Macaroni and cheese makers looking beyond children’s plates

Tough times call for some serious comfort food, and macaroni and cheese is a staple of that category. That’s added up to a nice payday for manufacturers. As a whole, macaroni and cheese sales are up 25% over the last four years, to $802 million.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner accounts for the vast majority of category growth, which likely means more parents, willingly or not, have joined their kids in more bright-orange dinners. There are much smaller but also growing competitors, such as Annie’s Inc. of Napa, Calif., which sells itself on taste as well as on natural claims, and supermarkets’ private-label offerings, which are sometimes half the Kraft price.

Now, Kraft Foods Inc. of Northfield, Ill., wants to bring mac and cheese, launched in the Great Depression, from kids’ plates to the center of the family dinner table.

The company had been toying with a homier version of macaroni and cheese for many years, but after watching cheesy, crusty restaurant versions proliferate in recent years, and more people cooking at home to save money, Kraft began work on what is now its Homestyle Deluxe Macaroni & Cheese Dinner about 18 months ago.

The new mac and cheese comes in a bag and sells for $2.99. It comes with wider, curvier noodles, a packet of gooey orange cheese, breadcrumbs and a seasoning packet, with which cooks make a base for the cheese sauce.

Kraft is also tapping into a trend of putting personal touches on family dishes by offering an “optional oven finish,” involving more cheese and an even-crispier breadcrumb topping, thanks to five minutes in the oven.

Other food makers have been cashing in on consumers’ need for classic comfort foods. Campbell Soup Co. has boasted about increased pasta sauce sales. H.J. Heinz Co.'s Ore Ida brand has pointed to its Steam n’ Mash potatoes as one of its most promising launches in years. The spuds steam in a microwaveable bag, because no one likes chopping and peeling. Then cooks mash the potatoes and add butter, milk or some kind of personal touch. Ore Ida’s website offers recipe suggestions too.

“The consumer, because of the economy, isn’t eating out as much as they did in the past,” said Dennis Lombardi executive vice president of food service strategies at Columbus, Ohio-based WD Partners. He said the trend isn’t just about more comfort food but “creating something a little extra special.”

It may be the difference, Lombard said, between a regular frozen pizza and one from California Pizza Kitchen Inc. For humble macaroni and cheese, he said, an upgrade to creamier, cheesier sauce and bread crumbs is likely to fit the bill as well.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner sales are up 8% over last year, to $645 million, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. The data exclude sales at Wal-Mart and club stores.

Kraft Chief Executive Irene Rosenfeld said the company invested in Homestyle Deluxe “to bring in the adult user.”

“From a Kraft standpoint, it’s really very smart,” said Lynn Dornblaser director of consumer-products insight at Mintel International Group Ltd. “It doesn’t have any overt kid positioning, so you don’t have to feel guilty about eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.”