KROGER IS CULTIVATING VEGETARIAN MEAL SOLUTIONS SECTIONS

CINCINNATI -- Kroger Co. here has been adding a "Vegetarian Meal Solutions" section located in the produce department to a growing number of its stores, according to industry sources.The section is based on a concept created by produce wholesaler Frieda's, based in Los Alamitos, Calif., and is being "slowly rolled out" to Kroger units in several Kroger Marketing Areas, after having debuted in Louisville,

CINCINNATI -- Kroger Co. here has been adding a "Vegetarian Meal Solutions" section located in the produce department to a growing number of its stores, according to industry sources.

The section is based on a concept created by produce wholesaler Frieda's, based in Los Alamitos, Calif., and is being "slowly rolled out" to Kroger units in several Kroger Marketing Areas, after having debuted in Louisville, Ky., in mid-1997.

The Vegetarian Meal Solutions program offers items such as polenta in five flavors, spreads, sprout and grain salads, meat alternatives and tofu products. A five-flavor hummus line is also available. The assortment is a mix of branded and private-label items, according to sources familiar with the program.

The full-blown presentation, which Kroger is carrying in most cases, is a separate section in a multideck refrigerated case, specifically signed as a vegetarian meals center, according to Robin Osterhues, director of marketing for Frieda's.

Osterhues said the specialty-oriented wholesaler developed the idea of gathering vegetarian-based meal items as a store-within-a-store presentation within produce to address what it had identified as a growing group of consumers who often turn to vegetarian alternatives in the search for healthier meal choices.

"We started developing this concept early last year, after I kept seeing and hearing about stores pouring a lot of money and effort into home-meal replacement centers that were not translating to consumers," she explained. "They were still not perceiving the grocery store as the place to go for meals. Some have done a good job, but at most traditional chains it looks like it is not likely to happen."

Frieda's decided to experiment with a vegetarian meal solutions center after seeing widely distributed research encouraging retailers to find alternative ways to offer meal solutions, such as creating central locations in the store where recipes, prepared meal components and food ingredients could be merchandised.

Kroger was among the first retailers to consider the program, starting with its Louisville KMA. It has since been rolled out to other Kroger divisions, such as the Mid-Atlantic, Dallas, Houston and Delta KMAs; Fry's Food Stores of Arizona, Phoenix; and its King Soopers chain in Denver. Kroger has also installed the solution centers in select stores in its Columbus, Ohio, and Cincinnati KMAs.

In a Little Rock, Ark., Kroger store, the section was tucked into the produce department, and included the typical salad mixes as well as many soy-based products, such as tofu, nondairy cheeses, and vegetarian meat-analogue "burgers" and "hot dogs." Suppliers for the section include Galaxy Foods Co., Orlando, Fla., which produces a line of cheese and dairy-related products for retail and food service; and Yves Veggie Cuisine, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Lightlife Foods, Greenfield, Mass., both of which produce vegetarian meat-analogue products; and soy-based product manufacturer Vitasoy.

A source with Kroger said the section had been introduced in that store and all the other stores in the Delta KMA last summer, and so far has met with great success.

Ronald J. Dallara, national sales and marketing manager for Vitasoy USA, San Francisco, producer of tofu, soy beverages and VegiBurgers and VegiDogs, said the vegetarian-meal products belong in the produce section. "A vegetarian is not going over to the deli section to find meal solutions," Dallara commented.

Vitasoy products, among others, are prominently displayed in the Kroger Vegetarian Meal Solutions sections, Dallara said, adding the exposure has helped.

Because so many consumers are unfamiliar with the use of tofu-based products, Dallara said, Vitasoy offers pamphlets with recipes and usage information and is adding a peel-off label with two or three recipes per package.

"Our sales have really gone up," he said. Dallara confirmed that while Kroger's Louisville division was the first to implement the sections, other divisions are rapidly following; and other supermarket chains are considering similar sections in their produce departments.

Sources at Frieda's told SN the vegetarian meal centers have been picked up by retailers that include Waldbaum's division of A&P, Montvale, N.J.; Stop & Shop Cos., Quincy, Mass.; Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan.; Hornbacher's Foods, Fargo, N.D.; Rouse Supermarket, Thibodaux, La.; Schnuck Markets, St. Louis; Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co., Akron, Ohio; and Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis.

Another operator, Schultz Sav-O Stores, Sheboygan, Wis., has installed the vegetarian section in a new store in Appleton, Wis.

"It has been working out well," said Frieda's Osterhues. "We present the concept under the Frieda's name, with a banner and shelf strips, with items we distribute as well as other items distributed through other companies or sourced directly by the retailers. We offer the concept, and retailers can improvise from that base. The vegetarian meals center is the starting point."

She said while some retailers were more tentative in their experimentation of the vegetarian program, the most successful approach so far has been using a full multideck refrigerated case, "clearly and specifically identified as vegetarian, and in the produce department. A lot of these are products that our retailers have already been carrying, but the solution center is key: they typically are not selling as well when in the deli department or the meat department or the frozen food department."

The program has been so successful for Frieda's that the vegetarian items category is now counted among the wholesaler's Top 10 sellers, Osterhues said.

"We are even struggling with out-of-stocks on some of the items."