By Molly Strzelecki
I said Brrrr! It's cold in here! There must be some products in the atmosphere! So clap your hands! Stomp your feet! Frozen baked products just can't be beat!
Okay, so maybe this rah-rah bit, popular amongst high school cheerleaders, doesn't work as well when applying it to the freezer case, but you can't blame us for trying. The frozen baked goods category lately is like watching a really good game. The category is facing off against some tough opposition from health nuts who are using every trick in the book to defeat their cool rivals. One minute, the frozen team is up, the next minute they're slightly behind, but you just know a comeback is on the horizon as the clock winds down.
Every good team knows that you win some and you lose some, and you rarely go undefeated. According to Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc., while categories like frozen bread, roll and pastry dough and frozen bagels are down -3.9% and -18.0%, respectively, other sectors of the freezer case, like frozen pies and frozen breads, rolls and biscuits are up +7.5% and +4.9%, respectively.
To keep a winning record these days, frozen baked goods producers are coming out with new products that are truly tailored to the latest trends and have consumers in mind. Some bakers have revamped their strategies to take on such ferocious trends as low-carb that seemingly can't be beat. But every team has a weak spot and these companies are cheering their team along with giant megaphones. Rah! Rah! Sis Boom Bah!
Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive!
With Team Atkins making a play for a national championship of the food game, it almost seems that frozen baked products have about as big a chance of prevailing as the Pee Wee squad would have squaring off against Varsity. But don't count out the underdog just yet.
"We're pretty optimistic about low-carb, and it's interesting because initially it could have been looked at as a threat to any type of bread product," says Scott Devon, president and CEO of Cole's Quality Foods. "But we've been able to make it an opportunity. I think what we and other companies are doing is increasing the likelihood of this not becoming a fad and more of a lifestyle change."
At the end of January, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company rolled out Cole's Ultra garlic bread, which is the first low-carb garlic bread available on the market. Devon says the introduction has so far been successful, with the company receiving good consumer feedback. The loaf-style garlic bread has only 5 gm. of net carbs per serving and replaces refined white flour with oat fiber and wheat gluten.
Other bakeries like Cleveland, Ohio-based Orlando Baking are also putting lower-carb players on the field on both the retail and frozen foodservice side, rolling out new lower-carb white and wheat breads and garlic breadsticks for retail. The foodservice side offers lower-carb white and wheat breads, sub rolls, hamburger buns and breadsticks. The lower-carb foodservice items and the retail items are both now available. Interestingly enough, according to a foodservice study by Technomic, Inc., most restaurant consumers are not as concerned with carbohydrates as suggested lately. "Carbohydrate consumption is less of a concern, despite considerable media attention," claims the February press release about the study. More than 1,600 respondents were asked how concerned they are with saturated fat, calories, sugar and carbohydrates. Saturated fat was at the top with 64% of respondents expressing concern, while only 55% of those surveyed were concerned with carbohydrates.
Still, the carb-counting super-fans are influencing foodservice offerings such as, for example, the bun-less Whopper at Burger King and the Atkins wraps at Subway. People may not care who wins, but they are concerned with who is playing the game.
"It's the veto vote," says Jerry Smiley, a principal with Strategic Growth Partners in Roselle, Ill. "The restaurants providing the low-carbohydrate offerings are at least providing an opportunity for people who might not normally go to those restaurants."
Along with re-examining the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food guide pyramid, it's understandable that frozen baked goods producers would feel threatened and break out their latest strategies to beat the opposition. For some baked goods, moving from the base of the pyramid to the peak could, potentially, drastically reduce playing time for frozen products. But at the opposite end of the field, other categories in frozen baked are simply tweaking their playbook rather than bringing in a back-up squad.
What's Your Battle Cry?
While Team Atkins has been tackling some bread products, especially white bread, inside and outside the freezer case, it's come up short in yardage when taking on more indulgent products like pies.
"In talking to consumers, what it comes down to with frozen desserts is that it's a treat, an indulgence and a comfort food," says Jonathan Bloom, brand manager for pies for Sara Lee Bakery Group. "Consumers want to enjoy what they're eating. They'd rather eat a little bit less of something they really enjoy than eat a lot of something that isn't satisfying to them."
About a decade ago during the fat-free boom, Bloom notes, Sara Lee did try its hand at the latest phenomenon to hit the grocery shelves, offering a whole line of low-fat and low-sugar items. Overall, however, the items didn't fare well in the long run.
It's no surprise that people who are looking for a delectable dessert treat aren't doing it because it's the healthy thing to do. Rather, frozen pie manufacturers recognize that sometimes people just need to satisfy a sweet tooth.
So rather than cater to carb-counters, Sara Lee is going decadent. Last year, the St. Louis, Mo.-based bakery group introduced Sara Lee Signature Selections crème pies, a line of restaurant quality, 10-in., super-premium desserts. This March, it's rolling out two new flavors — Chocolate Dream, made with a rich chocolate filling, a cocoa whipped topping and gourmet shavings on top, and Lemon Grove Meringue, which is a new twist on the traditional lemon meringue pie. Lemon meringue sits on top of a layer of lemon crème on top of lemon custard, all on a graham crust.
Additionally, Sara Lee is test marketing Cobbler Anytime in Florida and Georgia markets. Available in three varieties of apple, peach and blackberry, the cobblers are individually portioned, 4 in. in diameter and have a suggested retail price of $2.49 for a two-pack. The cobblers are microwaveable in about a minute, or ovenable in 10-12 minutes, Bloom says. Still other companies, like Orlando Baking, are hitting both sides of the yes-carb/no-carb trend. Yes, Orlando Baking is introducing lower-carb items, but in the last five months it saw huge success with its introduction of full-carb ciabatta bread items in the freezer case.
"I think launching [the ciabatta loaves] was a really important step to show people we can go in a lot of different directions. It's not just about putting out a slice of bread or a roll anymore," Jones says.
The loaves are available in four different varieties: a traditional ciabatta loaf; a bruschetta variety made with a garlic bread topped with chopped tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, provolone and Romano cheeses and parsley; a garlic and herb ciabatta bread; and a ciabatta bread topped with a blend of four cheeses – mozzarella, provolone, Romano and Parmesan.
"These latest introductions address the need for convenience and ready-to-go," she explains. "They're great for meals or appetizers and they look beautiful when they bake-off. You can cut them into little pieces and have a nice appetizer. Consumers are looking for an easier way to eat well."
Overall, categories like frozen desserts and artisan breads aren't seeing much of an impact from Team Atkins and are holding their own.
"There's a lot less of a stall effect that is occurring with those things than there is with your basic commodity products," Smiley says. "People will give up their Ho-Hos, but not their Cheesecake Factory cheesecake. They'll give up their soft hamburger bun at Wendy's, but they won't give up the artisan bread at Costco."
That's good news for frozen baked products, which continue to rally against bigger and more powerful players. The key is to have continued product innovation that caters to both the consumer who's on a low-carb diet and the one who is not.
"Not everyone in the world is on a low-carb diet," Smiley notes. "And not everyone in the world will stay on a low-carb diet."
As long as frozen baked manufacturers keep the game exciting, consumers will continue to cheer them on.

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Frozen Pies VIEW TABLE