medium to reach kids,” Binkow said.

Mike Friedman, senior editor of Frozen Food Age, a New York City-based monthly, said nearly 80% of all U.S. households have microwave ovens.

“There’s no question manufacturers are targeting lines specifically toward children, and a lot of it I’m sure has to do with greater penetration of the microwave,” he said.

A Gallup Poll showing that pizza is the favorite food of most kids provided the impetus for Robbins of Chicago Brothers to get into the children’s frozen food market.

“You see all these (other food) products geared toward kids--Happy Meals and cereals advertised during Saturday morning cartoons.

“But no one was doing anything with pizza,” Robbins said. “It appeared to me that their favorite product was being neglected. And, with no children frozen food products (then available), it looked like a great opportunity.”

Chicago Brothers hired Cohen Kay Leonard, a Los Angeles-based advertising agency, to help it develop the children’s product line.

Six children’s pizza prototypes were presented to focus groups, made up of parents, their children and student lunchroom crowds. The six kinds of pizza included one called “Now You’re Cookin’ ” that allowed children to toss on their own toppings. Another called “Totally Hot Pizza” came in packaging that featured a California surf image.

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But the most popular kind proved to be the animal-shaped pizzas, leading Chicago Brothers to develop a cheese-flavored pizza called “Rad Surf Dog”; a pepperoni number called “Boogie Bear,” and a hamburger variety called “Totally Cool Cat.”

The products, aimed at children ages 5 to 11, are packaged in colorful boxes that are decorated with one of the three comic strip-like characters. Each pizza costs $2.49 and comes with a surprise: stickers of one of the characters.

Chicago Brothers introduced the products in May and now sell them at Big Bear, Vons, Ralphs, Price Club, as well as Play Co Toys.

“What better place than a toy store to attract kids,” Robbins said. A television advertising campaign for the product began airing in Southern California on July 6.

Although early sales figures are less than astonishing, Robbins said the numbers have surpassed the company’s expectations. “We were counting on selling an average of three cases (eight pizzas per case) a week” at each of the three supermarkets, Robbins said. “We’re closer to four cases, about 30 pizzas a week, and that’s before the advertising began.

“The real test begins now, but we expect the product and the category to grow,” he said.

Chicago Brothers, founded in 1977, saw revenues reach a record $16 million last year, Robbins said. The closely held company employs 200 and produces its pizzas in three buildings totaling 70,000 square feet in San Diego.

Other frozen food companies much larger than Chicago Brothers are counting on kids’ products to become moneymakers. ConAgra Frozen Foods, the largest U.S. frozen food company, with $1 billion in sales last year, recognized that selling grown-up food to kids won’t always do. In March, it introduced a line of frozen food products called Kid Cuisine.

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ConAgra developed a series of four-course meals, such as spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans, applesauce and a chocolate chip bar. Each microwaveable Kid Cuisine meal, which costs $1.89, also comes with a FunPak--a kit that include games, puzzles or stickers designed to entertain youngsters while dinner is in the microwave.

“Kids, especially at that age, can be very picky about what they will and will not eat. . . . Our product is geared to help moms overcome this dilemma,” said Susan Hanley, a spokeswoman for the Omaha, Neb.-based company. “It’s also convenient and it’s reasonably priced. It beats a cold sandwich or something out of a can.”

Tyson Foods, a $2.5-billion company whose main lines of business are poultry and frozen foods, is banking on the success of its Tyson Looney Tunes Meals. The frozen meals are being marketed with the help of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other Looney Tunes cartoon characters that have been licensed from Warner Bros. The selections include Bugs Bunny Chicken Chunks, Speedy Gonzales Beef Enchiladas and Yosemite Sam BBQ Chicken.

“In six months, children’s frozen foods has grown from zero to a $150-million category,” said David Leavitt, assistant product manager for Tyson. “We expect it to become a $250-million category and, in time, it could certainly rival the premium dinner category (gourmet meals), which is a $650-million category.”

Not everybody envisioned such a promising future for children’s frozen food products. Six months ago, when ConAgra presented its Kid Cuisine line to Tracy Wolpert, a buyer and merchandiser for the Vons and Pavilion supermarket chains, Wolpert expressed doubt.

“I was a little apprehensive. . . . I thought it would be a good one-time sale with all the promotion, the heavy couponing and the (kids’) surprises, but I didn’t think there would be a lot of repeat sales,” he said. “I thought it might be a passing fad, but I was totally wrong. . . . The product is flying.”

After witnessing Kid Cuisine’s success, Wolpert didn’t hesitate to stock his shelves with Tyson Looney Tunes Meals, which was heavily promoted and appropriately released during Bugs Bunny’s 50th anniversary celebration. Both products are now on sale at 325 Vons and Pavilion outlets in California and Las Vegas.

“Just based on what I’ve seen Kid Cuisine do, I think the product category has great potential to expand,” Wolpert said. “Chicago Brothers has gotten in on the ground floor, and I’m expecting them to do well, too.”

Wolpert said he is in the midst of creating a special section in the frozen food aisle just for children’s products.


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