Prelude To A Quiche
By Maria Pilar Clark
Innovation in the frozen snack category is kindling a desire in consumers for products that provide added value, convenience and novel flavors.
It’s a match made in heaven. Creative new product concepts for the frozen snacks section are fanning a new kind of flame in the stomachs of consumers. Although consumers will always hold pigs-in-a-blanket and miniature quiche dear in their hearts, they’ve focused their affections on a new age of bite-sized snacks, including tasty options such as savory pot stickers, mini wraps and taquitos.
As frozen snack manufacturers address the emergence of new eating occasions by creating products with wellness, portability and ethnically inspired flavors in mind, love of gastronomical proportions is in the air.
“There is mostly a desire for mini duplicates of larger items,” notes Paul Bensabat, chairman of Miami Beach, Fla.-based Cuisine Innovations. “Consumers clearly seem to enjoy the ease of eating bite-size items.”
Moreover, consumers are beginning to pass up meal-sized entrees and using varied appetizers as a lighter fare. They also are demanding stronger flavors in their frozen appetizer selections, Bensabat says. As their palates become more sophisticated — and as travels abroad exposes them to exciting new flavors — consumers look to the snack market to fulfill this niche.
To address changing consumer tastes, Cuisine Innovations recently introduced Buffalo Chicken Mini Wraps, asparagus wrapped in phyllo dough, franks in puff pastry and more.
Consumers’ ongoing search for healthier products also is generating added sales for the company.
“Although not necessarily a must to most, [healthier products] are welcome if easily accessible as part of a good-tasting snack or small appetizer,” Bensabat explains.
Alexia Foods also has responded to the desire for more healthful snacks with its new Mozzarella Stix and Mushroom Bites.
“Our customers were asking for them,” says Jack Acree, national sales manager. “There were no healthy alternatives.”
Selling ahead of forecasted expectations, Alexia Foods’ best-selling appetizers highlight a unique feature — they are all-natural, contain no trans fats and are made with olive oil.
Although the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based business currently is not aggressively marketing its appetizers to mass merchandisers or club stores, it has experienced strong sales and a fast rate of growth in natural food superstores, such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats.
An Appetizing Revolution
The ethnic-influenced forefront is an innovative hotbed for frozen snack manufacturers passionate about identifying and developing the trendy tastes consumers are searching for.
Ruiz Foods is staying on top of its game with tried and true favorites, along with new product introductions, and is the top-ranked Mexican snack food producer in the nation.
“Convenience, quality and a desire for Mexican foods remain the trends that are impacting the frozen Mexican food category,” says Kim Ruiz-Beck, vice chairman of the company. “This pertains to all channels of distribution, including retail, foodservice, clubs, vending, c-stores and more.”
Ruiz’s first innovative product — El Monterey Flour Taquitos — was introduced some years ago, and had been specifically developed to appeal to the American palate, Ruiz-Beck recalls. Appeal it did, with sales taking off from there.
Frozen Appetizers/Snack Rolls
(Current 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2005)
1 Totino’s Pizza Rolls $169.4 -4.9 20.5
2 TGI Friday’s $114.1 +13.4 13.8
3 Bagel Bites $51.2 -10.4 6.2
4 Private Label $48.9 +36.3 5.9
5 José Olé $40.6 +28.3 4.9
6 Delimex $37.3 +3.9 4.5
7 El Monterey $36.4 +3.0 4.4
8 Poppers $31.9 -4.4 3.8
9 Pagoda Café $27.9 +9.7 3.4
10 Hot Bites Bagel Bites $24.7 +9.0 3.0
  TOTAL* $828.4 +4.5 100.0
*Including brands not shown
SOURCE: Information Resources Inc., Total U.S. — F/D/MX (Supermarkets, Drugstores and Mass Merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart)
According to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) 52-week statistics from Ruiz, El Monterey Grilled Chicken and Cheese Flour Taquitos are No. 4 in the Top 10 ranking of frozen Mexican food products. Ruiz-Beck notes that Ruiz’s El Monterey Shredded Steak and Cheese Flour Taquitos currently hold No. 6 in the ranking.
The Dinuba, Calif.-based company’s second-most innovative product — El Monterey Tornado — was specifically formulated for c-store roller grills. The product consists of rolled tortillas that are filled with cheeses and meats, batter dipped and lightly fried for a crisp texture. Gone are the days of messy knife-and-fork Mexican food. Rather, the Tornado is conveniently hand-sized. Capitalizing on the success of that product, Ruiz rolled out its XXL Tornado, which is 40% larger than the original.
In response to consumer requests for authentic flavor, Ruiz is inroducing an 8-oz. El Monterey Butcher Wrapped Burrito that comes in four flavors — Chicken & Cheese; Egg, Bacon, Cheese & Salsa; Egg, Sausage, Cheese & Potato; and Shredded Beef Steak & Cheese — and that will retail for $1.89-$2.29.
“The desire for Mexican food remains a popular trend,” notes Ruiz-Beck. “What also has maintained momentum is the trend toward convenience, quality and the desire for great-tasting food. We keep each of these trends in mind when we develop new products.”
The El Monterey brand has remained strong since Ruiz opened 40 years ago, and its products are leading the gang in terms of sales. According to Ruiz-Beck, manufacturing products that address the lifestyle needs of consumers, while focusing on convenience, quality and great taste, are key.
“It’s critical that each time a consumer purchases any one of our El Monterey products that it tastes the same as it did last time,” says Ruiz-Beck. “We want [consumers] to know they can expect the same great taste and flavors each time.”
While snacks specializing in robust South of the Border tastes are going strong, Asian-flavors also are gaining in popularity — specifically Pagoda Asian Sensations from The Schwan Food Co. The innovative snacks are inspired by a fusion of flavors from Asia and America and have a strong appeal to a broad consumer audience.
“By making Asian food more approachable, Asian Sensations fits the needs of the larger mainstream frozen snacks and appetizer category,” says Tom Bierbaum, director of marketing for the Pagoda brand.
According to Schwan, consumer reaction has been positive, and although the category hasn’t peaked, Bierbaum says the Marshall, Minn.-based company is on the forefront of the lifecycle since Asian food is just now expanding into mainstream markets.
“There are always new consumers coming into the category, based on their various life experiences, and because they’re seeking something new to meet their snacking and entertaining needs,” Bierbaum says.
Research conducted by Schwan last year concludes that frozen Asian products are consumed as mini-meals and snacks. According to Bierbaum, the household penetration for mainstream snacks is 54% of American households, but only 11% for Asian products. Therefore, greater growth opportunities for the company lie outside traditionally defined ethnic segments and more in the snacks segment.
“Authentic Asian branded frozen snacks and appetizers is a $100 million category, while mainstream frozen snacks and appetizers is a $1 billion category,” says Bierbaum. “By making Asian food more approachable, Asian Sensations fits the needs of the larger mainstream frozen snacks and appetizer category.”
Outside the Asian snack category, Schwan has experienced a high level of buyer overlap between frozen snack purchases and pizza snack purchases.
“The changing dynamics of consumers’ lifestyles require frozen pizza to continually be innovative, convenient and offer a wide variety of flavors that taste great,” says Darci Eckermann, director of marketing services, Schwan’s Consumer Brands North America.
According to Eckermann, an ACNielsen report for the 12-weeks ending Oct. 15, shows that Schwan’s Red Baron pizza snacks had a  7.9% increase in dollar volume compared to the same period a year ago. Moreover, Schwan notes that its Red Baron French bread product has been one of the most consistent top performers for the brand.
Frozen snack manufacturers are fanning a food-loving flame in consumers with unique, inventive products that go beyond a prelude to a quiche. SF&WB