What's Cookin'?

By Lynn Petrak
Special Projects Editor
Refrigerated dinner entre'es continue on a mature segment path, with innovative products balanced by sales ups and downs.
Refrigerated dinner entrées represent one of those hard-to-pin-down categories. In the mid-1990s, home meal replacements were touted as the next best thing to sliced bread, or at least sliced homemade pot roast. Then, just a couple years ago, a shakeout of sorts occurred, and various heat-and-serve meals were castigated in some circles for lacking flavor and consistency.
Like many predictions and analyses, the market reality is somewhere in the middle. Data from Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) reveals sales of refrigerated dinner entrées are pegged at $650.4 million, a 5.5 percent-slide from this time last year. Still, within the category, some manufacturers have posted healthy gains.
Currently, the category is lead by private-label products. Among the top-selling brands, companies with healthy sales increases include Northfield, IL-based Kraft Foods’ Louis Rich brand leaping an astounding 6,746 percent, Springdale, AR-based Tyson Foods jumping 51 percent, and Austin, MN-based Hormel rising 9 percent.
Competition heats up
As retailers increasingly set aside sections of the meat case for fully cooked entrées — often flagged as “meal solutions” — the competition is heating up. While Tyson continues to expand its growth through new items like Brown Sugar and Maple Glazed Ham and Carved Turkey Breast in Gravy, several other manufacturers have expanded or introduced refrigerated entrées during the past year. Hormel, which markets turkey entrées under the Jennie-O-Turkey Store® brand, added Stuffed Turkey Breast and Turkey Pot Roast with Brown Gravy to its So Easy line. Harris Ranch, one of the first companies to successfully market a refrigerated pot roast several years ago, also made some changes, upsizing to new one- and two-pound family sized packages of microwaveable beef entrées under the Cookhouse Classics banner.
Greeley, CO-based Swift & Co., which recently revamped the packaging and logo for its Swift Premium® Oven Roasters™ ready-to-cook line, is pursuing new avenues for growth as well. This summer, the company began test marketing Mexican-style pre-cooked entrées under its new La Herencia brand, including authentic dishes like Carnitas de Puerco (pork carnitas), Carne de Puerco Estilo Pibil (seasoned pork), and Carne Deshebrada (shredded beef).
“We are doing target markets now, but they are growing as we are getting more retailers coming on,” reports vice president Pat Huebner.
Investing in growth
Meanwhile, companies that have not yet had a presence in the refrigerated entrée section are investing in new cooking and packaging processes. Owens Sausage Co., a Dallas, TX-based subsidiary of Bob Evans Farms, has moved beyond its longtime breakfast presence to develop a pre-cooked beef brisket, currently marketed in Texas and Oklahoma.
“We are in the heart of brisket country, so it made sense. And anything we put the Owens name on will be very high quality and equal to or better to what is out there,” remarks Mike Townsley, president and chief executive officer. “It’s not something we wanted to get into just to have a ‘me too’ type of product.”