MONEY IN THE FREEZER

Just as the proverbial rose always smells sweet, regardless of its name, retailers are making a sweet profit on international foods in the frozen aisle, regardless of how they are labeled.Some retailers call these items "ethnic frozen"; others may stock them together in an "International" section. Still others simply integrate unusual frozen dishes with similar, but more usual items. Whatever merchandising

Just as the proverbial rose always smells sweet, regardless of its name, retailers are making a sweet profit on international foods in the frozen aisle, regardless of how they are labeled.

Some retailers call these items "ethnic frozen"; others may stock them together in an "International" section. Still others simply integrate unusual frozen dishes with similar, but more usual items. Whatever merchandising strategy is used, these products do well, retailers say.

One who labels the category "ethnic frozen" is Joel Dahll, grocery merchandiser for Nature's Northwest stores in Portland, Ore. The section might have 30-40 stockkeeping units, which increases according to the size of the store, he said. Nature's Northwest units range from 8,000 square feet to 42,000.

According to retailers polled by SN, a lot of growth is occurring in the International category, especially in the Thai and Mexican subcategories. With regard to product format, retailers are seeing more entrees and snack items.

Two years ago, Dahll said, "we had only one line, the Taj Indian entree. Since then, several other entrants, such as the Mexican foods, pockets and potstickers and spring rolls have popped up. A few years ago, it was maybe a couple of shelves, and now it's a full door."

The Taj brand is doing well for Mollie Stone's, said David Bennett, co-owner of the six-unit independent in the San Francisco Bay area. But he said Gloria's Kitchen and Amy's Kitchen brands are the two fastest growing brands. At Mollie's, such products are integrated, even though they may be made with banana leaves or other exotic ingredients.

"Ethnic is standard fare for us. We consider Amy's and Gloria's and Taj just regular frozen food, because we have such a diverse clientele, and very well traveled customers," Bennett added. Those products are stocked in the door marked "Entrees."

Like grocery customers everywhere, those who shop at Mollie Stone's are short on time and gravitate toward frozen entrees and snacks for convenience. In the last several years, Bennett also noted, the taste and quality of frozen food has improved, leading more people to try it and keep buying it. Demonstrating various dishes from this department is an effective way of promoting it, he said.

Once items gain acceptance and/or familiarity with customers, they may not even be considered ethnic anymore.

For example, Joel Westrate, frozens category manager for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., said, "I have a hard time with labeling pizzas and burritos as ethnic anymore; they're mainstream."

At most Mollie Stone's, Bennett said frozens encompasses 60 or more doors, with about one-third of the space devoted to ice cream. Some of these items are gelatos, and there are some Dreyers products that are in the international category; for example, the extra-creamy and extra-sweet Mediterranean flavor, Porto Fino. Dreyers' Green Tea flavor also conjures up foreign places.

To promote such frozen products, Bennett swears by sampling. A lot of the smaller companies, like Gloria's and Taj, he said, "are still providing aggressive demo campaigns for stores.

"Through consolidation of the larger companies, we are seeing less and less store support. I think the combination of the taste and "unusual-ity" of the products, plus the ease of popping it in the microwave, has led a surge in these types of entrees, at least at Mollie Stone's," Bennett said.

Other new and trendy products are frozen bowls, like a rice bowl that might have Thai chicken with vegetables, or a teriyaki or a pot pie entree that consumers heat and serve, said Dahll of Nature's Northwest.

Convenient for consumers, they come from a few different manufacturers, such as the Asian Bowl Entrees from King's Hawaiian, Torrance, Calif., which just introduced six new single-serve dishes, and Radical Foods, made by Flagship Foods, San Jose, which has rolled out additional entrees beyond their ravioli.

Nature's is planning to carry Radical Foods' line, he said. King's Hawaiian, while distributed across the country, is doing best in California, said Dwight Robinson, a spokesman for the brand. It's in Safeway, Albertson's, Vons, Food 4 Less and Ralphs, as well as in Fleming, Kroger, Certified Grocers, Dominick's and Roundy's, all in Chicago, and in Supervalu in Washington state.

Nature's has what chain vice president Brian Rohter calls "product champions" on staff, enabling the stores to constantly source new products. "We can bring them in direct from small vendors. That is definitely one of the things that sets us apart, that we can do business with new companies starting up. If somebody brings a new product in and Joel likes it, he can have it in-store within a couple of days. We are able to keep current with the new and cool stuff that is coming out," said Rohter.

International products are getting more attention at Shaw's Supermarkets in New England, said Bernie Rogan, spokesman for the chain based in East Bridgewater, Mass. Nonetheless, that doesn't always mean they get their own signed section.

Instead, they are beginning to get better placement in regular sections. "Goya's extensive line of frozen vegetables, sauces and seasonings cannot be overlooked, but it goes beyond that," Rogan said. New kosher items are appearing, as well as other Hispanic lines besides Goya, he said.

"We see a lot of Polish products coming into the country," Rogan said. "Imported frozen pierogies, sausages and meats, as well as similar items from domestic manufacturers, are new. There's a growing awareness of some of these products.

"In some stores these sections are signed," Rogan continued. "But where there is a great amount of diversity, we have integrated ethnic foods into mainstream shelves and into mainstream frozen food cases too."

Rogan went on to say that integrating ethnic products is more convenient and often makes sense, since consumers look for the alternative items next to their mainstream counterparts.

If any one ethnic category still remains signed, it would be kosher, he said, but this is also done for convenience. "It's to make it more convenient [to find everything in one place] for those who keep a kosher home," Rogan said.

When the 144,000-square-foot Foodmart International opened in 1997 in Jersey City, N.J., it had "a regular frozen section," said store manager Manny Taveras. "We had Goya, but now we have more Central American products from different manufacturers."