While some meat department directors are struggling with the concept of case-ready meat, several retailers are busy developing products that are one step ahead: case-ready entrees.
P&C Food Markets in Syracuse, N.Y., and Clemens Markets in Kulpsville, Pa., are two operators that have taken very different approaches.
P&C is aiming at families, with a new line of fully cooked fresh beef and pork items in large portions. In contrast, Clemens is targeting active couples with products that are raw but oven-ready.
Sold under the manufacturer's brand name "Good Servings," P&C's case-ready products are spearheading a trend toward family-sized portions, said officials involved in the program.
"The prepared, fully cooked foods category is definitely a growth area," said Sue Hosey, vice president of consumer affairs at P&C. "[Good Servings] is one of the first on the market for feeding a whole family. It's still a home-cooked meal, but it only takes minutes to heat."
As for the future of Good Servings at P&C, Hosey said the customer has the ultimate vote.
Produced by Jac Pac Foods, a food engineering company in Manchester, N.H., the Good Servings line is targeted at families of four that want restaurant-quality meals with minimum preparation time.
London broil and pork loin are the two "white collar" items; the three "blue collar" items include pot roast, meatloaf and Italian-style meatballs with tomato sauce. The products appear to be doing better in cities than in rural areas, according to Tom DeCanio, national sales manager for Jac Pac.
Clemens' main emphasis is on working couples, so most of the case-ready Quick Cuisine products are two-person entrees, according to Al Kober, buyer and merchandiser for meat and seafood.
"If there is a family of four and they want them they'll just buy two, but it is geared for active, upscale people, who are maybe willing to pay a little extra.
"We have it in two stores, with new packing, just as an experiment, and this is the second week," he said. Kober predicted that the products will be in all units by May 24. To supply the program, Clemens "began a partnership with a small company with U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection," said Kober. He declined to offer more specific details about the supplier.
"We had a program in store, and it had the expected problems of retaining variety and consistency," he said. "Centralizing the whole operation adds to cost but removes the labor factor. It will be a real benefit to us.
"The hottest thing [in the meat department] now is the implementation of Clemens Quick Cuisine," Kober said.
"A lot of people ate their parents' food, then went to college and ate cafeteria food for four years, and now they're getting tired of hamburgers and pizza," he said. "I saw a lack of ready-to-cook food -- this is restaurant style, gourmet food, ready in 30 minutes -- a finished meal concept that is microwavable and ovenable."
"People today do want to cook, but they don't have the time, so we do the work for them and let them do the finishing," Kober said. "So the pride is there of 'I did it myself.' "
Clemens currently offers 20 varieties of the case-ready entrees. It plans to expand the program to 30 or 40 as the summer season kicks off.
"These products are raw, ready-to-cook and sized so that there are no leftovers," Kober said. "These days people may not eat dinner at home again for three days. They end up throwing leftovers away; they don't want them."
Kober added that it is hard to calculate the effect of the centralized case-ready program on gross margin.
"Case-ready products factor in differently than block-ready products. The labor [for case-ready] is about 3% to 4% [of the labor for block-ready products]. You don't need a rocket scientist to take them out and put them in the case. You should really be looking at cents or dollars per pound [of case-ready product sold]."
Clemens began to pursue the idea of case-ready entrees after an American Meat Institute seminar in Boston about four years ago, Kober said. "We had tried things over the years and did a variety of prepared foods. At the time McCormick's was the best one, so we looked at that and began to develop from that point on. So we've had it for three or four years but not to this extent."
P&C introduced Good Servings products in all 70 stores in upstate New York.
The boneless, oven-roasted pork loin seasoned with lemon peel and crushed peppercorns is the best seller, followed by the London broil and the meatloaf, according to Hosey.
"Consumer lifestyles are definitely driving this concept," Jac Pac's DeCanio told SN. "Out of 65 stores it may be perfect for 30 or 35. There are some country stores where it won't sell, but in inner cities it will."
Expansion will be a slow process. "The main problem is the consumer. Consumers and customers are not used to cooked-product pricing. They need to understand that there is no shrink here -- it's heat and eat," he said. All products weigh between 1.5 and 2 pounds, and are packaged six to a case. Shelf life is 35 days from the date of manufacture, but consumers can freeze Good Servings products before use.
"It's still being tested, and it takes a while for people to get used to the product or even become aware that it is being offered," said P&C's Hosey. "But it is definitely getting exposure. We've done some in-store demonstrations with sampling, and the response has been very good. Price is always an issue, so when we have it in an ad, people take notice."
"We try to focus our price point around the $10 mark. So take our Italian meatballs with tomato sauce; if you buy salad and bread to go with it, then you're feeding a family of four for about $13. Compare that to going to Burger King, where you're going to spend $20 to $25," DeCanio said.
Clemens' line is also still in the experimental stage, said Kober, and they are considering similar issues regarding pricing.
"We may change the pricing structure and go to units, so we'd compete with frozen entrees, which in a way makes more sense. Right now we compete with fresh meat priced at dollars per pound," he said. His theory is that Quick Cuisine entrees are more akin to frozen entrees in the amount of preparation that they save the consumer, and they should be priced accordingly.
The price point for Clemens' average entree is currently between $4.99 and $8.99.
Among the entrees offered in Clemens' Quick Cuisine line are: three flavors of seasoned boneless chicken breast, which Kober says are the best sellers; eye roast; boneless veal roast; stuffed pork chops; pork, chicken, and turkey stirfry with all vegetables included; fajitas and chicken, beef, and pork kebabs for summer; and, for the fall, seasoned roasts with pop-up timers, and a meatloaf mix that bakes in the tray it comes in.
"We want to expand fresh seasoned offerings, and add 'center of the plate' meat items," said Kober, who is very optimistic about the future of Quick Cuisine at Clemens.
"We're going to gear a lot of activity toward this department,"he said. "We're very pleased with where we are with it so far."