Fear - Provoking Factors
By Kathie Canning

It’s been a scary year on the “Hot Snacks” TV show set. No, you wouldn’t have seen contestants being loaded into cannons or choking down hissing Madagascar cockroaches. But you would have found them shaking and trembling in R&D kitchens and marketing meetings while planning their latest entries in — and promotions for — the hot snacks category.
Fear, however, often is the mother of invention, at least in the hot snacks and appetizers category. Unlike the grossed-out grub that contestants consume on America’s most taste-challenged reality show, consumers are flocking to the freezer case for the flavorful snacks and light meals that companies are dreaming up daily.
Don’t Try This at Home
Competitors on the appetizer side of hot snacks know their success ultimately hinges on one reality: The stunts they attempt simply are too complicated and time-consuming for their consumer audience to pull off. After all, it takes time — and lots of know-how and ingredients — to create a flavorful heat-and-eat mozzarella stick.
“The major trends continue to be convenience and taste — i.e., flavorful,” says Bryce Ruiz, president and chief operating officer for Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Foods. “And a new trend has emerged — health and wellness.”
That’s new, at least, in this part of the freezercase. This year’s competition has resulted in scads of new freezercase snacks and appetizers that fit in with one or more of today’s trends.
Among the latest offerings from Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz are T.G.I. Friday’s Buffalo Mozzarella Sticks, T.G.I. Friday’s Mexican-Style Chicken Quesadilla and Poppers Pepperoni Bites. Heinz also launched Delimex to Go! alternatives in a proprietary Crisp and Carry Box (five-count Beef Taquitos and three-count Chicken & Cheese Taquitos). The company brought the same grab-and-go convenience to its Bagel Bites brand, with new six-count Bagel Bites to Go! in a Crisp and Carry Box.
The competition also is heating up on the ethnic side.
“When you think of flavors, there are the clear ethnic prototypes — the Asian, Italian, Mexican,” says Mark Jansen, vice president-product strategy for Bloomington, Minn.-based Schwan’s Consumer Brands North America. “There are all kinds of interesting things there, clearly, as [restaurants] get into more delineation of different types of Asian — whether it’s Thai, Korean or Indonesian types of flavors.”
And it’s when those offerings reach the frozen snack and appetizer menus of fast casual or casual eating chains, says Jansen, that retail manufacturers stand up and take notice.
“But what I think is even more interesting than the flavors is the format,” he adds. “Oftentimes, it seems to me that it’s the same flavors with subtle evolution over time, but delivered in more convenient ways and/or ways that appear to be fresher and/or better tasting.”
El Monterey Quesadillas from Ruiz Foods — in Shredded Steak & Cheese Grilled and Char-Broiled Chicken & Cheese Grilled varieties — are part of a company push to help moms bring healthier “nutrilicious” meals to their families with little preparation, Ruiz notes. Made with shredded steak meat or chunks of chicken and real cheese “for a great taste experience,” the quesadillas also sport grill marks.
Moreover, two of latest freezercase offerings from Carson, Calif.-based Cedarlane Natural Foods — Cedarlane Shrimp & Artichoke Bruschetta and Mini Stuffed Foccacia —boast a bit of Italian inspiration. Both items fit in with yet another overall food trend, says marketing manager Brian Gansmann: European-type flavors and foods.
Filled Factor
In the “filled pocket” competition, this past year saw a closely contested, hazard-filled race to grab the flag. The results were just too close to call, but a final R&D stunt challenge spurred a host of frozen handheld items.
Major consumer trends here include a desire for bolder flavors and a growing emphasis on convenience, says Brian Badger, vice president and general manager of Nestlé Prepared Foods Co., based in Denver, Colo.
Frozen Appetizers/Snack Rolls —Top 5 Brands
(For 52 weeks ending March 25, 2007)
Rank Brand Dollar Sales (in millions) % Change Dollar Share Dollar Share Change vs. Previous Year
1 Totino’s Pizza Rolls $194.5 +12.6 21.7 +1.5
2 T.G.I. Friday’s $127.7 +8.4 14.3 +0.4
3 Bagel Bites $53.2 +2.9 5.9 -0.1
4 Private Label $52.0 +5.9 5.8 +0.1
5 El Monterey $43.7 +10.6 4.9 +0.3
Total, including brands not shown $895.3 +5.0 100.0  
Source: Information Resources, Inc.
Total U.S. – Supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart)
In January, Nestlé launched Hot Pockets branded calzones, Badger says.
“Each of the three varieties features an Italian-style herbed cheese crust stuffed with generous amounts of meats, cheeses and signature sauces,” he says. “Each package contains one 8.5-oz. calzone, perfect for lunch or dinner.”
Meat and cheese also are a focus for Ruiz Foods’ latest El Monterey Tornado variety — an omelet that combines egg, sausage, bacon, ham and cheese in a soft flour tortilla rolled in crispy seasoned batter. Ruiz calls it a “breakfast meat lover’s dream.”
Vernon, Calif.-based Van’s International Foods became one of the newest players in the handheld category this year with the introduction of Van’s all-natural frozen Stuffed Sandwiches in Pepperoni Pizza and three breakfast varieties.
Van’s is offering what’s really the healthier version of what’s already out there,” notes Jay Orris, director of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based Healthy Food Holdings, which purchased Van’s in December 2006. “There are some things out there on the tofu and soy protein side, but in terms of sausage, egg and cheese, there’s really nobody else doing that from a natural perspective.”
Also in line with the health and wellness push are new varieties in Kraft’s South Beach Diets Wraps line. Additions include Herb Chicken, Monterey Chicken and Teriyaki Steak microwavable frozen wraps, as well Sesame Chicken, Southwestern-Style Chicken, Grilled Chicken Caesar, Turkey & Bacon Club, and Deli Ham & Turkey refrigerated wrap kits.
“The trend in handheld entrees continues to move toward convenience, with a nod toward hot,” says Lisa Gibbons, a spokesperson for Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods. “Handheld sandwiches are a growing trend.”
That said, Kraft now has hot sandwiches covered. New to the company’s lineup are refrigerated Oscar Mayer Deli Creations — generously sized, microwavable hot sandwich melts that combine Kraft’s proprietary dough technology with offerings such as Oscar Mayer Deli-Shaved meats, Kraft cheeses and Grey Poupon Mustard. Five varieties promise a “freshly baked” taste in 60 seconds.
But competitors from Omaha-based ConAgra Foods are not afraid. After all, the company launched its own hot sandwich in the form of Healthy Choice Panini this June. Made with whole grains and packaged with a unique grilling tray for optimal browning, the panini come in Tomato, Basil & Mozzarella, Smoked Chicken and two other varieties.
Have no fear. Innovative hot snacks are here … to stay. SOI