HOT FOR FROZENS

Most supermarket chains were less than enthusiastic about frozen foods and the money it cost to invest in warehouse space and delivery systems, until the 1950s craze for frozen orange juice concentrate.Orange juice was the first item with really high-volume potential that the frozen food industry had produced. By the middle of 1952, consumer purchases of concentrate surpassed those of fresh oranges

Most supermarket chains were less than enthusiastic about frozen foods and the money it cost to invest in warehouse space and delivery systems, until the 1950s craze for frozen orange juice concentrate.

Orange juice was the first item with really high-volume potential that the frozen food industry had produced. By the middle of 1952, consumer purchases of concentrate surpassed those of fresh oranges for the first time. As concentrate sales surged, it changed retailers' thinking about the potential of frozen foods.

The size of the frozen food department has been growing everywhere and, even though the cost of electricity is steep, equipment has become much more energy-efficient than it used to be.

"A door freezer today is much, much more efficient than a coffin case or even a door case of 10 years ago," said a leading category manager in the Midwest, who wished to remain anonymous.

As the industry has evolved, so has the frozens category, with help from the widespread use of the microwave oven; increased time pressure on families, leading to the quest to simplify the cooking process for meals; and quality improvements in the products themselves, according to retailers.

The TV dinner, popularized by Swanson in 1954, was an early meal solution.

"Right now, [the trend] would seem to be the prepared meal, a complete single-serve dinner. Before, you were buying frozen foods to get them cheaply and spread them out," said Don Sanchez, frozen and dairy manager for Clements' Marketplace, Portsmouth, R.I. "The variety is just huge; that's why the department keeps growing."

Individual meals from Lean Cuisine, SmartOnes and Boston Market's dinner line are popular, and Swanson, of course, is the staple, he said. And, further developments in frozen food can be seen in the specialty foods arena, Sanchez added. "You can have specialty breads you never even thought of carrying before, like Eziekiel Bread. People are looking for it."

He also mentioned health foods, like edamame, and vegetable burgers, like Gardenburger and Boca, which have increasingly grown in popularity, and "any kind of soy ice cream."

According to retailers, the rising-crust frozen pizza, introduced by Kraft's DiGiorno brand in 1995, is responsible for most of the excitement in the pizza category over the past several years. The rising crust makes them taste freshly made, and both national and store-brand versions have fared well in Consumer Reports evaluations.

The home meal-solution revolution falls into that same realm, with improved quality, family-sized dinners available under brand names and retailers' own brands.

"Certainly in the last decade, the industry has changed dramatically," said Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute, Washington. Lifestyle is the chief reason, she said, since "we don't have time to cook; we are all looking for high-quality foods that are easy to cook. Manufacturers have done everything they can to enhance the quality of the ingredients."

As the mother of a three-year-old, Sarasin knows firsthand that, as she put it, "there is a guilt factor." If consumers can throw skillet meals into a wok or a frying pan, they feel they have at least participated in cooking, and their families know they did.

"The fact that those kinds of products have such high-quality ingredients, as compared to 20, 30 or 40 years ago, has made all the difference. You don't have that negative stigma of the TV dinner as we knew it growing up," Sarasin said. Her typical baby-sitter meal, she said, is frozen pizza.

The ability to freeze individual kernels of corn, or peas, or berries has made the products much better, so that they don't get frozen into one big block, and was recently praised at a luncheon -- featuring frozens -- prepared by a chef for guests of the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, Harrisburg, Pa.

"You can find everything in the frozen food aisles, from appetizers to dessert," said Nevin Montgomery, president of the 600-member NFRA

"One of the things that has happened in frozen is the stuff has really gotten good," said Eli Schlossberg, regional sales manager, Gourmet Award Foods, Albany, N.Y. "There are a lot of innovative products, like kosher mozzarella sticks and organic soups. Vegetarian dinners and soy items definitely are doing great. There are longer shelf lives now, up to a year. Retailers and consumers know they can stock up on it and not worry about it going out of code," Schlossberg said.

Robert Kailing, business unit director, dairy/frozen procurement and merchandising for H-E-B, San Antonio, said "The larger question is 'Where will our industry take frozen food in the next 50 years?' It is dependent on both supplier and retailer to provide leadership in product innovation that is based on our customer to make a difference in the future."

Zap To It

The invention of the microwave was a huge milestone in the frozen food industry because it allowed fast, easy preparation that kids could do for themselves, leading to a big boost for after-school snack foods.

Invented in 1955, this technology took until about the mid-1980s to become a standard appliance in U.S. homes. In spite of its current range of uses, the microwave oven's initial function was to hasten the thawing of frozen foods, recalled Robert Kailing, business unit director, dairy/frozen procurement and merchandising, for H-E-B, San Antonio, Texas.